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Without federal recognition, tribe struggles to protect sacred sites

The Winnemem Wintu are fighting to preserve sacred sites threatened by a Shasta Dam project

Ghost tribes 1

REDDING – Caleen Sisk, the chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, wore a traditional basket hat – representing clear thinking – to her meeting with congressional candidate Jim Reed. 

Amid the din of wheezy coffee grinders at Westside Java & Caffe in Redding, Reed pleaded with Sisk: End her tribe’s longstanding battle against the federal government’s proposal to raise the Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet – a $1 billion retrofit that stands to flood or damage 40 sacred tribal sites used for ceremonies and healings. If elected, Reed told her, he would introduce legislation to grant federal recognition to the Winnemem. 

The Winnemem Wintu is a ghost tribe, lacking official recognition from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribe’s members share their limbo status with at least half of this state’s 150,000 California Indians, according to the California Native American Heritage Commission. As a result, their cultural identities and rights may be subject to political bargaining. 

California Watch was present at the tribe’s meeting with Reed last October, part of a contributor’s research on challenges the Winnemem Wintu face in their quest to preserve their traditional religion and cultural rites. 

For the 125 remaining tribe members, federal recognition would restore not just scholarships and monetary benefits, but also less tangible changes the tribe covets, including added legal clout to protect their sacred sites. Because only one California tribe has ever been recognized through the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ laborious petitioning process, Sisk had hoped Reed might offer a congressional shortcut. 

In the coffee shop meeting, Reed – a Democrat and attorney – presented Sisk with a catch-22. With federal recognition, the tribe would have more legal power to stop the dam expansion. The catch: Reed wouldn’t seek federal recognition unless the tribe ended its opposition to the project.

“It’s shovel-ready; it’ll bring jobs and new workers, which will benefit the local businesses,” Reed said. “And to get your approval, I thought, ‘What do the Wintu want more than anything?’ Clearly, it’s federal recognition.”

A deliberate thinker, Sisk gripped her coffee cup and said nothing. Reed’s campaign manager, Frank Treadway, stopped scribbling on a yellow notepad and broke the silence. 

“The dam raise is going to happen whatever you do,” he said. “You might as well get something out of it.”

Luisa Navejas, a Winnemem tribe member, broke in.

“I’m not sure you realize what it means for us to lose those sacred sites,” she said. “It’s like you’re asking us to kill our mother in order to save our father.”

In the months that followed the meeting, a disappointed Sisk turned away from politics and back to her traditional ways, fasting to draw the attention of the BIA. That approach brought a surprising result in mid-July, reinvigorating the tribe’s hopes for federal recognition.

The Winnemem have practiced their traditional ways for thousands of years in the McCloud River watershed in Northern California, where academic and tribal accounts indicate their ancestral territory extends from Mount Shasta to just south of Redding. Archeologists estimate the tribe once numbered as many as 14,000, one of several groups that spoke Wintu. Among the pine-quilted mountains and glacial rivers of their homeland, the Winnemem lived as hunter-gatherers, surviving on acorns and salmon, deer and other game. 

The tribe lost most of its land during the bloody Gold Rush years and through the World War II construction of Shasta Dam, which flooded the lower 25 miles of the McCloud River. Today, the tribe’s only land is an isolated 42-acre village outside of Redding, where a nucleus of about 33 members lives. The rest of the tribe is scattered across Northern California. 

While the Winnemem have continued their traditions, they have done so without federal government acknowledgment that they are a tribe. This limits their standing to oppose the Shasta Dam project and curtails many other rights and benefits of indigenous people. 

Members of unrecognized tribes cannot legally possess eagle feathers, for instance, which are vital to American Indian spiritual beliefs. Sisk’s own 25-year-old feather permit was revoked in March 2011 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

They can no longer access federal college scholarships, even as American Indian students struggle to afford college and earn degrees. 

“I went to school on a BIA scholarship,” said Winnemem Wintu tribe member Jill Ward. “Now they say my children aren’t Indian and can’t have those same scholarships.”

Without recognition, tribes aren’t covered by the Indian Child Welfare Act, designed to help keep Indian children with their tribes. 

Recently, a child from the 180-member Tsnungwe tribe of Northern California was put up for adoption and, despite the tribe’s opposition, ended up with a non-Indian family. The adopting family moved away with the child, tribal leaders say, leaving the small tribe one young member smaller.

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