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Winnemem Wintu Fight For Cultural Survival In Northern California

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At a sacred fire in the ancient village site in Coonrod, Chief Caleen Sisk raised a glass of ceremonial water towards a soaring Mount Shasta. The Winnemem Wintu Tribe members gathered for a Fire and Water ceremony at sunrise to pray for the return of their revered salmon and for the health of their sacred spring in Mount Shasta and surrounding waterways. “Salmon are life. They bring life, and they should be back on this land again,” said Chief Sisk, spiritual leader of her tribe.

The Winnemem Wintu are known as the Middle Water People, their identity tied spiritually to a sacred spring on Mount Shasta, a river that once flowed here unfettered and the Chinook salmon that flourished in the waters. When Shasta Dam was built in 1945, the Winnemem lost 90 percent of their sacred and ceremonial sites, along with ancient villages that dotted the banks of McCloud River. The Chinook salmon, which was prized for its rich winter run in the McCloud River, faced a cataclysmic wall of the dam and lost their spawning grounds, where they had propagated for millennia.

“When Shasta Dam was build both the salmon and the Winnemem lost their homes,” said Chief Sisk. In July this year, California Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a $1.3 billionemergency drought relief bill to “support communities affected by drought.” One of the provisions of the bill included authorization of $600 million for Calfed storage projects, which may increase the height of Shasta Dam by 18-½ feet. “Many of our remaining sacred sites will be under water. This is an ongoing cultural genocide,” said Chief Sisk.

Despite the horrors of colonization, the Gold Rush, diseases and displacement from Shasta Dam, the Winnemem have tenaciously held on to their cultural and spiritual traditions and remaining ceremonial sites. The Winnemem believe this proposed dam height increase would profit and benefit the largest and most powerful agribusiness interests in the state. “This water is not going to benefit the millions of people in California. It’s going to benefit a small, privileged group of corporate farmers,” said Chief Sisk.

Some water policy experts are not convinced that increasing the height of Shasta Dam is going to yield any more water. “These rivers are already dammed and developed. New dams don’t result in much yield. It’s mind boggling if you are Winnemem Wintu. You have essentially the most powerful state politicians against you,” said Ron Stork, Senior Policy Advocate at Friends of the River, a statewide river conservation group.

Winnemem have been on a long, arduous road to justice. “The Winnemem never received reparations when they lost their traditional lands when the dam was first built,” said Trent Orr, staff attorney atEarthjustice. “Plus there are serious questions about how water is allocated in the state. What we need is sensible irrigation of agricultural land, promoting re-use and purification of waste water.”

At the Fire and Water Ceremony, the Winnemem were joined by indigenous allies, who traveled far and wide to express solidarity and support. “Our land was stolen without compensation or reparations. We lost most of our sacred sites that lie under water in Shasta Lake,” said Chief Sisk. The Winnemem are determined that history will not repeat itself. “We are going to take a stand as best we can,” she said. “We have to wake up the public. We have to let them know what is happening. And we have to make a home for the salmon to return back here to the river. We believe that if good things happen for the salmon, then good things will also happen for us.”

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