At least half of California’s 150,000 Native Americans lack official recognition by the federal government. The Winnemem Wintu tribe of Shasta County struggles to continue practicing its traditions without the legal rights and protections that federal recognition would grant members. Gathering materials for religious rituals, protecting ceremonial sites from development and preventing harassment at ceremonies on public land are all challenges the tribe faces.
Caleen Sisk: The Coming of Age ceremony for young girls coming into their womanhood is ancient. We’re calling down the two sisters from the mountain to provide guidance; we’re asking for this medicine rock to give her all of those skills that she’ll need in her lifetime. The ceremony is a spiritual weaving of a belief system that holds a people together. You know, without that belief system, you really don’t have a tribe.
And because of the situation that exists – no rights to hold our ceremonies, no rights on the river anymore – we have to fight for it all the time.
We have the medicine there. We’re smudging them down, and the boat comes. And they’re holding up their beer – you know, going by, yelling. It’s a total disruption; it’s like everything just goes blank. All of the prayers – it just like disappeared, like poof. You know, they were yelling obscenities to the people on the bank, and the woman flashed them twice. It’s disgusting.
[Title card: Ghost Tribe, Shasta County, California]
Sisk: The Winnemem are among thousands of California Indians that don’t have recognition – meaning that our status is overlooked or not granted or invisible as a people for maintaining our traditions of accessing our cultural sites, of protecting our spiritual and sacred sites.
We’re here, we’ve always been here; we continue to want to be here into the future. We continue to teach our kids how to go to the sacred places and how to sing the songs to the water.
[On-screen text: In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act gave tribes special rights to protect ceremony sites and cultural traditions.]
[At that time, the Winnemem were eligible for benefits because government documents traced their heritage.]
[Then, in 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that tribes must be on a specific federal government list to receive benefits and tribal rights.]
[The Winnemem tribe wasn't on that list.]
Sisk: Any of the laws – like the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Indian Child Welfare Act, Indian Arts and Crafts – all of these acts pertain to the rights that Indian people have. Like, you can’t sell something and say it’s handcrafted by an Indian unless you’re an Indian. That’s what that law refers to. So right now, when I make something or our people make something, we can’t sell that as a Native American-made item or an authentic Indian-made item because, you know, we’re not. That’s what the law says.
Indian Child Welfare gives tribes the right to speak up for the placement of their kids, the treatment and programs that are available to their children and families, and it gives them the right to place, within adoptions, in their own tribal homes or in other Indian homes or in approved homes by the tribe – so that the continuation of the culture is at best for that child. We don’t have that right.
The one that hurts us the most is the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. We were one of the first tribes to really utilize that act and have access on a more permanent basis on our cultural site that is in the national forest. Where as now, after the ’80s, we are not eligible to have those kinds of things anymore. It’s like, we’re still the same people, that’s still the same sacred site, we’re still doing the exact same thing there, but some terminology changed. So now, the definition of “Indian” has excluded us.
[On-screen text: Many of the Winnemem’s sacred sites are now on government land or private property.]
[Without federal recognition, practicing cultural traditions often means trespassing or breaking the law.]
[When the Shasta Dam was completed in 1945, it flooded the Winnemem’s village and many sacred sites.]
[Officials now plan to raise the dam 18.5 feet higher.]
[The water would cover or damage 40 more sacred sites.]
Sisk: Raising the Shasta Dam will flood seven more miles of our river, will drown and make inaccessible the sacred sites that we use now. And that in itself hinders our ability to carry on our way of life, teach what it means to be Winnemem to our kids. One of our sites is a puberty site, which is a right of passage for a young woman. And that place will be flooded and never come out.
Michael Preston: We are asking Randy Moore to close down the river for four days so we can have this ceremony in peace and dignity and help us continue our culture the best way that it can.
It’s been voluntary closure, is the closest we’ve got. But it’s still not good enough for us to conduct the ceremony without worry.
Sisk (to Randy Moore): OK, we went through the voluntary closure. It’s like, “OK, you think that’s going to work, you can keep the boats out? We don’t think so, but we’ll go ahead and do it.” And that’s what happened.
Randy Moore: Is the important thing to have the ceremony, or is the important thing to gain some kind of recognition to have it? I’m not sure.
Sisk: We have rights, federally recognized or not. We’re the indigenous people of that river. We show that boat and that woman exposing herself because everybody can see how insulting that is. But for me, any boat coming up there that’s not invited is insulting because they’re breaking away a spiritual thing that’s happening. It’d be like, you know, somebody walking right through a blessing or a christening. It’s like, “Oh, excuse me, before you sprinkle that water on that baby, I need to walk through here.”
[On-screen text: The Forest Service ultimately agreed to close the McCloud River for the summer ceremony, but land access was kept open to the public. Without federal recognition, the tribe has no power to do more.]
Sisk: I think the biggest challenge is trying to figure out the right maneuver to get recognized, to get acknowledged as indigenous peoples. Most of the tribes in California that have been actively seeking recognition through the process are finding that all of their hard work and all of their struggles is not paying off, and there never was really a way to achieve it.
How do they expect that the historic tribes will continue to be tribes if they keep limiting and excluding us from those things that are necessary to carry on as a tribe? That, in my mind, is cultural genocide.
[On-screen text: California currently has 120 federally recognized tribes; 75 tribes have petitioned for recognition and are under review.]
[Only one California tribe has successfully petitioned for recognition since 1978; many have been denied.]
[The Winnemem are weighing the lengthy petition process against asking Congress to grant them recognized status. They also are considering filing a complaint with the United Nations.]
[Learn more about the California Lost series at californiawatch.org/californialost]
[Produced and edited by Carrie Ching]
[Ceremony and boaters video shot by Will Doolittle and Moving Image Productions]
[Reported by Marc Dadigan and Carrie Ching]
[Music by Guillermo Guareschi]