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Without federal recognition, tribe struggles to protect sacred sites


Video: Carrie Ching/California Watch 
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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. 

Carrie Ching/California Watch In April, the Winnemem Wintu tribe and supporters held a protest outside the U.S. Forest Service regional office in Vallejo to ask for a river closure for their coming of age ceremony this summer. 

“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.

Challenges of the unrecognized

Ghost tribes lack authority over land management decisions in ancestral territory because they do not have government-to-government relationships with most federal agencies.

“Without recognition sometimes there’s no difference between being a tribal member and a member of the public,” said Bob Benson, a Tsnungwe elder, whose tribe has struggled to prevent cellphone towers from being installed on sacred Ironside Mountain in Trinity County. “Even when it’s our burial ground or an important sacred site, we’ll get notified when everyone else gets notified.”

For the Winnemem Wintu, this lack of government-to-government status is playing a role in the Shasta Dam negotiations, too. 

Marc Dadigan/California Watch Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader and chief of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, leads members for a war dance around a sacred fire in late May. 

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Pete Lucero said the tribe will have an opportunity to express its concerns during the dam-raising project’s public input period. Final environmental and feasibility reports are not expected until at least 2016. 

But Lucero acknowledged the tribe’s concerns will carry no more weight than those of any other public entity.  

“We’re constantly trying to do the correct thing for the entire public,” he said. “We get a lot of comments, and we respond to them all.”

The number of tribes seeking official status as governments increased after the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The BIA sought to standardize the process, creating what is now known as the Office of Federal Acknowledgment.

Many California tribes left off the initial list of recognized tribes maintained their eligibility for various federal benefits through BIA-certified paperwork attesting to their heritage. Members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe were among those with such paperwork. 

But in 1986, a Supreme Court case changed all that. By ruling that American Indians must belong to a federally recognized tribe to be eligible for benefits, the court relegated many California tribe members to a new class: “the unrecognized” – the ghost tribes.

Today, about 120 California tribes are federally recognized; about 75 ghost tribes are petitioning the BIA for recognition. The petition process is so arduous that some, like the Winnemem Wintu, are instead pursuing congressional legislation or complaints with the United Nations, claiming the recognition system itself violates the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Nedra Darling, who oversees public affairs for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was provided questions related to this story but failed to provide responses on behalf of the agency.

Lee Fleming, director of the BIA’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment and a Cherokee Indian, said in a previous interview that he had worked to speed up the petition process. But Fleming emphasized that the government needs time to verify that claims to tribal rights are based on legitimate records and documents. 

Long petition process

In California and other states that grant Indian gaming licenses only to recognized tribes, the importance of verification has grown – as has a desire for federal recognition.

So far, only one California tribe has been recognized through the BIA process: Death Valley’s Timbisha Shoshone Band, in 1983. 

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The Tolowa Nation, another now-small Northern California tribe, began its formal effort to become recognized in 1982. The Tolowa’s traditional territory is the Smith River watershed in the northeastern corner of California. 

The BIA petition process requires tribes to collect voluminous genealogical and historical proof that they have been a “continuous distinct community” since 1900. The Tolowa’s petition was rejected in late 2010 on the grounds that it didn’t include enough evidence that the tribe existed as a community from 1903 to 1930.

“They’re not used to all these small bands and tribes and the way we lived in California, sticking to our small territories,” said Martha Rice, a Tolowa Nation council member. “They have a model for what a tribe should be, and it just doesn’t fit in California.” 

Anthropologists and tribal members also argue that the requirement to show “continuous and distinct community” for more than a century is unrealistic, given the government’s history of interfering with tribal development. 

“These people went through massacres, dislocations and suffered all these horrible atrocities, and then the government demands, ‘Show us your continuous community.’ It’s absurd,” said Les Field, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Questions about whether the recognition criteria adequately reflect reality in California went unanswered by the BIA. But in 2011, Fleming said criteria were developed in collaboration with many tribal representatives. Petitions are reviewed by teams that include genealogists and anthropologists, he said.

“There was a need for a formal process, and so there was a total of 400 meetings, discussions and conversations with tribal representatives, as well as a national conference attended by 355 Indian tribes,” he said. “That is basically how we got started, based on input from all these tribes.”

Crude disruptions

The Winnemem Wintu was among the first tribes to receive a permit to hold ceremonies on national forest land after the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act. Until it expired in 2011, the tribe also had a Memorandum of Understanding with the Shasta-Trinity National Forest offices, stating its members are indigenous to the McCloud River above the dam.

Neither of those documents could prevent what happened in July 2006.

For a Winnemem girl, crossing into womanhood begins along the banks of the McCloud River. Each teenage girl spends four days in a bark hut on one side of the river, learning from tribal women how to grind traditional medicines and receiving teachings from the spirit beings believed to inhabit nearby sacred sites. On the final day, the girl swims across the river to meet the tribe, which greets her with songs and dances around a sacred fire. 

“This ceremony weaves the fabric of our tribe together,” said Sisk, the chief. “It’s not just about teaching the women about their role as caretakers in the tribe, but also about establishing with the men how to have good relationships with the women.”

This sacred land, now a Forest Service campground, is threatened long term by the dam-raising proposal. It would be flooded and lost. 

Courtesy Will Doolittle/Moving Image Productions One woman flashed the tribe just before one Winnemem girl was to swim across the river, a representation of her transition to womanhood. 

But in the short term, the tribe’s inability to close the area during ceremonies has led to crude interruptions. Boaters have ignored the Forest Service’s “voluntary closure” sign and motored by, shouting insults such as “Fat Indians!” and “It’s our river, too, dude.”  

On the last day of the 2006 ceremony, a tribe member captured one particularly egregious activity on video: A woman on a boat, apparently drunk, pulled down her bikini top and flashed her breasts at the tribe – twice.

“Every time those boaters come through, I feel like the message that is being sent is that we should assimilate – like the government and the public doesn’t want our religion here,” said Michael Preston, 28, a Winnemem Wintu dancer.

Rite of passage marred

This quest to hold a private ceremony on public land took on added urgency this year. Marisa Sisk, the chief’s niece who is being groomed as her future replacement, was set to pass into womanhood in early July. In April, the Winnemem took their plea for a river closure directly to the Forest Service’s Vallejo office. 

In the office lobby, about 30 tribe members sang traditional songs and carried placards, several emblazoned with images of the bare-breasted flasher. The protest brought Regional Forester Randy Moore out of his office but ended with no promises.

Marc Dadigan/California Watch Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk and her niece, Marisa Sisk, 16, pass a river closure banner on the McCloud River that the tribe put up in late May with help from supporters. 

The tribe’s campaign continued with phone calls, emails and a four-day war dance at the river ceremony site. Then, on June 21, Moore announced that the agency would enforce a mandatory river closure for the rite-of-passage ceremony, citing health and safety concerns. 

“This has been an incredibly difficult decision to make as I balanced both the tribe’s interest with our legal authorities,” Moore said in a statement. “Due to past incidents of harassment … we believe it is necessary to close the river to enhance the safety of the ceremony.”

But the tribe found itself once again in a catch-22: To obtain the closure order, the Winnemem had to sign a permit banning traditional activities central to the ceremony, such as gathering wood for the sacred fire. Caleen Sisk vowed to fast until the matter was resolved.

“We are the indigenous people of this land, and our religion is from here,” she said. “Recognized or not, we’re not compromising our religion. It’s not like the Forest Service doesn’t know who we are.”

A series of hurried back-and-forth edits to the permit followed, enough so that the tribe opted to hold the ceremony. But the Winnemem were far from satisfied, noting that the closure permit covered only the water, not the land, which means people on foot still could interrupt the ceremony. Only full recognition would give the tribe the power to prevent that.

Even with the river closure, Marisa Sisk’s Coming of Age ceremony was tense at times. 

Marc Dadigan/California Watch Forest Service law enforcement officers, led by Special Agent in Charge Scott Harris, in plain clothes, wait to meet Chief Caleen Sisk during the war dance. The Forest Service later said it would enforce a river closure for the right of passage ceremony, but it could not close access from the land to the sacred site, now a Forest Service campground. 

Because no motorized boats were supposed to enter the area, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers and the tribe clashed over a motorized boat the Winnemem used to ferry older women involved in the ceremony across the river.

“They need to understand this is a Winnemem ceremony in Winnemem territory,” said Winnemem elder Betti Comas. “Their job was to keep outsiders from interfering with us, not to tell us how to run our ceremony.”

The morning after Marisa Sisk swam across the river to represent her transition to womanhood, three law enforcement officers entered the camp and wrote two citations against Caleen Sisk for using the motorized boat. Each carries a fine of up to $5,000 or six months in prison.

Frustrated by the ceremony closure restrictions, Caleen Sisk had begun fasting at the river on June 18, saying she wouldn’t stop until the BIA granted her a meeting to discuss the tribe’s status

“You could say (the BIA is) telling the Forest Service this treatment we’ve received is OK because we’re not recognized,” she said. “We think it’s time they fix their mistake.”

Virgil Akins, superintendent of the Northern California BIA, agreed to meet with Sisk on July 11, the 23rd day of her fast. At the meeting, Akins accepted a packet of the Winnemem’s historical records and promised to help them, sharing information that led in January to the Tejon Indian Tribe being restored to the list of recognized tribes. 

Winnemem Wintu government liaison Gary Hayward Slaughter Mulcahy said that, at first glance, his tribe seems to have at least as much documentation as the Tejon tribe. 

“We used to think we didn’t need federal acknowledgment because we’ve always known who we are. We didn’t need the government to tell us,” he said.

“But it’s become apparent … that to be able to protect our ceremonies and protect our sites, we need to be on their list.” 

California Lost is an occasional series examining challenges facing neglected communities around the state.

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Amy Pyle copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

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