Memorial Day weekend, many Americans will head out for the first camping trip of the season. The Winnemem Wintu Tribe will celebrate warriors old and new by conducting a four day War Dance (H’up Chonas in Winnemem). The War Dance is being held in reaction to the failure of the US Forest Service to respond to the Tribe’s request that a portion of the river be closed down during their annual Coming of Age ceremonies. The site was once a Winnemem village, Kaibai, and is home to numerous sacred sites vital to the ceremony.

The Winnemem Wintu is a traditional Tribe of 125 who still practice their ceremonies and traditional healings within our ancestral territory from Mt. Shasta down the McCloud River watershed. In their native language, Winnemem Wintu translates to “Middle Water People” as the McCloud River is bounded by the Upper Sacramento to the West and the Pit River to the East. They believe they were born from water, they are of the water. They are now taking a stance to fight for it.

Chief Caleen Sisk explains, “[O]ur beginning of life comes from Mt. Shasta, so all those stories up and down the river have meaning – from Yellow Jacket Mountain, to Fox Mountain, to the Sucker Pools, all these have stories that belong to the Winnemem people and songs that go with them.”

The 125 are the remnants of a tribe that once thrived in Northern California. Unlike Plains Natives, Californian Native tribes were not rounded up in mass and forcefully relocated. They were however, the victims of a broken treaty with the U.S. government. The U.S. government first recognized the Winnemem Wintu in 1851, when it entered into the Cottonwood Treaty. Through this treaty, the Winnemem Wintu and several other Native American tribes ceded their homelands to the United States in exchange for the creation of a 35-square mile reservation. Due to pressure from California legislators who didn’t want to cede the lands, Congress, however, failed to ratify the treaty and 17 others, and the reservation was never created. The Winnemem Wintu and other tribes were never compensated for the taking of their native lands, and what resulted was an epidemic of homeless, landless Indians throughout California. Many were victims of hunters who earned a “head price” paid by some land owning European settlers. Those tribes that survived split up and integrated into service positions in white settlements.

After asking Regional Forester Randy Moore, to approve the shutting down of the river for the coming of age right for 16 year old Marisa Sisk who is training to be a tribal leader, making it that much more important that there are no lewd interruptions, they have been met with no cooperation. The tribe gave Moore a May 1 deadline to respond to their request, but he has never contacted the tribe, the decision was made to engage in protest through a War Dance.

The tribe last performed a War Dance in 2004 which was the first time the H’up Chonas, or War Dance, had been brought back in over 100 years. It was done in protest of the proposal to raise Shasta Dam, which flooded many important sacred sites, including other puberty rock sites necessary for the Coming of Age ceremonies. The War Dance signifies a commitment to a spiritual and physical resistance to threats to the tribe’s culture. It means the Winnemem are willing to die to protect their tribal way of life.

Said Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader and Chief, “We have been backed into a corner with no other choice. We should be preparing for Marisa’s ceremony, setting down prayers, making regalia, getting the dance grounds ready, making sure it happens in a good way, but instead we have to fight simply to protect our young women from drunken harassment.”

Part of this protest will include a river blockade of 400 yards which protesters will do themselves. Sisk says, “We hope the blockade will let the Forest Service know that boats don’t belong in ceremony and that we will do it ourselves if they won’t take the appropriate measures to protect our young women’s ceremonies,”

The ceremonies are held on the McCloud Arm of Shasta Lake in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and in previous years, drunken recreational boaters have ignored the Forest Service’s voluntary closure and have taunted the tribe with racial slurs, flashed them with naked breasts and dumped cremated remains in the river. During the ceremony which marks a young woman’s passage into womanhood.

What they are asking for from the State and Federal Government is a show of respect for a very important passage that helps bond the tribe and families.

In their press release the Tribe states the Forest Service’s position has been that they lack the authority to grant the request for the traditional tribe, though sources within the agency have verified that Mr. Moore has the authority to close the stretch of river necessary for the ceremony.

It is further pointed out that the north end of the ceremony site is private land not accessible to boaters. The river closure would not stop a thoroughfare, but simply cut off a 400-yard corner of the 30,000 square-acre Shasta Lake.

At previous ceremonies, the Forest Service’s law enforcement officers have implemented a mandatory closure of the river on the last day of the ceremony when the young women swim across to symbolize their transition to womanhood. They have cited safety reasons behind the closure.

“I am saddened that Moore does not have the courage to do what’s right,” Tribal leader, Caleen said through the tribe’s press release. “We lost all our land when they built Shasta Dam, and now all we want is four days of peace and dignity for our ceremony, which is vital to the social fabric of our tribe. A peaceful ceremony is our right, and we are not accepting anything short of that.”

The US Forest Service has been contacted in attempts to arrange a discussion with officials and to let them know what to expect and to ensure that everyone will be safe and have their rights respected. The tribe will have lawyers, legal observers, videographers, and the media present at all times during the War Dance and other activities

At the tribe’s ceremonies in 2006 and 2010, the Forest Service enforced only a voluntary river closure, which led to drunken recreational boaters heckling the young Winnemem women and other tribal members with shouts of “It’s our river too, dude/” or “Fat Indians.” One woman flashed her naked breasts at the Tribe, and another boater dumped cremated ashes into the river shortly before a ceremonial swim.

VIDEO Close The River, Randy Moore

In updates the tribe states they are expecting more than 400 people to come out in a show of support for their protest, which will be held without a permit. Things being what they have been of late, it will be interesting to see if the Forestry Dept. takes it upon themselves to break up their peaceful protest like many other protesting groups across the country have experienced.

If so we must ask, why is the Forest Dept. willing to deploy manpower and money to break up a native gathering on traditional tribal land and not willing to keep drunk and disorderly boaters from harassing people? Particularly since drunken boat driving is a crime in California as is harassment. When people can clearly be observed being aggressive, demeaning and hateful as well as identified accurately due to boat license why is there no follow-up occurring if the playing field is level?

Randy Moore brings up the fact that currently the Wintu tribe is not a federally recognized tribe. The Winnemem were federally recognized up until the 1985 when they lost recognition due to Bureau of Indian Affairs clerical error.

Today, they are state recognized. The California Native American Heritage Commission has asserted that the Winnemem Wintu should be federally recognized. The California State Assembly also passed Assembly Join Resolution 39, which urges Congress to restore the Winnemem’s federal recognition.

Also, U.N. Indigenous People’s Act which was signed by President Obama in July of 2010 “emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.” And furthermore, “prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them, and their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development.”

This certainly covers the Wintu tribe asking for a short-term closure of sacred land for their rituals. In addition, the Forest Service has previously signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the tribe, which states they are the indigenous people from the McCloud River.

“I am saddened that Moore does not have the courage to do what’s right,” Sisk said. “We lost all our land when they built Shasta Dam, and now all we want is four days of peace and dignity for our ceremony, which is vital to the social fabric of our tribe. A peaceful ceremony is our right, and we are not accepting anything short of that.”

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