An Inconvenient Tribe - The Winnemem Wintu and the Proposal to Raise Shasta Dam
By Mark Franco
It appears that the Winnemem Wintu Tribe has once again become inconvenient. This has happened to us before and, generally speaking, it is not a good thing.
Let me explain.
We are the former proprietors of a good stretch of riverfront property along the lower McCloud River. This section of the McCloud, a tributary of the Sacramento River, was once renowned for its beauty and its winter salmon runs. Since 1945, however, it is best known by its new name—the McCloud River Arm of Shasta Lake.
The majority of our tribal homelands lie under water, behind Shasta Dam. At the time of the dam’s completion, the U.S. government promised to make us whole for our losses. In the 66 years since, we have lost homes, land, the graves of an estimated 14,000 of our ancestors, more than 125 sacred sites, and even our official federal designation as a tribe. This included our tribe’s World War II veterans, who left their villages to enlist, and returned home at war’s end to find a reservoir where their homes had once stood.
Inconvenient tribal location, tidy solution.
This followed the California Gold Rush—or as we like to call it, land theft, white people’s diseases, vigilantes, bounty hunters ($5 a scalp!), and state militias. We went from as many as 60,000 tribal members, prior to contact with whites, to 125 members today, who still follow the original tribal structure and lifeway. Profoundly inconvenient tribal location, tidy (albeit messianic and genocidal) solution.
So you’ll have to excuse us if we don’t act surprised when we notice the inconvenience business happening again. And you shouldn’t act shocked if we start to get aggravated.
Which brings me to the Shasta Dam raise project.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation, Shasta Dam’s builder and manager, is proposing to raise the dam by another 8.5 to 16.5 feet.
In this project, the Bureau of Reclamation has the prominent support of Fresno-based Westlands Water District, the single largest agricultural user of Northern California water. Westlands hopes to receive more taxpayer subsidized water from a larger dam. To help out, Westlands in 2007 bought a pristine 3,000-acre stretch of the McCloud that would be flooded by the dam raise.
This was a smart move. First, the property, which includes the Bollibakka Fishing Club, was owned by the Hills family, of Hills Coffee fame. (Bollibakka means black Manzanita in our language, and the original club buildings were built by Winnemem tribal members.) The family opposed the dam raise. As former proprietors of riverfront property, however, their opposition is much less meaningful to the U.S. government than it was before. Trust me on this one.
Second, at the time of sale, the land was being eyed by developers for vacation homes, which would have complicated dam-related eminent domain proceedings. This is no longer an issue. Third, should the dam raise go through, Westlands will sell the land back to the U.S. government, I’m assuming at a profit, which will go nicely with their annual increase in contractually guaranteed and taxpayer subsidized federal water, which in an average year will be on the order of 402,500 acre feet. It’s quite a scam.
Before I cue the DVD player (“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown . . .”) let me say this: We are a traditional people. We honor our religion, our land, our ceremonies, and our forebears. We may have lost most of what we once owned, but we are still here and we still have each other. We want the ability to hold onto our ceremonies and our way of life in peace and dignity. And we are fighting for that.
The Winnemem were a recognized tribe until 1985, when our name suddenly disappeared from the Bureau of Indian Affairs tribal rolls. We were not “terminated” as a tribe, the bureaucratic term for tribes formally deemed no longer intact political entities by the federal government. We were just gone. We believe it was simple clerical error, and we want federal recognition of this mistake, or legislation to correct it.
Is the BIA really trying to tell us that we’re not Indians because we’re not on their list? The dam, the diseases and the vigilantes couldn’t get rid of us. Neither will this clerical error.
The dam raise would inundate 26 more Winnemem villages, all of which contain burial grounds, and virtually all of our remaining sacred sites on the lower McCloud. This includes Children’s Rock, where we hold ceremonies celebrating our young people’s passage into puberty.
For those who think a rock may not be such a big deal, how about if it were the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi that was going to be underwater forever? Or the graveyard holding five generations of your family? Every religion has its ceremonies, its sacred sites, its own set of touchstones—and they are, all of them, valid—and deserving of our respect.
Finally, the water itself. We believe that the waters of the McCloud are connected to the earth as a whole. Further, western science has come to confirm, through its documentation of the interconnectedness of waterways with the ecosystems in which they live, what we have known for a long time.
Far too much of this water has already been diverted, far too much pollution has been dumped into it. The web of life that depends on this water—everyone from us to the state’s commercial salmon fisherman to all beings in the oceans that receive these waters—should not have to take on this added strain.
We have better ways to provide for our water needs. Universal agricultural and urban conservation would be a start. So would eliminating wasteful crop and water subsidies. In comparison with these strategies, the water from a dam raise would be just a drop in the bucket. The dam raise would only address 2 percent of the water that state officials have estimated will be required to offset the water needs set off by climate change and the state’s increasing population.
We view the salmon that once ran in the McCloud as sacred beings who gave us their voice so that we, in turn, could use that voice to speak up for them. The Winnemem believe that when the last salmon is gone, the people are gone. Who is going to have that last fish? Who is going to hold up that last glass of water with the fish in it?
With this dam raise proposal, money and power are trumping common sense and traditional wisdom. It is not a convenient solution for anything that ails us.
Mark Franco is the headman of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe.