by Dan Bacher
Members of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe from northern California on Monday, April 16 challenged Randy Moore, U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester, at his Vallejo office to protect indigenous women from racial slurs and physical harm during coming of age ceremonies planned for this June.
Caleen Sisk, Winnemem Chief and Spiritual Leader, and Tribal leaders met with Moore after members of the Winnemem, Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa Valley, Ohlone and other Tribes picketed outside the office for an hour. Over 50 tribal members and allies held up signs stating “Our Ceremony, Our Rights, Close the River” and “Respect Native Women. Close the River.”
Although claiming to be unfamiliar with the issue, Moore promised to review the Winnemem’s request to close 400 yards of the McCloud River arm of Shasta Reservoir for 4 days so that the Tribe can conduct the ceremony. Moore committed to respond to the Tribe’s request by May 1, 2012.
“This is a very important issue that we will look at very seriously,” said Moore. “Our concern is that the Winnemem Wintu are not a federally recognized tribe, although they are a state recognized tribe.”
Moore said the preservation of sacred sites is a “significant issue” with the Forest Service, but that since the tribe doesn’t have federally recognized status, they would have to decide on what basis the river would be closed for the ceremony.
“I will look at what we have here and I will get together with the program manager,” added Moore. “I won’t know more until I read through the materials the Tribe has provided me.”
After the meeting in the foyer of the office, Tribal leaders conducted a press conference on the office steps.
“I am glad that Moore took the time to meet with us,” said Sisk, “even though we didn’t have an appointment. He accepted our letter and resolution. We asked him to respond by May 1 and we we will find out what his word is, whether he will help to close the river for the ceremony.”
Tribe’s ceremonies protected under UN Declaration
Sisk pointed out that the Tribe’s ceremonies are protected under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document that the Obama administration signed on to, regardless of whether a tribe is “federally protected” or not. She also noted that “federal recognition doesn’t apply to sacred places; it’s like asking the Catholic Church to recognize the Mormon Church every time they hold a service.”
Marine Sisk, who went through the coming of age ceremony in 2006, emphasized that this “ceremony is very important – it is about learning to be a woman.”
Her sister and Chief’s Sisk’s 16-year-old niece, Marisa, is in training as the next leader of the Tribe. Her coming of age ceremony is scheduled for late June.
Marine and other Winnemem Wintu leaders stressed the importance of conducting the ceremonies without interruption by boaters and others, especially those hurling insults and racial slurs. While closing the river will mean a lot to the Tribe, it will have no impact on the Forest Service.
“USFS Regional Forestor Randy Moore can close the river for four days, but it doesn’t change anything in his world,” Chief Sisk said.
The Tribe is demanding that the Shasta-Trinity National Forest provide the four-day closure of a quarter mile stretch of the McCloud during a coming of age ceremony for a teenage girl planned for late June.
Sisk said the Tribe’s past two coming of age ceremonies have been disrupted by racial slurs, alcohol use, and indecent exposure from passersby in motorboats who refused to honor a voluntary closure. These boaters also endanger the physical safety of young tribal members who swim across the river as part of the ceremony.
“Since 1941 most of our ceremonial sites have been buried beneath the still waters of Lake Shasta,” said Sisk. “We ask that the Forest Service grant us this one small dignity by allowing our girls to enter womanhood in privacy at one of our last remaining traditional ceremonial sites.”
The Tribe has requested for the past several years that the Forest Service close this stretch of river during their Coming of Age Ceremonies, held in an area accessible on Lake Shasta by boat.
Voluntary closures don’t work
Although the Forest Service has issued “voluntary closures” that discourage most boaters from entering the area, several times during each ceremony groups of individuals powered into the ceremonial area, often with beers in hand and music blaring as they verbally insulted the Tribe’s members.
During a Coming of Age Ceremony in 2006, a woman “flashed” the ceremonial participants with naked breasts and yelled racist insults. “If someone did this during Mass, they would be arrested,” said Sisk.
A mandatory closure was issued later at this same ceremony by the Shasta County Sheriff after a Forest Service District Ranger’s kayak was rammed by a boat.
Sisk said this is about “respecting and protecting Native women while they pass on traditional ways to the next generations.”
“Like many traditional people, we hold our women in high regard,” said Sisk. “This beautiful ceremony is vital to our girls’ transitioning to womanhood with confidence, grace and knowledge. We must hold this ceremony for our tribe to survive.”
Members of Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa Valley Tribes back Winnemem
Members of the Klamath and Coastal Justice Coalitions showed their solidarity with the Winnemem Wintu at the protest.
Molli Jane White, a member of the Karuk Tribe and Coastal Justice Coalition, said, “We stand up for native rights everywhere. We look forward to working with the Winnemem Wintu in the future and attending their ceremony without any disturbances.”
Frankie Joe Myers, a member of the Yurok Tribe and the Klamath Justice Coalition, stated, “We are here to support the Winnemem Wintu. They are salmon people and we are salmon people too; we are supposed to help each other out. What happens on the McCloud affects what happens on the Klamath and the Trinity watersheds.”
Sisk put the protest in the context of the international struggle for indigenous rights, including the battle by indigenous people in Brazil to stop the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam complex on the Xingu River.
“We were those people who are now facing inundation by the Belo Monte Dam,” said Sisk. “We see the Chief fighting the dam and we know, from our experience with Shasta Dam, what will happen to their land if the dam is completed.”
The coming of age ceremony takes place as the Tribe is fighting a federal plan to raise Shasta Dam. The dam raise would flood many of the Tribe’s remaining sacred sites, such as Puberty Rock, that weren’t inundated when Shasta Dam was built.
The plan also threatens to hasten the extinction of winter run chinook salmon and other imperiled fish that have declined, due to water exports from the California Delta in recent years.
The dam raise will be used in conjunction with the construction of the peripheral canal to export more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Westlands Water District and other corporate agribusiness interests and southern California.
The Winnemem Wintu have also launched a campaign to restore winter run chinook salmon to the McCloud River above Shasta Dam. In the spring of 2010, members of the Tribe went to New Zealand to conduct joint ceremonies with the Maori in an effort to bring the winter run salmon, now thriving in the Rakaira River, back to California. The New Zealand and Maori governments agreed to provide salmon eggs to be hatched in a conservation hatchery on the McCloud.
Take Action/More Information:
Call Regional Forest Manager Randy Moore at (707) 562-8737 and tell him to respect Native Women, and let the Winnemem practice their ceremony with peace and dignity.
Pictures and video available at http://www.winnememwintu.us/
Learn more about the ceremony at http://www.saveourceremony.com.
Download Video of motorboats speeding past ceremony and flashing the participants at: http://vimeo.com/39867112