By Alexis F. Grant
The Winnemem Wintu tribe of northern California has been fighting one of the most difficult civil rights issues facing 2.5 million Native Americans — to be federally recognized as a tribe and the ability to use their land for sacred rituals.
Today the Wintu (also known as the “middle river people”) are battling with the Forest Reserve to stop the raising of the Shasta Dam so that they can have access to their salmon and hold ceremonial rites of passage for their future women tribal leaders on sacred land. The Wintu are a tribe that’s rooted in mythology. It’s a matriarchal tribe meaning its tribal leaders are women. They believe that without land they’re incomplete.
“It’s all directly connected to the land. Without the salmon, the river, and the forest they are not complete they can’t pass on their culture,” said Anthony Silvaggio civil liberties defense union board president.
When the Shasta dam was created, the Wintu people were promised access to land, fish and water. They believe they come into the world in water, and when girls become women, they come back through the water. Their goal is to have the ability to hold their ceremony in peace and dignity, which has not happened since the campgrounds were built over their sacred land in the late 1960s.
Numerous videos on youtube.com showing the public taunting tribal members, flashing elders, and threatening to shoot them for taking over peoples “favorite spot on the river.”
The problem is that the Winnemem Wintu is not a federally recognized tribe. When a tribe is not federally recognized as a tribe in the United States, they are not entitled to the same rights as recognized tribes. Before the creation of these policies the Wintu people were recognized as natives. They lost that recognition in the late 1970s after the government created the Office of Federal Acknowledge to grow the relationship between native tribes and the government.
They created policies and list of recognized tribes as a way to define who qualifies as Native American. This list was based on criteria according to white standards. The Wintu people did not agree with this listing and were de-listed as a tribe.
The Northern California Indian Development Council website defined sacred as: 1. Dedicated to or set apart for worship. 2. Worthy of religious veneration. 3. Made or declared holy. 4. Dedicated or devoted exclusively to a single use, purpose, or person. 5. Worthy of respect; venerable. 6. Of or relating to religious objects, rites, or practices.
The tribes were never repaid for their land being taken. Tribes that are federally recognized are considered domestic dependent nations, with their rights to tribal sovereignty maintained. Tribal sovereignty allows tribes to manage tribal property, define their own membership and the right to govern themselves and regulate tribal business.
The tribe that once numbered 14,000 has dropped to 150 because of years of conflict with the government and other local people, according to the tribe’s website. The Winnemem Wintu tribe was first recognized by the U.S. government in 1851 after entering the Cottonwood Treaty. This treaty signing allowed for native land from Sacramento up to the Oregon border to be surrendered to the U.S in exchange for 25 square miles of reservation land. After the signing of the treaty the congress was pressured by California legislators who didn’t want to surrender the land to the natives.
The treaty was never ratified and the reservation was never created.
The Winnemem Wintu has recently participated in a Sacred Land Film Project about their Shasta dance H’up Chonas (war dance). The film also covered key issues dealing with the raising of the Shasta Dam including land rights and access.
Silvaggio discussed the film and said that one of the most important issues the tribe is working on is trying to get the dam lowered because the river is such an important part of the Wintu peoples culture.
“Don’t raise the Shasta dam. If you raise the Shasta dam you annihilate the Wintu. They are going to go extinct you would be committing genocide,” said Silvaggio.