Sustainability, Here at Home with the Winnemem Wintu
By Ambrosia K. Krinsky
I recently returned from a four day Coming of Age Ceremony with the Winnemem Wintu on the banks of the McCloud River in Shasta County. This experience has had me thinking a lot about the connections between culture, environment and sustainability. What struck me the hardest during the ceremony was the fact that it took over 100 volunteers organizing to protect this sacred space for the safe passage of one girl into womanhood to occur.
Estimates have been made which put the number of Winnemem Wintu people living along the McCloud between 14,000-20,000 prior to first contact. The consequent murder by settlers and disease reduced this number to 395 by 1900. Now tribal members fight with the support of many allies to hold on to the ecological integrity of their land base, their traditional knowledges and their spiritual practices. The land I stood on along the McCloud River is one of many historic Winnemem village sites (now a state owned camp ground open to all members of the public). Unfortunately, many of the other village sites and sacred sites are currently covered by tens of millions of cubic feet of water and materials due to Shasta Dam. In fact, the Puberty Rock where the young girl meets her tribe for the first time as a woman is covered by water for much of the year, leaving a very small window of time in which the ceremony can occur. This Coming of Age Ceremony was very important for the tribe, as it was the last year it could be performed while the young woman (who is next in line to be the spiritual leader of the tribe) is an appropriate age.
Since the ceremony was revived in 2006 only four women have been able to successfully complete this rite of passage. Prior to this revival the last ceremony took place in 1927 (well before the construction of the dam). From 2006 through to this last ceremony the Forestry Service had not granted the tribe a closure for the necessary portion of the river. As a result there were two years in which harassment by local non-native persons (including yelling racial slurs and flashing of breasts) have made the ceremonies difficult to perform with the level of concentration they require. This year after tremendous tribal and public pressure the Forestry Service did mandate a closure. Unfortunately, the Forestry Service used this closure against the Winnemem, who had brought in a motorized boat (which they had asked for in the usage permit). The day after the ceremony Chief Sisk was given two citations of violation totaling $10,000 or a year in jail.
For the Winnemem Wintu it has been one long battle after another, with many more remaining ahead. They survived the physical genocide with much of their culture intact and now work constantly to prevent its loss via the cultural genocide currently being waged on them by: the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Forestry Service and residents of Redding who would prefer to think of them as a page in a history book rather than the vibrant, thriving culture that they are.
In a blog for the CSSC published on June 6, 2012 titled “Spirituality and Sustainability” Meredith Jacobson wrote, “I believe in our ability to study past cultures who have lived far more sustainably then we have, and see that they lived intensely spiritual lives”. While I agree with many of the sentiments Meredith offers in her blog, I wish to point out a few problematic issues which could arise from this sentence. The first is an assumption that these “past cultures” (which I read as indigenous cultures) are no longer in existence. Many of them, such as the Winnemem Wintu and Achuar of Ecuador (which she mentions) are most definitely still alive! If they no longer exist in and interact with their land base as their ancestors did, we need to examine why. We must also keep in mind that indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination; they are free to decide their own level of participation or non-participation in economic development.
Like many other tribes in California, the Winnemem Wintu are not federally recognized, having been removed from the US government’s list of recognized tribes in 1985. Federal recognition provides agovernment-to-government relationship between the US federal government and the sovereign state that is a tribe. According to Chief Sisk in an interview with the Mending News, 90% of Native Americans in the state of California are not federally recognized. This excludes them from funding for services such as housing, healthcare and scholarships. Federal recognition also bestows protections for religious freedom and access to sacred objects (like eagle feathers, which are illegal for non-Indians to collect). The tribe wants to know why they were deleted from the official narrative and when the BIA plans to reinstate them. It took Chief Sisk and her Nephew Arron 24 days of fasting to gain the attention of the BIA and secure a meeting with an official to discuss reinstatement.
The second point I would like to make is not a response to Meredith but rather a response to new wave culture in general. We need to be very careful to not romanticize Native Americans and indigenous peoples of the world and avoid co-opting their spiritual practices. Their ways of knowing are simply that, “theirs”. We do not know these teachings to be true as they do, they were not passed down to us. Adopting them without recognition of this is dangerous and disrespectful. The reality is that we cannot use indigenous ways of knowing to fill the void colonization has left in our hearts and souls, but we can support indigenous rights as granted under customary law and as can be enacted by the ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). We can support the Winnemem Wintu by respecting their ways of knowing and working to see the UNDRIP implemented within our borders. Plans are being made to raise the level of Shasta dam, which would cover what remains of their accessible sacred sites (in addition to having a massively negative environmental impact); we can work to prevent this from happening.
For more information on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
For more information about joining the campaign in support of the Winnemem Wintu’s cultural and
I would like to thank the Winnemem Wintu for sharing their ancestral homeland and sacred ceremony with me and Michael Preston (Student and Activist at U.C. Berkeley, and Son of Chief Sisk) for inviting me to the ceremony and for his contributions to this blog.
Ambrosia K. Krinsky