Shasta Dam and the Winnemem Wintu People


At the beginning of time, the Winnemem Wintu people emerged from the base of Bulim Phuyuq or Mount Shasta and have lived along the McCloud River Basin ever since according to oral tradition (Johnston). The river is a spirit for the Winnemem Wintou tribe. Caleen Sisk, the current tribal leader, says that the river remembers you and has a unique reaction to your presence. Beyond the river’s ability to relate to the individual, it plays an integral function in coming of age ceremonies and provides a home for the salmon brothers. A Winnemem Wintu prophecy says, “When there are no salmon, there will be no people.” The salmon, the water, and the land in the McCloud River Basin are inherently connected to the rich lives of the Winnemem Wintu.

The California Congressman, Jim Costa, with the support of similar economically minded individuals in California, expresses a different relationship to water and the McCloud River. He says that “every region and political interest in the state agree that we must expand our storage capacity… Our grandparents’ foresight has carried us for decades, but the bill has come due for our state to again invest in storage.” His proposed legislation asks to raise the water in the Shasta Dam by eighteen and a half feet, expand the San Luis Reservoir, create a tunnel system for water transport and construct the Upper San Joaquin River storage to combat water shortage in California. (U.S. Congress)

Shasta Dam

Shasta Dam

The Shasta Dam has already destroyed around ninety percent of the Winnemem Wintu land and the proposed increase will eliminate around fifty sacred sites, many of which are critical to the rituals of this close knit 120-person community. The Balas Son, or Coming of Age Rock, will only be exposed during a short period of time in Fall and during extreme drought. The Winnemem Wintu tribe views the rock as a powerful and intentional object that brings strength to girls, as they become women.  Upon their first menstrual cycle, girls camp near the rock for four days to learn the ways of being women, and their family camps across the river in support. While the girls grind tea leaves into the rock’s grooves, they connect with their ancestors who have practiced this ritual for centuries. Here the women learn how to make acorn soup, a tradition that began when the Acorn Maidens brought acorns to the Winnemem Wintu tribe during a time of starvation. In Winnemem Wintu culture, women provide nourishment for the family and so they learn how to prepare acorns properly in order to make them edible. After the fourth day, accompanied by spirits, the girls swim across the river to the opposite bank where their family greets them as women.

Other sites including Aychiwih Lahit Mem or the Suckerfish Pool, which is central to men’s coming of age rite, the Chonos Pom dance grounds, the Kaibay Village and Massacre Site, and the Dekas Ceremonial Grounds will be negatively impacted by the increased water level. These sacred spaces give the Winnemem Wintu people their identity. They inspire joy and provide healing. At these places this community can converse with their ancestors and the spirits that give them guidance. Without this land they will lose this connection and their culture will not survive.

The Winnemem Wintu tribe thus views the proposed reservoir increase as a weapon of mass destruction. With frame of mind, they recently did a war dance at the Shasta Dam to pray for the preservation of their land and the protection of the salmon. If the proposal gets approved, salmon will not be able to spawn in much of their current habitat. The Bureau of Reclamation states that increased water level would provide cold water below the dam for the Chinook salmon to prosper as part of a salmon restoration project. Winnemem Wintu people do not accept the bureau’s backing of the proposal for such a weak effect. After doing research on the proposed changes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believe that giving the salmon the ability to reach their spawning waters upstream supersedes this cold water effect which supports the Winnemem position (Dadigan). Overall, the Winnemem Wintu people believe that the pressure of state officials to provide water to money hungry corporations and water intensive practices provide the basis for all of the political backing.

Caleen Sisk blessing the Sacred Fire

Caleen Sisk blessing the Sacred Fire

Moving beyond the increase in water level at the Shasta Dam, the EPA does not support the tunnel construction on the grounds that the massive flow of this river water will go toward environmentally damaging practices. These include fracking and other corporate agribusiness practices (Bacher). The Winnemem Wintu hope that environmentalists understand the definite link between the reservoir increase and the tunnel construction so that they will support the fight against the reservoir increase. The EPA has not published a statement in response to the Winnemem Wintu people’s calls for assistance. Also, a formal environmental impact statement has not yet been completed by the Bureau of Reclamation and should be ready by the end of this year. If the Secretary of the Interior approves the proposal, Congress may authorize the start of construction as soon as next year (Dadigan).

In Congressman Costa’s statement above, he references his grandparents’ call to store water and ensure its protection and access to all people. In response, the Winnemem Wintu people reference their ancestors’ constant and direct messages to protect their sacred homeland and cultural identity. Both parties feel a sense of connection to their past in relation to the McCloud River Basin. This discourse provides insight into the various interpretations of space and how sacredness to one community does not ensure its protection.

Works Cited

Batcher, Dan. “Winnemem Wintu War Dancers: Shasta Dam a “Weapon of Mass Destruction”” Truthout. N.p., 17 Sept. 2014. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

Dadigan, Marc. “Stop Damming Indians: Dancing Against Shasta Dam Raise.” Indian Country Today Media Network. N.p., 18 Sept. 2014. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Johnston, Lyla June. “Endangered Spaces.” News From Native California 27.3 (2014): 12-22. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Rodriguez, Gilberto Daniel. “Live Water.” News From Native California 27.1 (2013): 10-13. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Scheck, Justin. “U.S. News: Tribe Fights for Private Rite — Indians in Legal Limbo Want Girls’ Coming-of-Age Swim Held without Hecklers.” Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition ed.May 31 2012. ProQuest. Web. 3 Oct. 2014 .

U.S. Congress. Costa Introduces Bills to Increase CA Water Storage. Jim Costa. N.p., 28 Feb. 2014. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.


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