Winnemem Wintu Hold War Dance Against Shasta Dam

For the first time in 117 years, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe held a war dance September 12 through 16 at the Shasta Dam in Northern California to oppose the Bureau of Reclamation's plans to raise the dam.

The Shasta Dam, built on the McCloud River, was completed in 1944 without a fish ladder, destroying the salmon habitat and flooding much of the Winnemem Wintu's homelands. The last war dance, in 1887, was held to oppose a fish hatchery on the same river. The fish hatchery was ultimately built, but washed away five years later in seasonal floods.

"Our people cannot sit by and watch the flooding of our land a second time," says Tribal Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk-Franco in a video clip on the Winnemem Wintu website.

The Bureau of Reclamation proposes to raise the dam between 6 and 200 feet to increase water storage capacity for a growing Californian population.

"Any raising of the dam, even a few feet, will flood some of our last remaining sacred sites on the McCloud River, sites we still use today," says Sisk-Franco. "Village sites, burial grounds, and ceremonial grounds will all be lost forever."

Sites at risk include the Puberty Rock, where young women go for coming of age ceremonies, a burial ground for victims of the massacre at Kabai Creek, and the Children's Rock "where the young ones place their hands for blessings to make them good people and help them understand and magnify whatever special gifts they hold," according to Mark Franco, Headman of the tribe's Kerekmet Village in a press release.

With drum music and song, the war dancers fasted, drank acorn water, prayed, and danced by the fire around the clock for four days. The media was invited, as the Wintu hope the message of their opposition is carried far and wide. According to the Wintu, the community has been amazingly supportive. Environmental coalitions are forming to stop the dam raising.

Also on the video, Sisk-Franco said that the war dance is "sometimes sent to the people as a tool to use, and right now it has been sent to us. The Winnemem Wintu have come through the 21st century still believing in our traditional ways, are still behind this war dance. We want to express our concerns and demonstrate the depth of how we feel about this raising of this lake to flood our homeland again."

There are other ways to manage and store the water and the Bureau of Reclamation should be studying those ways, according to Sisk-Franco.

Michael Ryan of the Bureau of Reclamation said in a phone interview, "Enlarging Shasta Dam is one of several options Reclamation and others are investigating for water resource management in California. The other options are extensive and encompass both supply and demand issues." He also mentioned that the Winnemem Wintu have been participating in stakeholder meetings and that, "When funded, Reclamation will conduct cultural resource inventories to identify, evaluate and formally determine if such sites are affected."

According to Winnemem Wintu member and media contact Charlotte Berta, they were not originally informed of the plans for the dam, nor were they officially invited to a public meeting of stakeholders to discuss the proposal, because they do not have federal recognition.

This week, after marching in the procession at the National Museum of the American Indian opening in Washington D.C., several Wintu lobbied their congresswoman, Dianne Feinstein, to support federal recognition. Feinstein is hesitant out of concerns around the casino issue, but the Wintu say they don't even want a casino. They just want a seat at the table so they can protect their sacred sites and culture.