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Indian War Dance at Shasta Dam
The raising of Shasta Dam is seen as another assault on the native homelands of the Winnemen Wintu Tribe of Northern California. Not since 1887 have they had to hold a war dance to pray for their rivier, their burial grounds and their sacred sites.
Redding California - Just before dusk on Sunday September 12, 2004, on a hillside overlooking the massive gray presence of Shasta Dam and the blue waters of the sprawling reservoir behind it, a small group of dancers dressed in traditional regalia will light a sacred ceremonial fire. A drum will begin a slow steady beat and the singers will begin a wailing song. An ancient ceremonial war dance, not performed since 1887, will begin. For four days and nights, the Winnemem will fast, sing, and dance, sending their prayers to the dam and to the waters of the rivers that it holds.
The tribe has called for this “War Dance” because their sacred sites and traditional ways of life are being threatened by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposal to raise the dam in order to create more water storage and more power generation for California’s growing population.
Winnemem means “middle water” and refers to the McCloud River. This traditional band of Wintu had been living along the McCloud River for at least a thousand years. Then in the 1930’s, when Shasta Dam was first constructed, they were removed from their homelands, their burial grounds and villages were inundated and they lost their salmon. Now they are again under assault. “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 Caleen Sisk – Franco, Winnemem Spiritual and Tribal Leader, adding that “village sites, burial grounds, and ceremonial grounds will all be lost forever.”
The dance is being held under a permit issued by the BOR, but there is a troubled history between the tribe and the agency. When Shasta dam was first constructed, the U.S. Congress passed a law that promised the Winnemem compensation, like lands, and a cemetery where their dead would be reburied that would be held for them in trust. But those promises have not been fully kept. Recently, the tribe held several meetings with the BOR to raise questions about the feasibility of the BOR’s plans to raise the dam and the impacts it will have on the tribe and their way of life. More importantly, they are asking the BOR to meet their remaining obligations from the past before proceeding with its studies. The BOR and The Department of Interior, of which it is a part, have also taken away the Winnemen's official status as a recognized tribe and the Winnemem want their recognition restored.
The BOR is spending $15 million on studying the raising of Shasta Dam, a study that only considers whether or not, and by how much, the dam should be raised. The tribe wants the BOR, as part of the ongoing CALFED process to increase water storage and meet California’s growing thirst, to study alternatives to raising the dam such as better management practices for the existing reservoir, conservation options, as well as better protection of the fish populations. The tribe also wants the public to question how much of their money is being spent on what can only be considered a massive subsidy for engineers and consultants. They are concerned about the fact that the current expertise that the BOR is bringing to this project is not qualified to adequately assess the threat to the cultural resources along the McCloud River, dozens of sites that are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as Traditional Cultural Properties.
The tribe wants the public to know that the BOR is not looking into less costly alternatives to providing for water storage or protection for the salmon. The BOR claims the increase water storage would benefit downstream fisheries, but the environmental community has expressed doubts that the BOR, which is the agency most responsible for massive decimation of native salmon populations in California, is capable of managing fish issues. Recent federal court decisions ordering the BOR to release more water from their dams on Northern California rivers lend credence to these claims.
The last time the Winnemem invoked the War Dance was in 1887 when a fish hatchery on the McCloud River was the enemy and protecting the salmon and the Wintu way of life was the focus. One hundred seventeen years later the specter of Shasta Dam, already an implement of destruction to the Winnemem, looms large. Again, the Wintu are under siege. “We prayed on it. On what it was we were supposed to do,” about the raising of the dam “and we were told to hold a war dance,” said Sisk - Franco. “Our ancestors showed the way with the dance against the fish hatchery…and this is the path that was shown to us. We gave up a lot of our homeland for the sake of the California people, and got nothing in return. Now you want to take our sacred places, and again we get nothing in return. How is this fair, over and over again?” “This is not right,” she said. “This is too much to ask of a people.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE WINNEMEM, THE 1887 WAR DANCE, THE IMPORTANCE OF THE MC CLOUD RIVER CULTURAL SITES AND THE CURRENT ISSUES OVER THE RAISING OF SHASTA DAM, VISIT THE WINNEMEM WINTU TRIBE WEB SITE AT http://www.winnememwintu.us.