For the Winnemem Wintu people of the McCloud River watershed (a mighty tributary of the Upper Sacramento River, formed by the southeastern drainage of Mt. Shasta and its stately foothills), the weapon of mass destruction that has wrought greatest harm on their culture is California's largest dam: the Shasta Dam. This 602-foot-tall concrete plug on the Upper Sacramento River inundated 90% of the Winnemem's ancestral territory upon its completion in 1945. Salmon, which have always been at the center of the Winnemem's material and spiritual existence, were thereupon blocked from reaching their historic spawning grounds in the constipated waters upstream, contributing to a massive overall fish die-off in the Sacramento River and the San Francisco Bay Delta.
In the face of these hardships, the Winnemem continue to preserve their culture in every way they can: their language, religion, and traditional healing methods. In the meantime, they struggle to protect their remaining sacred sites and burial grounds from a seemingly interminable stream of threats and encroachments. With California in the throes of the worst drought since official recordkeeping began in the late-1870s, the greatest threat to the Winnemem's remaining cultural strongholds now has renewed traction in the US Congress: proposed legislation to expand Shasta Reservoir, and thereby flood many of the Winnemem's remaining ancestral lands.
Beginning on September 11th, more than 30 Winnemem tribal members assembled under the shade of a large fir grove on the Dam's eastern edge to conduct a four-day ceremony they have carried out only one other time since 1876: the War Dance, or “Hu'p Chonas.” The dancers, who fasted on acorn water, were clad in traditional regalia, such as orange flicker feather bands that drape across the eyes of their males, and conducted numerous traditional dances. In the words of the fact sheet the Winnemem handed out at the ceremony, the collective purpose of the songs and danced was “to show the McCloud River that we are fighting to protect these waters.”
As the rhymthic beat of the ceremonial drum stretched across the 3,460-foot-wide dam, as well as into the Shasta Lake Visitor Center: a sterile venue in which a tourist-oriented video celebrating whitebread suburbs and nice green lawns rolls before an auditorium audience every two hours.
As this facility's promotional materials amply describe, the Shasta Dam — 602 feet tall, 855 feet wide at its base — is perhaps the greatest achievement of California's gargantuan plumbing system: a network of dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, siphons, tunnels, gates, and other water control structures that captured about two-thirds of the state's annual run-off. California is one of the most dramatically altered waterscapes on the planet.
As a result, California's water system at its best, from the perspective of those that benefit most from the massive plumbing system, translates into California's water system at its worst in the experience of everyone else. For example, the characteristics that make the upper Sacramento River an attractive location for a dam — its year-round abundance of water, its connection to the San Francisco Bay Delta — has also made it home historically to some of the largest populations of migratory fish in the western United States.
Ironically, in recognition of the enormous abundance and diversity of salmon and trout in the McCloud River, the US government selected it as the site of its first-ever fish hatchery in 1877. Yet, whereas hundreds of thousands of Chinook salmon once migrated up the McCloud River annually to spawn, roughly 60,000 Chinook returned in the entire Sacramento River watershed in 2008 — an all-time low. For the fish, the Shasta Dam — as with dams virtually everwhere — has had a catastrophic effect.
The Shasta Reservoir is also indicative of the impact the US' so-called “reclamation” program — its construction of dams and reservoirs — has had on Indigenous people, an impact that has been — in a word — genocidal. When the federal government got into the business of building dams across the American West in the early 1900s, one of its primary means of generating revenue for these enormous construction projects was to expropriate land from American Indian reservations in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, the Dakotas, Washington, Oregon, California, and Colorado, and sell it to Euroamerican farmers.
The newly-formed Bureau of Reclamation, acting under its mandate to “reclaim” land for productive agricultural use, invoked amendments to the 1887 General Allotment Act to seize reservation land that the Indians had failed to plow or cultivate. The Bureau would then mount huge publicity campaigns, including posters with headers such as “Indian Land For Sale — Fine Land In The West — Easy Payments.” University of Colorado legal scholar Charles Wilkinson put it this way: “the reclamation program proceeded on the backs of Indian people.”
Invariably, the reservoirs have inundated areas of central cultural importance for Indigenous people. For the sake of relating the matter to the Mendocino County area, consider that both of the dams in the Russian River watershed serve as examples. Lake Mendocino Reservoir flooded the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians' rancheria; the Army Corps of Engineers seized the land and relocated these Indigenous people to their present land along Highway 101 in the late-1950s. Construction of Lake Sonoma, which traps the waters of Dry Creek, greatly limited the area where the Pomo people of the area could gather basketry materials.
The last time the Winnemem conducted a war dance was on September 11, 2004. Three years prior, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein had introduced legislation to fast-track feasibility studies related to three methods of expanding California's water storage capacity, including the raising of Shasta Dam. Following some modifications, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) agreed to support the bill, and Feinstein reintroduced it in 2003. In response, Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk says she was directed by ancestors in the spirit world to conduct a traditional war dance, which had not been conducted since 1876 (when the US government built the McCloud River hatchery).
As the war dance was about to begin, the Winnemem got word that Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) was preparing to introduce legislation to restore their federal tribal recognition. The Winnemem were asked to cancel or postpone the war dance, so as not to attract negative attention or arouse the wrath of politicians who favored raising the dam. But political compromise could not interfere with their spiritual beliefs and the war dance went on.
During the dance, Feinstein and Boxer presided over the passage of the CALFED legislation that funded $395 million in studies on increasing California’s water supply, including the raising of Shasta Dam. And then, on the fourth day of the dance, word came that Campbell would remove the language recognizing the Winnemem from his proposed technical amendment legislation. But the dance was completed and was reported in media around the world, including the New York Times.
Soon after, the Sacramento Bee quoted Feinstein: “I believe it is a God-given right as Californians to be able to water gardens and lawns. The state… is going to need new water storage.”
Next week, I'll publish a more in-depth story concerning the Winnemem's fight to protect their cultural and traditions, the politics surrounding California's new water infrastructure proposals, and more.
(Will Parrish is writing a series of 16-20 articles on resistance to watershed destruction in the context of the California drought. This is the second article in the series.)