By Deborah Svoboda
If a controversial proposal to raise Shasta Dam wins approval from Congress, the water levels in California’s largest reservoir could rise by 20 feet in wet years. From a purely water supply standpoint, that seems like a good thing.
But the implications of enlarging the footprint of Shasta Lake are far-reaching. Some reach up the McCloud River, one of the three main rivers that flow into the reservoir created by Shasta Dam.
They reach deep into traditions of Native Americans in the region. Along the McCloud, rising waters could drown approximately 40 sites that are sacred to the Winnemem Wintu tribe. According to Caleen Sisk, it amounts to nothing less than the cultural demise of her people.
“Loss of life at our traditional places means a loss of the Winnemem Wintu,” Sisk said at a recent tribal ceremony.
Sisk is the chief and spiritual leader of a tribe of California Indians who, she said, have lived near Shasta for at least 6,000 years. “Winnemem” means “middle-water,” as the tribe has always lived in between the rivers north of Redding. The tribe’s hold on its identity is already tenuous. Their numbers have dwindled to about 125 members. They own no property along the McCloud and are not officially recognized as a tribe by the federal government.
“Yet,” said Gary Mulcahy, the tribe’s government liaison, “we have a history of communication with the federal government — letters and documents all the way back to 1850.”
While their numbers may be small, members remain passionately engaged with their traditional ceremonies and way of life.
Last week Sisk greeted some guests that arrived to learn about the tribe. Even with temperatures approaching 100, a fire was built in the traditional circular prayer house, in preparation for a ceremony called Tipnas Pu-doom, which in Wintu means, “to know your heart.” Guests entered the roundhouse with instructions to imagine they were re-entering their mothers’ womb.
Despite the dirt floor, dusty seats, smoky air and heat; the atmosphere was similar to the feeling of entering one of the great cathedrals. A feeling of being connected to something of the past — something much greater than oneself — filled the room.
Sisk talked about her belief that the sacred fire is a being, as is water. Then, one-by-one the participants stood facing the fire and were “smoked down” with a medicinal herb that Sisk said helps open one’s heart and thoughts. “Things become clear,” she said.
“The ceremony was meditative and was a good starting point for understanding the deep cultural history and present day experience of the Winnemem Wintu,” said Tendai Chitewere, Professor of Geography at San Francisco State University.
After leaving the prayer house, Sisk described another one of the ceremonies that is essential to the Winnemem Wintu tribe, the “coming-of-age ceremony,” that marks the passage from child to woman in the Winnemem culture.
The ceremony takes place around a specified boulder on the banks of the McCloud River (shown in the video, above). The place used to be accessible year-round, but since Shasta Dam was built in the 1940s, it is only accessible when the water levels go down in the heat of summer. If the dam is raised, the Wintu say they will lose that place forever.
According to Sisk, the federal government has offered to move the rock to wherever the Winnemem Wintu would like it. Sisk argues that their sacred sites cannot be so modified.
“They can not move the entire panorama of items that holds our hearts,” she said.
To supporters of the proposal to raise the dam, the gains outweigh the losses. At an estimated cost of $1.2 billion, some say that dollar-for-dollar, the dam raise is the best option. The extra water storage capacity would benefit farms served by the federal Central Valley Project as well as some urban water consumers hundreds of miles south of Shasta Lake. And although controversial, some say a deeper, colder pool of water behind the dam will help boost the populations of salmon and steelhead below the dam.
Construction of the dam put a halt to the salmon’s migration to their original spawning grounds on the upper McCloud. The Winnemem Wintu people still hold a strong connection to the salmon that once populated the rivers surrounding them. “The salmon are our relatives,” Sisk said. “Our strife is almost comparable to what happened to the salmon.”
“People don’t know there are still Indians living in California, that there are 135 native languages spoken in this state,” Sisk said to the group of visitors. She said flooding their sacred sites will remove their ability to remain as the same Winnemem Wintu that they have been.
“How would people feel if they wanted to flood the Vatican?” she asked.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Shasta Dam, has published a draft environmental review of the plan for public comment.
Deborah Svoboda is a photojournalism major at San Francisco State University. Having just finished two internships at KQED she is beginning her freelance career. Her passion is sharing the “hidden” stories of those outside the media spotlight.