This past February, I facilitated a TEDx Redding talk with the Winnemem Wintu’s Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk about indigenous knowledge and how, when understood and respected appropriately, it can and should be used to find solutions to some of our most pressing environmental problems.
The way Caleen’s mind differs from a lot of the water policy officials in California is that she has a mental image of how California existed before the railroads and the dams and highways, from the free-flowing rivers to the alpine forests, which the Winnemem and other Northern California tribes carefully manicured.
When it comes to solving environmental problems, she is focused on turning things back, making the natural world as close as possible to how it used to be. Nature, in the end, had the most complete and effective plan, one that we can never hope to surpass, not matter how we might try.
I think it’s important to remember that the knowledge she possesses, which was passed down among generations of Winnemem, is equivalent to having about 10,000 years of direct observation of the local environment, or as the TEDx organizer Rachel Hatch described it – “10,000 years of R&D”.
I hope the talk will help people understand that there is a real practicality to the indigenous way of knowing, and that true keepers of indigenous knowledge should have a real seat at the table in policy discussions.
Their knowledge and their perspectives on how to treat land and water are not part of the past, but the key to our future.
This weekend I hiked around the Clear Creek Gorge outside Redding, Calif., which is a salmon spawning area where Wintu people used to fish. (It’s also near the site where gold was discovered in Shasta County in 1848)
There’s a salmon viewing area as well as a display that describes the history of the place, the restoration efforts to restore the salmon grounds, and a little bit about the Wintu.
Here’s a pic of the Wintu placard, which describes their religious practices in PAST TENSE.
This is a common practice not just with the Winnemem Wintu and other Wintu tribes but with descriptions of many tribes. They refer to the Wintu culture in past tense at the Turtle Bay exhibit in downtown Redding, and at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Shasta Dam visitor center there is no mention of the existing Winnemem Wintu, who are descendants of the people who were removed from their land when the dam was built. But there is a small display of books about Wintu culture and ethnographies from the early 20th century. Whether intentional or unintentional, the hidden message here is that the Winnemem Wintu people no longer exist.
Isn’t it pretty clear that the Winnemem Wintu are still actively engaged in the religious practices that the Clear Creek placard described in past tense?
This subtle implication that traditional indigenous people no longer exist here in Shasta County or in America in general is a form racism, that can be rooted in ignorance or straight-up prejudice. No matter the source, I believe it affects how policy makers, the media and general public approach issues related to sacred sites and indigenous rights.
It manifests in a lot of ways; here are a few I’ve noticed a lot.
1. When journalists write about sacred sites, they will often add a qualifier: the tribes say the site is sacred or the tribes say the development will “desecrate” their site (they’ll put desecrate in quotes too). This is putting the tribes’s historical connections to the land in a “he-said, she-said” format, as if there is some doubt about the truth of how they are presenting their culture.
2. Our communities’ conception of human history, especially here in the West, generally begins with white settlers. I see this in documentaries, books and all kinds of media – the history of Indian people is something that belongs to the pre-white natural world and not to human civilization.
Take for instance this list of Shasta County historical sites - battle sites and forts that are about 150-years-old are far more protected by law than Winnemem Wintu sacred sites that have had cultural significance to them for thousands of years. The implication, again, is Wintu culture is a sort of-pre-human culture that no longer exists.
Kids play at Tuiimyali, the first Winnemem village to take shape since the dam was built, a part of their slow recovery.
Why do we do this?
I think we as a society want to believe that the genocide is over, and that the people who suffered that genocide are somehow disconnected from the modern Indian people who are living today.
The problem is that, especially here in California where the genocide was relatively recent, tribes are still in various states of recovery, and some are truly on the edge of disappearing forever. By discounting the existence of traditional indigenous cultures, we are absolving ourselves of the responsibility and the cost of helping them to preserve their ways of life.
Why does this matter?
Currently, the Winnemem Wintu will be working to educate the public and the Bureau of Reclamation about their sacred sites that would be drowned or damaged by the proposal to raise the Shasta Dam.
And this inherent, ingrained skepticism that their sacred sites are real or as meaningful as they say they are is going to be an obstacle, especially in the court of public opinion.
Many of us grow up in American with all these subtle clues and messages that tell us “real” Indian people are an anachronism, a thing of the past.
And, unfortunately, because this takes hold in so many of us, especially those who have the power to make decisions that damage tribal culture and sacred sites, it can hasten a small tribe’s extinction.
If we are going to truly accept the ugliness of our past history with this continent’s native people, we need to make past tense a thing of the past.
Children's Rock is a sacred site integral to the Winnemem's Coming of Age of Ceremony and is still in use, though the Clear Creek display informs visitors otherwise.
Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk points out a midden at a village site that would be affected by an 18.5-foot Shasta Dam raise.
It’s amazing to consider, but I have spent nearly 15 months living with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe as an immersion journalist.
I have a fair number of clips, a huge stack of notebooks to transcribe and a slew of as of yet unrealized story ideas buzzing in my brain.
Here’s a photo slideshow of some of the highlights from my time at the village of Tuiimyali. The Winnemem beat is quite a busy one. The whole process has been a huge lesson in cultural humility, but I don’t think anything shocked me quite as much as the letter Caleen received from U.S. Fish and Wildlife revoking her 25-year-old eagle feather permit. The letter is included in the slideshow.
It was hard to believe how simply and quickly a basic right to religious freedom could be stripped away.
This slideshow depicts the Winnemem’s trip to New Zealand this March to sing and atone to the salmon on the Rakaia River. The salmon are descended from the fish that once swam in the McCloud River, on whose shores the tribe lived before the Shasta Dam was built during World War II.
The slideshow is narrated by Ngai Tahu activist and conservationist Pauline Reid. She was one of the Maori supporters who hosted the Winnemem, and here she discusses with great candor and emotion the parallels she sees between her people and the Winnemem, especially in their struggles to preserve their culture and their sacred fish.
The “tuna” she mentions are the longfin eels to which her people have a bond that resembles the Winnemem’s to the salmon.
I found this NPR interview with Lynda Lovejoy, a New Mexico state senator who potentially could be the Navajo nation’s first female president, to be particularly fascinating, mostly for what wasn’t discussed.
Lovejoy explained how she, like Hillary Clinton did during her presidential campaign, has encountered some sexism and antiquated ideas about women’s roles during her campaign.
Well, here on the reservation and probably in most reservations, you know, we’re always lagging behind. Women are primarily, although they may be in the council, the priority for most women at least are just taking care of families. Women are not eager to run for positions like the president, probably never really think about it and they enjoy their seats in the council. They are not that aggressive to climb to the highest office. So that’s always kind of been the attitude.
An Indian man before and after attending the Carlisle Boarding School
What was completely absent from the conversation was any acknowledgment of the pernicious effects Indian Boarding Schools had on tribal peoples’ ideas of gender roles.
I can’t claim to be an expert on traditional Navajo culture, but there were many tribes in which gender roles were far less rigid and defined than in European Christian society. Google “two-spirits”, and you’ll find a large body of scholarly work that examines the likelihood that some tribes had more than two genders. There’s also evidence that two-spirits were often considered to have special insight into the world and sometimes were raised to be shamans or healers.
One way boarding schools worked to destroy Indian culture was by inculcating young Indians with Christian ideas of what it meant to be a man and a woman. And, of course, these ideas, back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, were largely centered around the subjugation of women.
Flash forward to modern society, and now the implication in a story like this is that Indians lag behind in gender equality and Lovejoy’s campaign represents a step forward.
Like I said, I’m not an expert on Navajo traditions. But through a quick scan of the ever reliable wikipedia, I found that Navajo traditionally have a third gender called Nadle (meaning “one who is transformed” or “one who changes”).
So if the implication of this story is true (that a tribe seems to be slowly getting over its sexist hangups), it’s only because Christian society possibly stripped the Navajo of their more variegated and inclusive ideas of gender in the first place.
Stories like this worry me. Without the context of boarding schools and the other government policies that forcibly destroyed tribal cultures, media depictions can unintentionally reinforce negative stereotypes of modern Indian people.
Take the Winnemem, the tribe I live with. It was only 70 years ago that the Shasta Dam was built, flooded their village on the McCloud River and took away their main subsistence food, the salmon.
Caleen, the tribe’s chief and spiritual leader (also, by the way, a woman who followed another woman chief and spiritual leader), grew up in the midst of the chaos that followed, and even today, she says, “We’re still trying to figure out what normal is.”
For people like the Winnemem, we can’t begin to assess and analyze the way they live now without accounting for the staggering losses they’ve suffered in the very recent past.
As usual, history and context are everything, and it’s also what’s often missing in journalism.
Coleman is the only federal hatchery operated in California, and it’s also the closest to Tuiimyali, the Winnemem’s village. Established in 1942, it was meant to help mitigate the effects of the Shasta Dam on the California salmon populations, but, like many hatcheries, it’s success has been extremely limited.
(Ironically, the tribe the dam most devastated, the Winnemem, are not allowed to receive salmon from the hatchery after the fish have been harvested. Other tribes regularly receive 300-400 salmon at a time, and I was told the Redding Rancheria had just picked up a big load the day before.)
The artificial nature of hatcheries will always inevitably lead to muddied and weakened gene pools for the salmon that are released. After hatching and becoming recognizable as fish, the salmon are called smolts. In the natural world, they would wander their birth streams feeding on insects and small fish as they grow and prepare for their migration to the ocean.
At Coleman the smolts are confined in 150 by15-foot raceways where they feed on pellets that are dispersed by automated white cylinders above the water. The hatchery workers said these were installed so the smolts didn’t get in the habit of racing toward the shadows of their feeders, a habit that would serve them poorly in the wild.
They also exist in water that’s been ozonated, the use of ozone to clean the water of disease. This process also strips the water of oxygen, which must be re-introduced through another chemical reaction.
The spawning process is also remarkable to watch and difficult not to see as a form of cruelty. The returning salmon are doused in water rich in CO2 to drowse them and make them easy to handle, and then they’re clubbed over the head.
“We very humanely club them over the head,” the deputy project manager assured me as if clubbing something over the head after it’s been drugged could be anything but inhumane. I don’t want to bust his chops too much; he seemed like a good guy who cared about salmon and was trying to help.
Workers then twist the salmon, many of which weigh more than 30 pounds, to expel the milt and row, mixing the two in a plastic drawer.
There are myriad ways, large and small, that the hatchery process favors fish that wouldn’t naturally make it to the smolt stage, and it also ingrains them with bad behaviors and weakened fitness.
But I won’t belabor that point. Hatcheries like Coleman aren’t the root of the problem, they’re a symptom.
Like many problems facing our society, we have looked at the dying salmon populations and devised solutions in the very narrow context of the present.
Rather than trace the decline of salmon back to its roots (the widespread damming of rivers, the destruction of habitat from mining, etc.,), we’ve built hatcheries and tried methods that interfered with the status quo as little as possible.
No doubt that tearing down dams and restoring habitat is no easy proposition in California, where water equals might. But the hatcheries are a stark reminder of our hubris, and how badly we will fail if we try to mimic or replace nature’s original plan with our own short-sighted machinations.
The Shasta Dam, 600 feet tall, destroyed the McCloud salmon runs when it was built during World War II
“Why don’t they understand what keeps the rivers clean?”
Caleen, the spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu, asked me this last night as she drove us back to her village outside Redding.
We were returning from Sacramento where NOAA had held a public meeting to solicit input on its salmon restoration plan for California’s Central Valley. Only about 15 people attended, and Caleen and Mark, her husband and the tribe’s headman, were the only tribal people there.
The Winnemem spoke, in part, to try to build support for their unorthodox plan to return salmon to their river, the McCloud, by importing eggs from New Zealand’s Rakaia River salmon.
But the meeting was a frustrating experience for Caleen. NOAA’s lead coordinator for the project, Brian, showed graphs that depicted how the Pacific salmon populations had precipitously plunged over the past 50 years. Of the 18 historical wild salmon populations that once existed, only three remain.
“These are the patterns,” he said of the graph, “that are consistent with species that eventually go extinct.”
He said this matter-of-factly, and Caleen clenched her jaw and her eyes started to glisten.
When Caleen saw those graphs, she didn’t just see numbers. She saw her relatives dying. In the tribe’s genesis story, it was salmon that gave the Winnemem, mute and helpless at their birth, the ability to speak.
Brian continued to talk about NOAA’s plans to conduct cost-benefit analyses to validate the economic value of saving the salmon, and he also spoke about collaborating with power companies, water districts and other stakeholders. It was only so long before Caleen had to interject.
“How long do you think the salmon are going to wait for you?” she asked him, her voice shaking. “You’ve only got three salmon runs left, and people are dragging their feet. The creator put the salmon in the rivers for a reason.”
Caleen expected NOAA to have more power to force this plan into action and was disheartened it didn’t.
Later during the drive home, Mark was sleeping in the backseat, and Caleen posed her question to me, wondering why no one valued salmon’s vital role in upturning rocks, keeping the river clean and, after it dies, seeping back into the soil as nutrients.
“To be honest,” I told her. “Before I met the Winnemem, I just figured a river was clean if we didn’t dump any crap into it.”
Every St. Patrick's Day, the Chicago River is dyed green with unknown chemicals
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, a city with a river that was reversed to send sewage toward St. Louis. Chicago also used to dye the river green every St. Patrick’s Day with fluorescein, a chemical that’s been documented to cause many health ailments including sudden death from anaphylactic shock. Today, the city uses a secret formula it claims is safe.
The Winnemem revere the water and see it as living. They were, in their creation story, born from its womb, a bubbling spring on Mt. Shasta.
On the other hand, I come from a community that shows a lot of disrespect towards its water, a disrespect that stems from ignorance.
In the schools I attended, I learned next to nothing about hydrology, the importance of a clean river to the local ecosystem or even, as Caleen knows so inherently, what a clean river is supposed to resemble.
Before I moved to the West Coast, subconsciously the idea of a clean river was nearly a foreign concept to me. All the rivers I’d known were dirty, polluted and not much different, in my mind, than a roadway, a mode of transportation that could be painted green like we might paint a billboard.
Caleen has wondered why kids aren’t taught how many rivers in their state are polluted or how many dams there are. And it’s an intriguing question. I wonder how this lack of education plays a part in our widespread abuse of water, especially in California.
There is probably no resource more valuable and paradoxically treated and used with such recklessness. We’ve sucked up underground aquifers, flooded sacred lands with dams and reduced powerful rivers to a trickle. And we are all ignorant about the damage we’re causing not only to ecosystems, but to the supply of freshwater we need to survive.
Today, Oct. 15 is Blog Action Day, and bloggers across the world are blogging about water. My hope for today, and every day after, is for all of us to spend some time educating ourselves about our local waterways. Learn about the rivers or lakes in your community. Are there dams on that river? Are the flows anywhere close to where they’re supposed to be naturally? Have invasive species disrupted the river’s ecology?
These are questions that we should all have the answers to, and yet almost nothing has been invested in teaching us about water.
By 2025, the U.N. estimates that two-thirds of the world will be facing water scarcity, and it would be dangerous to assume this won’t apply to anyone in the United States.
So take some time today to learn about your water. It’s not only the Winnemem’s womb, but the world’s.
We can no longer afford to be so ignorant about something so precious.
On Oct. 11, Caleen gave a speech at the University of Oregon’s Many Nations Longhouse about the importance of salmon, water and water education.
This Monday, I accompanied Caleen Sisk-Franco and her husband Mark Franco (the Winnemem chief and headman respectively) to the University of Oregon’s Indigenous Solidarity Day, which was organized as an alternative to Columbus Day.
America is uniquely talented at bowdlerizing history so it more closely resembles myth, and the celebration of Columbus is one of the shining examples of this.
I’m no historian, but I think Columbus, like Captain Cook, is sometimes a little unfairly vilified. They were no angels, but they were men of their times and not nearly as horrible as the men who followed them.
But to celebrate him when his place in history is so complex and so closely tied to the genocide of North American indigenous people is unforgivable and inhumane.
Caleen joked how as a kid she kind of liked Columbus Day. “We got to make his three boats,” she noted.
Yet the failure to acknowledge the full history of Columbus and the genocide that followed must surely have an impact on Indian students, and it also clouds the understanding of non-Indian students.
Thus, I appreciated that Monday’s speakers focused on creating solidarity among all people, of allowing American Indian history to become part of “our” history.
We’re facing challenging times, and we’re going to need each other. And when it comes to solving our various environmental crises, we’re going to need to listen to people like Mark and Caleen.
Here’s a slightly edited version of Mark’s speech. He explains this much better than I ever could.
When Caleen Sisk-Franco first looked at old photographs depicting her tribe’s puberty ceremony, she was confused.
Waimem hugs her father and the Winnemem headman Mark Franco during the 2006 ceremony.
Because of persecution, boarding schools and the destruction of their sacred lands, it had been 70 years since her tribe, the Winnemem Wintu of Northern California, had practiced the Balas Chonas ceremony.
Still, Caleen, the tribe’s spiritual leader, knew her teenage daughter, Marine, was meant to swim to the other side of the McCloud River where she’d spend several days living in a cedar bark hut. She’d also make her first acorn soup, weave baskets and lay her prayers upon the sacred puberty rock.
But in the old pictures, she saw Winnemem warriors in their full regalia, carrying spears and bows. Why, she wondered, would the tribe need its warriors at such a peaceful ceremony?
She would soon understand their reasoning.
The US Forest Service, which owns the puberty rock site and runs it as a campground, refused to close down the river to boaters. And, during the 2006 ceremony, one group parked their houseboat a stone’s throw from the bark hut, and another boat of drunken revelers drifted past the Winnemem shouting obscenities as one woman flashed her breasts.
This weekend the Winnemem, an unrecognized tribe of about 125, will hold their second puberty ceremony, and the Forest Service is again unwilling to close down the river. Fear persists that another ugly scene will ensue.
The tribe’s continued inability to hold a peaceful puberty ceremony is evidence of the inefficacy of the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act, which, in theory, requires tribes have access to places integral to their cultural practices, such as the puberty rock. However, the act doesn’t provide tribes the ability to sue, which often leaves them at the whims of government agencies and private landowners.
The law doesn’t even apply to peoples like the Winnemem who aren’t federally recognized and, thus, not considered a true historic tribe. The Winnemem lost their recognition because of a bookkeeping error in the 80s, and, as the GAO has long lamented, the process to gain recognition now takes about 20 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars because of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ stifling bureaucracy.
The Winnemem are a poor, traditional tribe who don’t identify members based on blood quanta but on who follows their ways. For a people so steeped in their culture, their inability to hold their ceremonies and their lack of legal recourse threatens their very existence.
In their eyes, the Winnemem are staving off a once and future genocide, this latest campaign waged not by guns but by bureaucracy and blindly intractable policy.
I’ll be attending the ceremony with camera and notepad in tow, hoping the ceremony proceeds peacefully but ready to document any incidents.
The struggle I have is convincing editors, readers and the general public why they should care about this little tribe and their ceremony.
Some seem to believe traditional Indian cultures are basically extinct, others don’t understand how spirituality can be connected to geography.
We live in a society that isolates religion from the rest of its existence. Most of us attend service for an hour or two a week, check church off our to-do list and go on with our lives.
For the Winnemem, their spirituality permeates their lives, and, unlike a Catholic who can attend mass at any church around the country, their ceremonies are inextricably tied to sacred places like the puberty rock. Without the sacred places, there are no Winnemem.
Our human rights protections are woefully inadequate when it comes to protecting people like the Winnemem, and people, like me, who are used to drive-through spirituality, are woefully unprepared to understand the Winnemem’s way of life. I’m still struggling to understand it myself.
The last puberty ceremony was more than anything a black mark on our human rights record that needs to be atoned.
But it was also representative of our country’s lack of respect and value for culture.
Cultural diversity, a Yakama man once told me, is as important and valuable as biodiversity, and he’s right.
America’s greatest attribute is its cultural diversity, and yet we have this schizophrenic relationship with it. We celebrate it in discourse, but in practice we actively work to destroy it.
We castigate immigrants that speak their own language or fail to act “American” enough. My own last name was changed from Dagdigian to Dadigan, likely because my Armenian grandfather’s family felt ashamed of its ethnic origin. Our education system does little to empower students to learn and practice their culture, and the growing spread of standardized schooling will likely only accelerate this.
In addition to this, the Winnemem were victims of draconian government policies as well as the Shasta Dam that flooded their village and many of their sacred places.
Not only do they, and people like them, deserve our support as they try to sustain and revitalize their cultures, but we need to understand the value we can find from them, especially from their knowledge of water and environmental issues.
They see through a lot of patchwork environmentalism, see how we try to repair a rip in nature’s tapestry by tearing a piece from somewhere else. We would do well to pay them heed.
Back in 2006, Marine couldn’t pray to the puberty rock because of the dam. The high waters of the reservoir had submerged it, so instead she dove deep beneath surface and briefly laid her hand against it as, above her, milky sunlight filigreed across the river.
It’s an image that’s etched in my mind, an image that made me want to write about the Winnemem in the first place.
We’re a country that’s used to conflating courage with war and violence. But for Marine the simple laying down of a traditional Winnemem prayer was an act of profound courage.
When I first read that the Springfield Municipal Jail was asking for volunteers to test out its new facility, I immediately emailed the editor at the local paper, the Register-Guard. For whatever reason, the idea of spending the night behind bars was extremely alluring to me, and apparently the same was true for hundreds of Springfield residents.
Why is that?
As a full-time graduate student, I couldn’t delve into this question as much as I’d have liked to. But I did come across studies by academics who looked at jail tourism sites like Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in Alcatraz) and Alcatraz. Maybe our fascination with jails harkens back to images of old Westerns and outlaws being reeled in by roguish Sheriffs. Whatever the case, the authors found that staff at these exhibits were doing a better job of discussing the realities of daily prison life as well as how the prison industrial complex has had, at best, a questionable affect on society.
The volunteer inmates at the jail didn’t get such a nuanced view. The theme of the night, pounded home again and again, was that the jail would be a pretty miserable place to stay, a place where there was nothing to do but to sit and think about what you’d done.
What wasn’t mentioned was that, as a misdemeanor jail, it would be housing criminals accused of pretty minor offenses. The police chief argued that many of those caught committing minor crimes were probably on their way to committing felonies, if they hadn’t already. I wonder what others think of this line of reasoning.
Also, about half of inmates at jails across the country are technically innocent. Many are waiting to go before a judge, while others are waiting for trial because they couldn’t afford bail.
The police say having such a draconian jail will make criminals think twice, but I can’t imagine a car burglar about to bust open a passenger window suddenly stopping and saying to himself, “Wait a second. There’s no cable at the Springfield jail! I’ll miss South Park! I better rethink these life decisions I’m making!”
If I had more time, I would have liked to discuss these issues with the other men in Pod C. Over the course of the night, I think we were all still absorbing everything. I wonder if any have been left with the same lingering questions I have.
Excerpt from the story:
“. . . The door is slammed shut, and it clangs with a sickening, plangent thud. Morphew flinches ever so slightly.
Overall, there’s a palpable sense of excitement that pervades the air.
Many of the Pod C guys admit that previous to tonight, they had images of dusty Old West jails swimming in their brains. There’s something almost romantic about spending the night behind bars, standing in the place of John Dillinger or Babyface Nelson.
But there is nothing romantic about Pod C. It’s devoid of color. While daylight supposedly seeps in through the window and grated hole high in the ceiling, mostly it’s just you under the harsh fluorescent lights in a sprawling room of sharp right angles and hard metal. . .”
I'm a freelance writer and multimedia reporter currently based in Redding, CA, where I'm living with the Winnemem Wintu tribe and working on a book about their struggle for cultural survival, their spiritually centered salmon habitat restoration plan and their advocacy for water conservation. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.