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.
Now juxtapose that display above with this audio slideshow I produced for Indian Country Today.
Or with this Sacred Land Film Project short film about the Winnemem Wintu’s sacred spring on Mt. Shasta.
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.
3. Writers, filmmakers, etc., believe they can write about tribal history without consulting or talking to the tribal people who are alive today. The controversy that erupted when playwright John Fisher’s Ishi play debuted at Berkeley is a good example of this.
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.