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Grassroots River Closure, Coordinated Boater Harassment Highlight Winnemem Wintu’s War Dance

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Spangled with duct-tape lettering and weighed down by milk jugs filled with water, the banner reading “River Closed” was strung across the McCloud River on May 26 far higher than any boat and cast against mountains that were veiled in cloud shadow.

Watching from the shore Caleen Sisk, chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu from Northern California, turned to infant Satayvah, one of the newest tribal members, who was being held by her father Rob Wilson, a Winnemem War Dancer.

“This is for you, Satayvah,” Sisk said, playfully clasping the baby’s little fist. “This is for you and all the future generations of Winnemem women.”

Since 2005, the Winnemem Wintu, a deeply traditional tribe of 125, have struggled with the U.S. Forest Service to implement a mandatory closure of 400 yards of the McCloud Arm of Shasta Lake, a tiny corner of nearly 370 miles of shoreline for their young women’s Coming of Age ceremonies. The Forest Service can only close the river for a federally recognized tribe, according to federal law, and the Winnemem lost their recognition due to a bureaucratic error in the mid-1980s.

“Voluntary closures” in the 2006 and 2010 ceremonies led to the tribe being harassed by recreational boaters.

Feeling they had run out of options to get the river closure, the Winnemem Wintu held a War Dance May 24 – 27 at the Coming of Age Ceremony site where tribal activists, environmental justice activists and Occupy movement members helped the tribe enforce their own closure.

Unfortunately, the euphoria from the closure quickly gave way to actions that have marred previous ceremonies at the site.

On May 27, just as the tribe was about to complete their final dance of the ceremony, a fleet of seven motor boats and three jet skies motored back and forth through the ceremony site at speeds greater than the 5 mph speed limit, flipped off tribal members, stared down young women holding infants and did doughnuts near the tribe’s sacred sites.

“It was pretty much about as racist as you can get without going to jail or being violent,” said 25-year-old Winnemem War Dancer Arron Sisk.

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“I was angry about it,” said 17-year-old Nick Wilson, who was flipped off by one of the jet skiers. “I wouldn’t go into a church and yell and make noise like that. It really didn’t belong in our ceremony.”

Another tribal member, Doug Scholfield had previous talked to the boaters about avoiding the ceremony area, and he, like the rest of the tribe, believed it was clearly an organized, pre-meditated act, he said.

Sisk said that about 10 Forest Service law enforcement officers and a leashed K-9 were quick to descend on the ceremony when they raised the banner, but were nowhere to be found when the boaters aggressively invaded their ceremony space. A volunteer crew aboard a Coast Guard auxiliary boat also instructed recreational boaters to ignore the closure and proceed through the ceremony, tribal members said.

It was this sort of aggression the tribe has long sought to avoid as seen by the tribe’s picketed efforts at the local U.S. Forest Services office in Vallejo, California on April 16. Due to the lack of a response from that day, the tribe decided to hold it’s first War Dance since 2004 – that dance protested the proposal to raise the Shasta Dam.

The War Dance, tribal members said, is their way of turning to the spiritual realm for guidance and to show they are willing to do whatever it takes to protect the Coming of Age ceremonies.

According to John Heil, Pacific Southwest Region Press Officer for the U.S. Forest Services, Regional Forester Randy Moore’s office is looking into possible solutions, but would not venture into detail of any of them, stating the tribe would be contacted once Moore made a decision.

Despite the incident at the end of the ceremony, Sisk said the tribe believes the War Dance was a success.

This year’s Coming of Age celebrant is Sisk’s niece, 16-year-old Marisa, who is training to be the next chief.

Almost immediately after putting up the banner, an eagle chasing a fish-bearing osprey appeared and swooped above the waterway to the cheers of the tribe and their supporters.

“The eagle and the osprey are the kind of signs we want to be sure Marisa sees. They wouldn’t have come out if a houseboat was barreling through the ceremony,” Caleen said.