At the old Winnemem Wintu village of Kaibai, which lines the emerald waters of the McCloud River Arm of Shasta Lake in Northern California, a trio of sacred sites cast a “mist” of spiritual energy during the tribe’s Coming of Age ceremonies for their young women, says Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk.
The ursine Children’s Rock rises up along the eastern banks, a gentle and solitary giant among the verdant flats. Young tribal members are inevitably drawn to clamber up and down the rock during ceremonies as it serves as their introduction to the tribe’s “family” of prayer rocks.
On the opposite shore, the young women celebrating their ceremony live in traditional bark huts for four days near the scabrous and moccasin-shaped Puberty Rock, where Sisk teaches them to grind traditional medicines and teas in its spherical mortars.
High above the site looms Two Sisters Mountain, topped by a rocky crest, where two female spirits impart their teachings to the ceremony celebrants, especially about relationships with men.
“The sacred isn’t just contained in the rocks,” Sisk says. “It’s the energies that surround it and the spirit beings attached to it. It’s all these sacred places working together that bring us good blessings.”
In 2006 and 2010, the federally unrecognized, but deeply traditional tribe of 123 has seen the spiritual mist of their ceremony crudely punctured by recreational boaters who have motored through the site, which is now a U.S. Forest Service campground. They shouted racial slurs such as “Fat Indians” and “It’s our river too, Dude!,” one woman drunkenly flashed her naked breasts at the tribe, and another man dumped cremated remains in the water just before the celebrants’ ceremonial swim across the river, which represents their passage into womanhood.
The Forest Service has long said it can’t close the half-mile stretch of river, part of nearly 365 miles of Shasta Lake coastline, because the tribe is federally unrecognized.
Frustrated by being ignored and desperate because this summer’s ceremony is for the next chief, the tribe has staged protests, a War Dance, and waged a successful social media campaign to secure a closure of the ceremonial site. This could also be their last Coming of Age ceremony with Puberty and Children’s Rocks if a current federal proposal to raise the Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet is realized. The raise would almost permanently submerge the rocks (and another estimated 40 sacred sites) under dozens of feet of water. One of which is Blessing Hands Rock, where generations of Winnemem Wintu have regularly prayed by putting their hands in the smooth craters at the top of the elephantine stone.
After two tense meetings with the tribe and flood of emails and calls from the Winnemem’s supporters, Regional Forester Randy Moore announced Thursday, June 21, that he had finally agreed to close the river.
However, the closure was justified for health and safety reasons rather than religious reasons (something Sisk finds degrading), included a permit that would ban ceremonial activities like gathering wood for the sacred fire and would not include a land closure. In the past, disruptions have occurred when fisherman have wandered near the bark huts by walking down a path from a nearby parking lot.
Sisk has been fasting and praying for the past week in hopes the Forest Service will fully recognize the tribe’s rights under the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to hold a ceremony, which begins June 30, in complete privacy, she said.
“On the fourth day of my fast, I was putting rocks down on the dance grounds, and an eagle came down and circled over head,” she said. “To me, that meant we were on the right path, and the time of constantly compromising our religion for their silly rules has to stop. We are the indigenous people from here, and we have the right to continue our way of life.”
Today marks the last day of the National Sacred Places Prayer Days, an annual event to raise awareness of the struggles American Indians who are engaged in legal battles with federal agencies that can endanger or destroy Native sacred places. Between the disrupting boaters during sacred ceremonies or the raising of the Shasta Dam, the sacred area along the McCloud River is one of many areas in danger.