The Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who has struggled with the U.S. Forest Service since 2005 to protect their Coming of Age ceremonies from public interference, announced May 4 plans to hold a War Dance to defend their ceremony.
Spiritual Leader and Tribal Chief Caleen Sisk said the tribe decided to hold the War Dance (H’up Chonas in Winnemem) after the latest plea to the Forest Service appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
On April 16, the federally unrecognized tribe of 125 from Northern California protested outside the Forest Service Office in Vallejo, California, where they met with Regional Forester Randy Moore and asked him to respond by May 1 to their request for a mandatory river closure during the four-day ceremony for 16-year-old Marisa Sisk this summer.
The ceremonies are held on the McCloud Arm of Shasta Lake in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and in previous years, drunken recreational boaters have ignored the Forest Service’s voluntary closure and have taunted the tribe with racial slurs, flashed them with naked breasts and dumped cremated remains in the river.
Caleen said the Forest Service had not contacted the tribe since the April 16 protest, and the tribe has decided this means no good news is forthcoming.
"I am saddened that Moore does not have the courage to do what's right," Caleen said through the tribe’s press release. "We lost all our land when they built Shasta Dam, and now all we want is four days of peace and dignity for our ceremony, which is vital to the social fabric of our tribe. A peaceful ceremony is our right, and we are not accepting anything short of that."
On Wednesday, Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region Press Officer John Heil wrote by e-mail that the agency was “looking at every option possible” and that their response was taking longer than anticipated. The tribe, he wrote, has to be federally recognized to use provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill that allow the Forest Service to close National Forest land for American Indian ceremonies.
Forest Service officials have previously said a federally recognized tribe could close the river on the Winnemem’s behalf, but the Winnemem have rejected this proposal because it could set a precedent that another tribe would have authority over their sacred sites, Caleen said.
No date or place was specified for the upcoming War Dance in the tribe’s press release, though Caleen said it will occur before the ceremony, which is scheduled for the first full moon of July. Marisa Sisk is training to be the tribe’s next leader, and, thus, Caleen said, it’s even more vital there be no disruptions.
The tribe last performed a War Dance in 2004 in protest against a proposal to raise the Shasta Dam, which would submerge or damage numerous Winnemem Wintu sacred sites. When the Shasta Dam was constructed during World War II, the Winnemem Wintu were removed from their homes on the McCloud River, and hundreds of sacred sites were submerged beneath Shasta Lake, Sisk said.
According to the tribe’s press release, the War Dance signifies “a commitment to a spiritual and physical resistance to threats to the tribe's culture. It means the Winnemem are willing to die to protect their tribal way of life.”