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Winnemem Wintu sues for destruction of cultural sites

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – It began with a War Dance ceremony first launched against the federal government five years ago for its proposal to raise the Shasta Dam.

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe declared that raising the dam would flood their remaining sacred sites, including Puberty Rock where coming-of-age ceremonies are performed. They opened their ceremony to reporters and drew international attention.

This time, on the banks of the American River April 19, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe danced in the start of what may be a long legal battle with the federal government to formally address centuries of injustice to their people and homeland in Shasta County.

The War Dancers had begun fasting three days prior and prayed until the following day, when a few dozen of the 120-member tribe marched through the state capital to draw attention to the lawsuit they had filed to address their forced removal from their ancestral land on the McCloud and lower Pit rivers and subsequent destruction of cultural sites.

“The principle goal of the entire lawsuit is to give the tribe a voice at the table” when considering proposed government projects, said Jayne Fleming, Pro Bono Counsel and Human Rights Team Leader at Reed Smith LLP, which filed the lawsuit on their behalf. “In dealing with the Winnemem Wintu, the defendants have blatantly ignored and violated these requirements, and they continue to do so, to the detriment of the tribe’s history and culture.”

On April 20, male dancers in traditional feathered headdresses and female singers in white buckskin dresses walked quietly from Old Sacramento, which maintains the look of a gold miner’s village, to a stretch of lawn adjacent to the immense capital building.

Winnemem Headman Mark Franco smiled as he stood before Miwok, Pit River, Hoopa and other Native and non-Native supporters beneath the oak trees that had sustained the Valley Miwok, Shonommey and Maidu tribes for centuries, before European settlers turned the region into a major Gold Rush distribution point.

Franco pointed out the bare feet and moccasins in the soft soil and the cool respite the trees provided during a surprising heat wave. “This is where we need to be,” he said, before detailing the history of the state’s unfulfilled promises to hundreds of tribes.

“This is the state of the unratified treaty. They continue to claim we don’t exist.”

The Winnemem’s lawsuit was filed against six federal agencies and two current heads of federal agencies. It alleges that their actions have resulted in the “destruction or damage” of the Winnemem’s sacred cultural sites. The tribe is also seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and monetary damages.

Caleen Sisk-Franco, the tribe’s spiritual leader, spoke of President Barack Obama’s recent statements about the Cuban people’s right to justice.

“The change in Washington needs to include us – the good justice needs to reach all California Indians. What has happened to us is a repeat all over the state.”

The Winnemem were one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit won against the federal government that challenged an opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service (under the Bush administration) that concluded proposed state and federal government water operations would not jeopardize salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon populations.

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The tribe has long led Central Valley battles to restore collapsing salmon populations and the California Delta, and has also spoken out against a proposal to build a peripheral canal to export more water out of an endangered estuary. The Winnemem also want to reintroduce the McCloud River’s native strain of Chinook salmon, which have been blocked since the 1940s because of the construction of Shasta Dam.

Their recent lawsuit has won the support of at least two powerful legislators – California Assembly Members Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael and Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, who both spoke at the rally April 20.

“We have a new congress and a new administration and it’s time to start a new discussion,” said Huffman, the author of AJR 39, which supports the restoration of the Winnemem’s federal recognition that was inexplicably removed in the 1980s.

The bill was passed by the Assembly and signed by the governor last year.

Huffman also spoke of the beauty of the Winnemem’s ancestral homeland along the McCloud and lower Pit rivers, and said he stood in solidarity with their battle to preserve the once pristine region where the tribe still holds ceremonies and uses healing pools.

“It’s time to try to right a historic injustice.”

Ma shared her support for the Winnemem’s battle, and reminded the crowd of the lack of federal recognition of most tribal members in California.

“Only 38,000 tribal members are recognized in California, while 400,000 tribal members still aren’t. It’s important the federal government bring you the dignity and justice that you deserve. You were living here before us.”

Sisk-Franco said the federal government’s determination of who the federally recognized tribes in California should be is now being influenced by debates around Indian gaming.

While the tribe respects the rights of gaming tribes, it does not want a casino, she said.

“Federal recognition of our tribe will strengthen our position by establishing formal government-to-government relations between our tribe and the federal government. It will allow us to take advantage of resources to do scientific studies, such as those necessary to reintroduce Chinook salmon to the McCloud River. By keeping us unrecognized, the government is holding us in a handicapped position.”

Lack of federal recognition has led to devastating consequences, she said. For one, unrecognized tribes like the Winnemem aren’t protected under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and other state and federal laws that protect federally recognized tribes.

“Our struggle is to be just who we are.”