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.
LO RES War Dance 10 Jamie Ward 270×405 Grassroots River Closure, Coordinated Boater Harassment Highlight Winnemem Wintu’s War Dance
Winnemem Wintu War Dancer Jamie Ward approaches the sacred fire. The tribe’s normal dance ground at the site was underwater due to water releases from the nearby Shasta Dam. In order to dance, the tribe raked and dug out a new dance ground by clearing invasive blackberry bushes. The Forest Service Law Enforcement officers threatened to cite the tribe for digging the new dance ground, but ultimately didn’t. If a proposal to raise the Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet is realized, the ceremony site would most likely be permanently submerged. (Marc Dadigan)
“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.