There was 183 of them—recently deceased Winnemem Wintu relatives resting beneath the banks of the McCloud River, wrapped in deerskin and buried in a sitting position, facing Mt. Shasta, the genesis place of their people.
But their journey home would be painfully interrupted by the Shasta Dam.
From February through March of 1942, a season known in Northern California for periods of torrential rain, Florence Jones and the few able-bodied Winnemem men who weren’t at war were forced to do the unthinkable—break all traditional taboos, disturb the graves and move them before they were flooded by the construction of a 602-foot dam.
Federal records show Jones, who later became an internationally renowned medicine woman and spiritual leader, had to give approval to federal contractors to remove the burials of her mother, father and 3-year-old son. Because the graves were unmarked and they had less than a month, Jones had to help dig up her own relatives, said Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk, who was trained by Jones.
“Nobody had done this before. There was nothing in place to deal with digging up these graves spiritually, and (Jones) had to create a process,” said Sisk. “It was traumatic.”
From September 15-21 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the construction of the dam, which is the crown jewel of the Central Valley Project, the mammoth water infrastructure project that transformed California into one of the biggest industrial farming economies in the world.
But not mentioned among the bureau’s festivities of fun runs and car shows are the costs of the dam to the Winnemem Wintu whose lost lands and lost salmon runs remain unresolved injustices.
The Shasta Reservoir Indian Cemetery in the City of Shasta Lake, where the 183 Winnemem burials were moved, remains a potent symbol of these lingering scars, said Sheldeen Wilcutt, a relative of many Winnemem Wintu, including Sisk.
“It’s a wound that never heals,” said Wilcutt, who spent more than a decade volunteering to maintain the cemetery. “No (agency) ever took responsibility for it, and now the cemetery has been a problem for all these different generations.”
The cemetery is nestled on a rocky hill between a residential neighborhood and some train tracks, and in the decades that followed its hasty creation, federal agencies have played bureaucratic hot potato with who had jurisdiction over the land, which has led to a lack of oversight and confusion as to whether it’s even legal to bury there.
Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Officer Pete Lucero said his agency still has responsibility for the maintenance of the cemetery, and that it is considered an active, legal cemetery.
He said the bureau has not received any requests for burials recently, and that it is not designated for a particular tribe.
However, burials have regularly occurred there, largely because the Winnemem and other tribes remain unclear about who’s in charge.
During the initial stages of dam construction, federal officials realized their plan of buying up Winnemem Wintu allotment lands on the McCloud River for the reservoir wouldn’t work because the heirs either refused to sell or couldn’t be found, according to federal records.
Thus, the 1941 Indian Lands Acquisition Act was pushed through Congress, which allowed the bureau to simply pay the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the allotments and also authorized the Indian cemetery to be held in trust for the “appropriate tribe” and their family members.
However, the act didn’t specify which agency would oversee the cemetery, and in a 1958 letter from bureau officials to BIA officials seeking clarification, they state that the assumption is the BIA maintains the trust responsibility. There is apparently no record of any BIA response.
In 1981, with the jurisdiction still unsettled, the bureau relinquished about 70 acres surrounding the Indian cemetery to the Bureau of Land Management, according to a 2004 BLM letter to the Winnemem Wintu.
Many Winnemem Wintu and members of other Wintu tribes who have relatives buried remain unsure as to whether it’s technically legal to bury the dead on BLM land, if it in fact now had jurisdiction. As of 2006, a letter from the Department of Interior to the Winnemem verified only that it was held in trust by the DOI, and that BLM would help maintain it until the jurisdictional issue could be resolved.
Local BLM officials had long worked with Wilcutt on the cemetery, but they said, they have been told to stop assisting at the cemetery. Having once spent about 40 hours a year, cleaning the cemetery for Memorial Day, she would sometimes connect with bureau employees at the dam for assistance, but there never seemed to be anyone assigned to help with the cemetery.
“The (Bureau of Reclamation) hasn’t done anything as far as I know, no policy or anything, no cemetery officer or anything like they have with the veterans,” Wilcutt said. “So many people have no idea of the history, and that broken spirit about the cemetery and now we have these fights over which tribes can bury here.”
The territory of the Winnemem Wintu, one of several California-recognized Wintu tribes, includes the submerged areas where the original remains were removed from the McCloud River, and they state they are clearly the “appropriate tribe” that is named in the 1941 Act. Most tribal members are descendants of the Winnemem buried in the original cemetery plots.
But with the lack of oversight, conflicts among tribes and families about burials continue to arise.
“I attribute the discord to the way the government left it uncompleted, and they’ve had a hands-off policy for a long time,” said Jill Ward, Winnemem Wintu tribal member, who tried to help organize meetings about the cemetery in the early 2000s. “Those meetings were difficult because everyone feels like it’s their cemetery, and these families have grown and expanded so much.”
Ward thinks the families could hash an agreement if the government helped facilitate a discussion and resolution, but she said bureau officials told her in the early 2000s that they’d need to exchange land for the cemetery, buy it outright or find a legislative solution—a tall order since all the Wintu tribes have almost no land or funding because they’re federally unrecognized.
Many of the Winnemem Wintu believe the federal government behavior with the cemetery relates to the tribe’s federally unrecognized status and the bureau’s plan to raise the Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet. Sisk said acknowledging the federal government established a cemetery in trust for the Winnemem could bolster their case to be recognized via a technical correction, strengthening their opposition to the dam raise, which would flood or damage about 40 sacred sites.
“We are the aboriginal people from this place. We have our chief, our sacred sites and our tribal ways,” said Winnemem Wintu elder Betti Comas, who’s mother was pregnant with her when she was forced to leave her home on the McCloud River in 1944 to make way for the Shasta Dam’s reservoir. “Our lives would have been so different if we kept that land. I probably wouldn’t have spent my childhood being forced to be someone I wasn’t.”
Comas’ mother had nowhere to go and had to live in a tent, and Comas said she was never compensated for the lost lands. Federal records show that the bureau sent the BIA a check for a little more than $46,000 for 28 Winnemem allotments on the McCloud even though cartography studies have shown at least 72 were located in the reservoir area.
It’s also unclear how many Winnemem actually received payments from the BIA. While investigating whether the tribe should receive like lands as compensation, a federal Indian Agent wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs: “It is our feeling that such a program would stand little chance of being even partly successful. The interests of many of the Shasta County Indians would be served better if they would leave the county entirely.”
While Lucero said that bureau officials reached out to the Winnemem and another Wintu tribes to seek their participation in the 75th anniversary, but the Winnemem didn’t reply and the Wintu declined.
But the mere act of framing it as a celebration, said Sisk, makes them wonder if the federal government’s attitudes toward them have changed since the dam building days.