Federal court officials decided Monday, October 15 to dismiss the citations issued to Caleen Sisk, Winnemem Wintu Tribe chief and spiritual leader, for the tribe’s use of a motorboat during their Coming of Age Ceremony this July in Northern California.
Sisk was scheduled to appear in federal court today, October 16, where she planned to plead not guilty to the citations, which carry a penalty of up to a year in prison or $10,000 in fines.
Sisk said the U.S. Forest Service, which issued the citations, didn’t have evidence to convict her, as officials had told her the boat wouldn’t be an issue before the ceremony.
“It feels unjustified that they could drag us through an ordeal like this, and then just drop it like it’s a game,” Sisk said. “Because this caused us a lot of high stress, and there is a whole effort of mobilization for trying to defend ourselves.”
U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers cited Sisk for allegedly violating the river closure order, which was intended to secure the safety of the tribe, when the Winnemem ferried elders across the McCloud River. One citation was for violating the closure order, and the other was for violating the ceremony special use permit, which required the tribe not to break other federal regulations.
“This district is 87,000 square miles and 45 percent is federal land. As you can imagine, we receive many misdemeanor citations from the national parks, forests and other federal land. Declining to prosecute is a fairly common occurrence,” said Lauren Horwood, public information officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of California.
Even though the charges were dismissed, the tribe and about 70 Native and non-Native supporters still rallied outside the courthouse in Redding as planned, protesting the citations as a form of harassment and violation of indigenous rights, Sisk said. More than 1,300 people also signed a Change.org petition created by the tribe, urging that the district attorneys not prosecute Sisk.
After suffering harassment and heckling from recreational boaters at previously ceremonies, which are held at sacred sites located on the McCloud River in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the Winnemem and supporters campaigned for several months to get the Forest Service to close the river this year. The Forest Service had previously refused to close the river because the Winnnemem are a federally unrecognized tribe.
On June 21, USFS announced it would close the river for the safety of the ceremony, but failed to include language in the closure order allowing the tribe’s boat, as requested by Sisk.
Forest Service officials have previously declined to comment as to why they didn’t include the exemption in the closure order. They previously said they did give plenty of warnings ahead of time that they would cite the tribe if they used the boat, and they waited till after the ceremony to issue the citations out of respect.
Sisk said it appears another young tribal woman will be going through the ceremony next July, and she’s now uncertain how to proceed.
“I thought the closure was the right way to go about this,” she said. “But the Forest Service ended up using the closure against us. Now I’m not sure what to do.”