For thousands of years, Winnemem Wintu once lived at their village of Kaibai along the flats of the then powerful McCloud River outside Redding in Northern California.
The tribe harvested bountiful Chinook salmon from the river, gathered acorns from an oak grove they nurtured and preened, and they prayed and practiced traditional healing at hundreds of sacred sites located within the McCloud River watershed.
One of these sites, Blessing Hands Rock, is a stone’s throw from Kaibai, and generations regularly prayed there by putting their hands in the smooth craters at the top of the elephantine stone.
In return for their prayers, the spirit beings that inhabit the rock bless their hands and their crafts, from regalia making and healing the sick to making acorn soup and grinding medicines.
Today, the Winnemem Wintu, who now number only 125, can only pray to Blessing Hands Rock every few years and have to brave the freezing winter waters of the McCloud to do so.
When the 602-foot Shasta Dam was constructed during World War II, the Winnemem Wintu were removed from their homes along the McCloud River to clear the path for Shasta Lake, the dam’s reservoir, which flooded hundreds of sacred places and 26 miles of the lower McCloud.
Blessing Hands Rock and Kaibai are located in an area known as the McCloud Arm of Shasta Lake, where the river and the reservoir meet. Depending on fluctuating rainfall and water releases from the dam, Blessing Hands Rock can be submerged for years at a time.
Yet when it does appear, as it did on New Year’s Day, the Winnemem’s young men have developed a tradition of jumping into the glacial water (below 60 degrees in the summer) and swimming out to the rock for a prayer.
The tribe’s January 1 encounter with the sacred rock became especially meaningful when a preliminary environmental impact and feasibility report on raising the Shasta Dam was released about a month later. The Bureau of Reclamation, which built the dam and released the report, concluded raising the dam by 18.5 feet at an estimated $1.07 billion would be economically “feasible.”
A raise of this height would almost permanently flood an additional mile of the McCloud River, including Blessing Hands Rock and several sacred places near the Kaibai village. In all, the tribe estimates at least 40 sacred sites, village sites and medicinal plant gather places would be submerged or damaged by the raise.
The bureau’s report states the dam raise is needed to stabilize water storage for agriculture and urban use as well as provide cold water for salmon spawning habitat in the Sacramento River downstream.
Environmental groups and the Winnemem counter the benefits for salmon would be minimal and that the estimated average annual yield of 125,000 to 146,000 acre-feet of extra water is not worth the expense. In an average year, more than 43 million acre-feet of water is used to irrigate California agriculture, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Because the Winnemem are federally unrecognized, their voice carries the same weight as any other interest group, from kayakers to fishing clubs. The tribe has begun an ambitious Global Positioning System mapping project to document their endangered sites and raise awareness about the dam’s threat to their culture, Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk said.
In 2004, the Winnemem Wintu held a H’up Chonas, a war dance, at the dam to protest the proposal to raise the dam, and Sisk said the tribe won’t give up.
“There is no justification for flooding us twice,” she said. “We have a right to be Winnemem, to have our ceremonies and to pray to our sacred places. They shouldn’t be allowed to take that from us.”
Blessing Hands Rock is just one of more than 40 sacred sites that is threatened by the possible raising of Shasta Dam. Watch this video to learn about others and see two tribal members brave the cold river to pray at Blessing Hands Rock: