For months, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe campaigned to pressure the U.S. Forest Service to provide a 400-yard closure of the McCloud River to protect 16-year-old Marisa Sisk’s July Coming of Age Ceremony from hecklers and harassment.
The closure was eventually granted, but one issue between the tribe and Forest Service was the language of the potential order itself. At a June 17 meeting, Caleen Sisk, chief and spiritual leader of the small, unrecognized tribe from Northern California, beseeched Regional Forester Randy Moore to consult with the tribe on the closure order.
“I’m reluctant to sign anything that adds to the problem of us being law breakers” to hold ceremony, she said.
Moore assured that closure orders were straight forward, and with the ceremony two weeks away, there was too little time for a consultation.
“How could it possibly make you a lawbreaker, Caleen?” he asked.
Sisk’s concerns proved prescient. On September 24 she received the notice for an October 16 appearance in federal court regarding the two citations she received in July for operating a motorboat within the ceremony’s closure order, which carry a $10,000 fine or a year in prison.
In previous Coming of Age ceremonies, the tribe has used a boat to ferry elders, some of whom are disabled, across the river for ceremonial purposes, but the closure order prohibited the use of all motorboats. Because the closure order was issued by the Forest Service without the tribe’s input, it did not include an exemption for the tribe’s boats.
The order was meant to protect the tribe’s ceremony from outsiders, and should not have been used against them, Sisk said.
Sisk said she plans to plead not guilty and because she cannot afford the fine, she will likely face prison time if she loses.
“It showed a real lack of cooperation and a lack of respect for tribal traditions,” Sisk said of the lack of consultation. “Now, if I go to jail for a year, they’re punishing a whole group of people who won’t have their spiritual leader and won’t be able to hold their ceremonies the way that they should.”
The letter with the closure order was delivered to Sisk on June 21 by Frank Ramirez, the national director for governmental affairs for the National American Indian Veterans, said Southwest Pacific Region Press Officer John Heil.
“Out of respect for the ceremony, we did not issue the citations until after the ceremony was complete,” he added.
The tribe’s lawyer Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Oregon, said some exemptions do exist for other types of closure orders on National Forest land. She said U.S. Forest Service officials had assured them ahead of time the tribe’s boat wouldn’t be an issue.
Law enforcement officers interrupted the four-day ceremony multiple times to question the tribe about their boat, at one point threatening to tow it and encroaching near important sacred sites. At one point, tribal members and supporters gathered on board the boat ready to be arrested to keep the boat within the ceremonial grounds.
Though the boat wasn’t towed, Sisk was given two citations for using the boat on the last day of the ceremony, when Marisa swam across the river to finalize her transition to womanhood.
When asked why she refused to ask tribal members to simply paddle the boat across the river, Sisk replied: “If I don’t stand my ground, and if I don’t hold the ceremonies the way they should be, then I’m allowing them to slowly strip us of our identity bit by bit,” she said. “They have no right to regulate our ceremony.”