Outside the towering, gray walls of the U.S. Forest Service’s office in Vallejo, California, April 16, the Winnemem Wintu’s War Dance song pealed out defiantly from nearly 50 tribal members and supporters who held signs reading “Respect Native Women. Close the River” and “Our Ceremony, Our Rights, Close the River.”
Inside, Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk, wearing a traditional basket hat and a wreath of dentalia necklaces, waited to speak with the regional Forester – the one and only official she believed could save her tribe’s upcoming ceremony from disaster.
Beside her stood her 16-year-old niece Marisa Sisk, a shy but playful tomboy who wore her own basket hat along with her trademark Air Jordans and voluminous basketball shorts. Marisa is training to be the next leader of the small Northern California tribe of 125 and is scheduled to have her Coming of Age ceremony this summer, a vital rite in her development as a Winnemem woman and as a future chief.
But the nearly two-year conflict with the Forest Service to secure a four-day closure of 300 yards of river to protect Marisa’s ceremony from public harassment has led to another sort of baptism for the teenager, that of the Winnemem’s struggles as a federally unrecognized tribe.
Forest Service officials say they can legally close the river only for a federally recognized tribe, and the Winnemem have delayed Marisa’s ceremony, fearing it will be disrupted by the same vulgar disturbances that have marred the previous two ceremonies within the tribe’s ancestral territory along the McCloud River.
Ignoring voluntary closures, recreational boaters have motored through the ceremony site, now a Forest Service campground, some swilling beer and yelling racial slurs like “Fat Indians!” or disruptive taunts like “It’s our river too, dude!” In 2006, a drunken woman flashed the tribe with her naked breasts, and in 2010 a boater dumped cremations in the river shortly before a ceremonial swim.
“Without a river closure, it’s really scary for us to be out there with the boats and the booze,” said Marine Sisk, 20, who celebrated her own Coming of Age ceremony in 2006. “I want no interruptions for Marisa so she can learn about what it means to be a woman in the right way. A good ceremony is going to help her a lot like it helped me.”
After about half an hour, Moore emerged from the office, shook hands with Caleen Sisk and listened intently as she explained why the tribe was there.
Sisk explained how voluntary closures, the Forest Service’s preferred solution, don’t work, and then described the frustration of the past seven years of trying to negotiate a mandatory closure with no success.
“We’ve been asking for this for so long with no success, you start wonder, does anyone even hear us?” she said to Moore.
“I see you, and I hear you,” Moore reassured her.
Moore accepted all of the tribe’s information, including a DVD of a documentary about their ceremony, and promised to review it with his tribal advisor and respond to their request by May 1.
“This is a very important issue for the tribe, that much is clear,” Moore said. “Typically, what they’re asking for is reserved for federally recognized tribes, but I’m going to look at their information and see if we have any flexibility to accommodate them.”
River Closure a Right Only for Federally Recognized Tribes
Since 2005, the Winnemem Wintu, who are state-recognized, have tried to find a way to hold the ceremony in peace: the Farm Bill, which authorizes the Forest Service to close public land for tribal ceremonies, only applies to federally recognized tribes; the local Sheriff’s Office declines to close the river for safety reasons, Sisk says, and the tribe’s forays into international law are taking too long.
Frustrated by the lack of responsiveness from the local Shasta-Trinity Forest Manager Sharon Heywood, Sisk and the tribe decided April 16 was the day to drive three hours south form their village to see Moore, bringing with them a resolution authorizing a closure for him to sign and a letter explaining their dilemma.
“We used to live on the river, but now we’ve lost everything,” Sisk told Moore. “We’re not asking for much. We’re asking for four days on four hundred yards of the river. When the boats come through, it’s a huge disruption, like someone walking through the middle of christening.”
Moore later asked if they had asked a recognized tribe to request the closure on their behalf.
“That would be like the Catholic Church requiring the Mormons to get a permit any time they wanted to have a ceremony,” Sisk responded.
As Moore left he shook Marisa’s hand, wishing her congratulations on her upcoming ceremony, and the tribe gathered in the lobby, holding their signs aloft and singing their Bigfoot song, a melody for lost little ones.
“I’m glad that he met with us even though we didn’t have an appointment,” Sisk said. “But federal recognition shouldn’t apply to sacred places or ceremony. Whether recognized or not, we have the right to teach our culture to the future generations.”
Coming of Age Ceremonies, Sacred and Resurgent in California
Sisk says the tribe has practiced their Coming of Age ceremonies “since the beginning of time,” and there used to be a number of Puberty Rocks that were in use by the tribe.
However, all except for the rock at the Forest Service’s campground now dwell under the depths of Shasta Lake, the reservoir of Shasta Dam, which flooded numerous Winnemem Wintu villages and sacred places when it was constructed during World War II.
The lack of other accessible Puberty Rocks, and the interwoven nature of the sacred places is why the ceremony can only be held at the campground, Sisk says. And even the existing Puberty Rock spends most of the year underwater because it’s located where the McCloud River intermingles with Shasta Lake, which has a 30,000 square-acre surface area.
The young women participating in the ceremony spend most of the four days in traditional bark huts near the sacred Puberty Rock, a flat, scabrous stone upon which they learn to grind traditional medicines in its smooth spheres.
On the other side of the river, the tribe sings and dances around the sacred fire, and children climb on Children’s Rock, an elephantine boulder that represents their introduction into the tribe’s “family” of prayer rocks. High above looms the Two Sisters mountain, and from its rocky crown the spirit beings beam down messages and guidance to the young women.
“The ceremony is really important for Marisa,” Marine Sisk. “Just hearing all the perspectives from other women in the tribe about what it means to be a woman, and learning about what she needs to grow up. It’ll make her feel better.”
Stanford anthropology student Lyla Johnston has been researching the Winnemem’s spiritual connection to their traditional territory for the past year, and she says even what might seem like minor disruptions to outsiders can be nearly catastrophic to the Winnemem.
“In the indigenous mindset, something as simple as an eagle feather dropping on the ground can cause a profound upset in the universe,” she said. “For the Winnemem, when a boater comes through the ceremony, it can have severe effects on the young woman for the rest of her life.”
Marine Sisk’s Coming of Age ceremony in 2006 was the Winnemem Wintu’s first since 1924, and they are not alone in bringing it back: flower dances and other puberty ceremonies have enjoyed a resurgence among Northern California tribes over the past 10 years, said Cutcha Risling Baldy, a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis who is studying the ceremonies.
“Bringing back these ceremonies seem to be an important part of these communities’ healing from all the past atrocities and the genocide,” said Risling Baldy, who is a Hoopa Valley tribal member. “In indigenous societies, women were important to their strength and balance, and the ceremonies are restoring that.”
The genocide in Northern California, which began with the Gold Rush in 1848, occurred relatively recent from a historical perspective, and Risling Baldy said that the disruptions the Winnemem Wintu suffer during their ceremonies could hurt the healing process.
“Sadly, it could bring up a lot of historical trauma,” she said. “But I hope they continue to pass on that pride and healing and that, whether recognized or unrecognized, it’s important to pass on who you are to the younger generation.”