Winnemem Wintu Tribe Plan Civil Disobedience

Winnemem Wintu Tribe Plan Civil Disobedience May 23, 2012

Starting this Thursday, and running through the weekend, the Winnemem Wintu tribe in Northern California are holding a War Dance of civil disobedience, blocking off a 400-yard stretch of the McCloud River, an area central to their coming of age ceremonies. The reason for the blockade is due to the Forest Service’s refusal to grant mandatory closures for these ceremonies, resulting in teenage girls being heckled and abused by boating tourists.


“Help our tribe’s peaceful ceremony of resistance, our spiritual commitment to protect the Coming of Age ceremonies for our young women from public interference and harassment. […] We will be blockading a 400-yard stretch of the McCloud River on Friday and Saturday definitely. We may possibly do it on Sunday. Please bring canoes, kayaks, inner tubes, rafts and anything that floats. We will have an air-up station set up for inflatable crafts. Also, bring life preservers.”

This situation caused the Winnemem Wintu to postpone 2011’s coming of age ceremony, citing a lack of basic safety and security necessary to holding the rites.

Marine Sisk with her mother Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu.

“For more than five years, we’ve asked the Forest Service to enforce a mandatory river closure for the ceremony’s four days in order to give us the peace and privacy we need for a good ceremony. They have continually refused to honor this request, even though it is within their power to close the river. Because Marisa is the young woman training to be the next leader, our Chief decided the risk was too great and the indignity of holding a ceremony without complete privacy could no longer be tolerated.”

Why won’t the Forest Service grant the mandatory closure? Because the Winnemem Wintu tribe aren’t  federally recognized, despite extensive proof that they are, indeed, indigenous to the area. This lack of legal status inhibits the free practice of their traditional rites, and silences their voices when it comes to redress for wrongs done to them.

“The profiles of some federally recognized American Indian tribes have grown in recent decades as they parlayed their sovereign status to create profitable ventures such as gambling enterprises. But there are many other tribes that – never having had a reservation or simply falling through the cracks of Indian policy – are unrecognized by the United States. Scholars estimate that more than 250,000 of the 5 million who identify themselves as American Indians belong to about 300 unrecognized tribes, making them almost invisible to federal Indian law.”

Unrecognized tribes in the United States aren’t able to file for a grievance under the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, due to a position paper issued by the United States government saying they wouldn’t include them, and that the process to becoming recognized is largely viewed as a bureaucratic nightmare, with almost impossibly high bars of entry.

“Anthropologists and tribal members also argue that the requirement to show “continuous and distinct community” since 1900 is unrealistic given US history. “These people went through massacres, dislocations, and suffered all these horrible atrocities, and then the government demands, ‘Show us your continuous community.’ It’s absurd,” says Les Field, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.”

Because of this lack of recognition, the Winnemem Wintu are treated like any tourist group making a claim on the river, allowing for the abuse they’ve received to go unpunished and unanswered. Now, caught in a legal limbo, and out of options, the tribe is resorting to civil disobedience to make a statement and gain attention for their plight. In addition, the Winnemem Wintu face the total erasure of their traditional lands due to a proposal raise the Shasta dam, placing the remaining pieces of their traditional home underwater.


It’s clear that the voices of unrecognized tribes aren’t being heard, and that the process to being heard is no guarantee of success. It should be the duty of the entire interfaith community, particularly those who care about the preservation of sacred lands, to raise up their own voices and put pressure on the federal government to do more. The plight of the Winnemem Wintu comes down to simply respecting the rights and traditions of a people who’ve called these lands home long before we ever arrived. While politicians and special interest groups harp about “religious freedom” in Washington DC, laser-focused on government prayer and birth control, none of them seem to be mobilizing to protect the simple right of unrecognized indigenous tribes to engage in traditional practices unmolested.

For volunteer information on this weekend’s action, including donation information, click here.

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17 responses to “Winnemem Wintu Tribe Plan Civil Disobedience”

  1. As the Tribe’s request is not particularly unreasonable and has no ethical reasons why it would not be valid, the Forest Service can’t be refusing for any reason but potential loss of money.  Which makes them: ding!  A total meaniehead. 

  2. This would be a great issue for an online petition to the germane federal authorities. I “sign” about one a day on various environmental and social-justice issues, and this is both.

  3. Baruch , i agree how do we start a petition or who can we talk to to start  one ? This is a very worthy cause , one i will stand behind . The way the US govt has treated the Native Americans over the years is a digrace . Needs to change now .This is a cause Pagans and New Agers can get behind , make a difference.       Kilm

  4. While On-line petitions are nice, they dont engage anyone, they just ask for permission. This is a physical blockade and there are easy ways to help out to this end:

    There is a short list of ways to help here:
    When: Thursday afternoon, May 24 – Sunday May 27, 2012Where: McCloud Bridge Campground on the McCloud River, Shasta-Trinity National Forest north of Redding, Calif.Bring: Camping gear, TP, food donations, first aid
    kits, canteens, inflatable boats,inner tubes, canoes, kayaks, trash
    bags, walkie-talkies, life preservers and a peaceful, humble willingness
    to help.If you have a pre-existing health issues (such as allergies to bee stings, pollen, etc.),  remember
    to bring your own medications. There is also a chance of rain. Bring
    rain gear. Highs are unexpected to be in the mid-70s to 80s.Remember: There is no cell phone service at the
    site.  There is phone service at the Hirz Bay campground about eight
    miles. Also, try to car pool. Parking will be limited.

    And another list of ways to help here:

    -Print, send and distribute these postcards (Side A and Side B) urging Forest Manager Sharon Heywood to close the river.-Print and distribute this factsheet.-Sign a tribal resolution, like this sample.-Sign the petition or send a letter by fax or regular mail to Forest Manager Sharon Heywood. See this template.-Make a donation to our non-profit, Indian Cultural Organization, to support the ceremony.

    Lets get off our collective asses and DO something to support and stand in solidarity with 1st National Peoples.

  5.  Not everything is about “rights”. Sometimes the issue is what is right, as in right versus wrong. Heckling young people undergoing a sacred traditional ritual is wrong, and any society with any self-respect would deal with such people as the worst kind of miscreants.

  6.  There is nothing sacred to the overarching American community, especially if it exists outside their culture group. 

  7. Charles –

    Actually, there /are/ rights to a river.  

    First and foremost, there is the right of the owner of the parcel through which the river’s course traces, or (more commonly) the owners of the parcels on either side of the river.

    Secondly, and this is on a per state basis (though there is Federal law regarding it, but it has not to date been challenged), there is the right to use navigable rivers as a highway and the right of passage of the public between high water marks.  Additionally (in Maine at least), there is the right of the public to use the river for ‘traditional purposes, such as fishing, fowling, floating lumber, and passage.’

    As much as it sucks, the Tribe may be infringing on the rights of the public if they blockade it.  This of course does not change the fact that the Forest Service are being dicks about it.

  8. They refuse because they’re able to refuse, and to preserve what they see as their prerogative to refuse. We learned this from the headstone issue. The only way to make bureaucrats do the right thing is to make it too painful and expensive and disruptive to keep doing the wrong thing. When your efforts persist long enough and become serious distractions from their online porn or shopping habits during the workday, or throw off their game at the “professional development” retreat in Hawaii, sooner or later they engage you and do the right thing just to make you go away. 

  9. There’s an on-line petition site that lets you set up your own petition.

  10. If I lived anywhere near something like this, I’d be out there in a canoe, adding to their blockade…

  11. I’m on the wrong side of the counrty , to physicaly get involved . On the east [right] coast. I would go and participate if i could . I just thought a petition would be a way the pagan community as whole could get involved and try to make a difference , send the petition on to the federal govt . Due to most of us not being in the best financial condition , this is a way we can atleast do something to help.I personaly fully support the Native Americans rights and privlages but don’t have to finances to help otherwise .      Kilm

  12. Thank you for the links and the letter information. As I am unable to send money, or put an address onto an online petition, and this occurs far from where I live, I often feel unable to do anything to help.

  13. May the Creating Power bless the Winnemum Wintu Tribe with the utmost favor.

  14. Updating my earlier vague comment: MoveOn(dot)org has created a site, SignOn(dot)org, at which one may start up one’s own petition.

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