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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
“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.