The Winnemem Wintu: Waging War on Shasta Dam
by Claire Hope Cummings

Just before dusk on September 12, on a grassy area overlooking the massive gray presence of Shasta dam and the blue waters of the sprawling reservoir behind it, a small group of dancers and singers dressed in traditional regalia lit a sacred fire. A wooden drum began a slow, steady beat, and the singers started a rhythmic, wailing song. An ancient ceremonial war dance began. For four days and nights, the Winnemem Wintu fasted, danced, sang and prayed. As each man stepped toward the fire, he shouted a throaty Hup!--the Wintu word for “war”--raised his bow, arrow and dance stick and thrust them toward the dam.

The Winnemem Wintu are called the “middle water” people. They are a small, traditional band of the once-mighty Wintu language group that lived between the Oregon border and northern California. For more than 1,000 years, the Winnemem lived along the McCloud River, known as the middle river because it runs between the Sacramento and the Pitt Rivers. All three rivers now flow into the man-made Shasta Lake.

When Shasta dam was constructed in the late 1930s, the Winnemem’s villages and burial grounds were inundated. Now, they are under assault again. Their sacred sites and traditional ways of life are being threatened by the US Bureau of Reclamation’s (BuRec) proposal to raise Shasta dam in order to create more water storage and to generate more power for California’s growing population. After losing much of their homeland to the dam, to wealthy Californians who favor the fishing grounds along the McCloud, and to the national forests, the Winnemem are desperate to save what remains.

The last time the Winnemem invoked the War Dance was in 1887, when a fish hatchery on the McCloud River was the enemy and protecting the salmon and the Wintu way of life was the focus. More than 100 years later, the shadow of Shasta dam, already an implement of destruction to the Winnemem, looms large. The tribe tires of meeting endlessly with government agencies while never getting its needs met. When the Winnemem heard about plans to raise the dam, they were not sure what to do. “We prayed on it, and we were told to hold a War Dance,” said Caleen Sisk-Franco, Winnemem spiritual and tribal leader. “Our ancestors showed us the way with the dance against the fish hatchery. We gave up a lot of our homeland for the sake of the California people and got nothing in return. Now you want to take our sacred places, and again we get nothing. How is this fair, over and over again? This is too much to ask of a people.”

The dance was held under a permit issued by BuRec. Just getting the permit was a struggle; BuRec did not want something called a War Dance anywhere near the dam, citing security concerns. Then the local newspaper accused BuRec of not being able to distinguish between a small group of local Indians and terrorists. So BuRec told the tribe that it could have a permit, but there could be no fire or traditional weapons. The Winnemem answered back, with their characteristic good humor, “Gee, does that mean we can bring modern weapons?” Eventually, BuRec relented and permitted the fire, the spears and the traditional ceremony as the Winnemem wanted to do it.

Still, there is a long and troubled history between the tribe and the agency. When Shasta dam was first constructed, Congress promised the Winnemem people compensation, like lands and a cemetery where their dead would be reburied. It promised to hold that cemetery land in trust forever, but those promises have not been kept.

Recently, the tribe held several meetings with BuRec. The tribe questioned BuRec’s plan to raise the dam and the impacts the plan will have. Mark Franco, headman for the village where many members of the tribe now live, speculated that BuRec only wants to know about the sacred sites so that it can flood the area. “The government has no intention of preserving those sites, or our way of life,” he said. Indeed, so far BuRec has had the same effect on the Winnemem that it has had on endangered California salmon—both are just about wiped out.

The Winnemem want their issues addressed now, before BuRec does new studies and considers new plans for the dam. BuRec is currently spending $15 million to study the raising of Shasta dam. This study only considers whether or not the dam should be raised and by how much. It is not considering other options.

The tribe is asking the environmental community to help them articulate the best alternatives to raising the dam. They say that better management and conservation practices for the existing reservoir could supply as much water as raising the dam—and do so more sustainably and at less cost.

At the War Dance, visitors from other Native nations and members of the environmental community came to support the Winnemem. Julia “Butterfly” Hill stayed for several days and told the media that she supports the Winnemem as a matter of conscience. She said that “the sacred” is in peril at this time, in this place, and that coming together and making connections--between groups, with each other, to the water, the fish and to place--is what the environmental movement is all about. Brock Dolman, from the Water Institute at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, spoke about the need to study alternatives to raising the dam. He said that there has been enough damage from the Dam Age, and we should be thinking about razing the dam instead.

As the days wore on, still the fire burned. Day and night, the drum would sound, calling the dancers back into the arbor of Douglas fir that they had built. The singers would start and the dancers would line up, their deer toe rattles jangling. They would dance their prayers into the ground and cry out against the dam. Every day an osprey circled above, once dropping a feather into the arbor. A bald eagle angled in to get a view. Back and forth, it was a call and response. As the prayers were carried out over the water, the physical world answered.

By the fourth day, some of the older dancers were weary. But as the ceremony came to a close, a resurgence of power and energy seemed to take over. Voices were strong, the dancing was robust, and the prayers were fervent. Anyone who witnessed this historic event was impressed and deeply moved. It was a moment in time when the sacred was clear and present.

This small, traditional tribe had worked hard to do this dance. For days and weeks beforehand, a handful of people worked on the complicated regalia. Each bead, each feather and each shell was lovingly sewn or glued; the eagle bone whistles were carved; the traditional weapons were strung. The dances and songs were practiced. Then, finally, after it was all over, the moment came when the women put down their wooden clappers and took off their fur headdresses. The men stripped down and dove into the cool waters of the reservoir to seal in their newfound power. The fire was extinguished. The entire tribe let out a shout. They hugged and cried. They were warriors now. They were exhilarated and energized, ready to go forward, confident and clear about their goals. BuRec has never seen the likes of this.

Claire Hope Cummings has been the tribal lawyer for the Winnemem for the last 15 years. She is committed to protecting the McCloud River through her work as a lawyer and a writer, which she does without pay, saying she doesn’t mind working for “Winnemem wage.”

For more information, visit Winnemem Wintu Tribe.

© Earth First! Journal November-December 2004