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Feature Story
Six Hundred Feet and Rising
Page 4

If the Bureau of Reclamation endorses the raising of Shasta Dam, as is likely, the battle within Congress over authorization and funding will begin. The outcome of that clash is an open question. For their part, the Winnemem recently formed an alliance with about 25 environmental and indigenous-rights groups to counter pressure for the raise from government and agricultural interests.

While the Winnemem fight the dam raise, they are also struggling for federal recognition, which they once apparently possessed. "We had health care, we had housing assistance, all those things that recognized tribes get," Mark Franco says. "That ran all the way up until 1985, and then the services disappeared." Yet the Winnemem were never "terminated" -- officially notified of a recognition reversal, as many other tribes have been. Mark believes they were victims of a clerical error within the administrative quagmire known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The bureau has advised the Winnemem to submit a new application for recognition, but that process is molasses-like (taking up to 20 years) and usually ends in rejection. More maddening, the process is stacked against California tribes because it demands documentary proof that a tribe has maintained authority over its members since the time of white settlement. As Dean Suagee, a Washington, D.C., lawyer whose firm has done pro bono work for the Winnemem, explains, "Given the hostility toward California Indians that existed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a group there is going to have a hard time demonstrating continuous political existence given that it has survived by being invisible."

In any case, the Winnemem are not tempted to go through the application process, as that would imply they never had recognition previously; instead, they hope to win it either through legislation or through the BIA's acknowledgment of error. With recognition, the Winnemem's opposition to the dam raise would carry more weight, for the Bureau of Reclamation would have to justify inundating a large chunk of a federally acknowledged tribe's remaining land. Without recognition, the Winnemem wonder whether their status has become a captive of the push for the dam raise. Even if that's true, they say, they won't accept recognition if it means acceding to the raise.

Of course, beneath the reservoir, the McCloud River still exists. Though silt-laden and robbed of native fish, drowned in its own essence, it still flows, and will until it finds a way around or over or through the dam. Never mind that that day may be hundreds or even thousands of years off, and that in the near term the dam may grow taller. If the raise happens, the triumph will be short-lived, for in the end the river will win. Thinking of that day, the Winnemem taste paradise.

The Vanishing Bee
Wrecking the Rockies
In Verse

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Map: Mike Reagan

OnEarth. Summer 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council