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Feature Story
Photo of the Shasta Dam
Six Hundred Feet and Rising

by Jacques Leslie

California's Shasta Dam soars high above the Sacramento River; any higher, and the Winnemem tribe is history.

Back before all the dying began, the Winnemem Wintu lived, as they always had, on the flanks of northern California's McCloud River, the middle fork of three upper Sacramento River tributaries. Winnemem territory formed a triangle, with volcanic Mount Shasta at its northern apex, and encompassed hundreds of sacred sites. Foremost among them was the mountain itself, a place the Winnemem considered too holy even to inhabit, in the same spirit that a Catholic would feel constrained from taking up residence in the Sistine Chapel. Even now, the Winnemem visit Mount Shasta only once a year, to conduct a four-day ceremony at a high spring. The spring is the source of the still-exquisite, serpentine McCloud, which once insinuated its way through the heart of Winnemem terrain until it seemed to cup the tribal culture inside its green watershed -- the Winnemem, after all, are river people, whose name means "middle water." The river still glistens in its gently sloping bed, but it is subdued, dammed, no longer abounding with salmon, and the remnants of the Winnemem live in exile, an hour's drive away.

Photo of a sacred siteThe Winnemem are fond of casting their minds back to the time before white contact, and the reasons are understandable. The tribe's population then was somewhere between 14,000 (an anthropologist's estimate) and 30,000 to 60,000 (the Winnemem's figures). Then, early in the nineteenth century, malaria, flu, and smallpox cut their numbers in half. All but a few hundred of the survivors were slaughtered by bounty hunters, vigilante groups, and state militiamen during the century's second half. The twentieth century brought Shasta Dam, at 602 feet California's fourth-tallest, located at the confluence of the three tributaries, all of whose lower reaches were submerged beneath the vast, fork-shaped reservoir created by the dam. So, too, were most of the Winnemem's sacred sites. Now, in the twenty-first century, the Winnemem are down to 125 people; they are so close to extinction that if they were an animal species, they'd be listed as endangered. Instead, they find themselves fighting a U.S. government proposal to raise the dam by another several yards, thereby submerging still more sacred sites and almost certainly finishing the tribe off.

Shasta Dam is five-sixths the height of the archetypal American dam, Hoover, but its crest, at 3,460 feet, is nearly three times as wide. It looks like an immense bird with wings outflung, leaning slightly into the gargantuan potential torrent. But where Hoover is adorned with Art Deco railings and polished terrazzo walkways, Shasta is a utilitarian product of World War II: blunt, powerful, nearly featureless. The most interesting thing I saw on a Bureau of Reclamation tour was almost the only visible evidence of life: Ospreys had established two nests at the top of cable towers rising from the electrical switchyards at the foot of the dam, and preyed on the disoriented trout and bass that found upstream access obliterated. Until construction began in 1938, the McCloud was a stronghold of winter-run chinook salmon; then the dam wall abruptly terminated their migration upstream to spawn, and just as abruptly, the Winnemem were separated from their cultural and nutritional foundation. Many Winnemem now suffer from diabetes, which they attribute to their salmon-less, processed diet. Before the dam, they say, diabetes was unknown among them.

The Winnemem are the most traditional of the three Wintu bands that still exist, and even perform ceremonies for other, less anchored tribes. Many California tribes have gone into the casino business, but the Winnemem aren't interested. Instead, they see themselves as stewards of their land and culture. Yet for all their devotion to tradition, they keep meeting obstacles in the way of practicing it. The Shasta reservoir, California's biggest by a million acre-feet, has swallowed at least 125 ceremonial sites, including the Winnemem burial ground and Salmon Heart Rock, shaped as its name suggests, where Winnemem once gathered annually to catch and dry salmon. Fish Rock was blown up in 1914 to make room for a railroad track, which in turn succumbed to the reservoir. What is left of Dekkas Rock, a prayer site, protrudes from the reservoir as if at the center of a malformed atoll; below the rock, next to the expunged river, the Winnemem once held gatherings known as Big Times, which were intended partly to address conflicts, partly to avoid inbreeding by giving youths of disparate tribes chances to intermingle. Performing rituals now often requires obtaining a permit from one government agency or another, and the permits are granted slowly, if at all. Worse, the proposed dam raise would engulf some of the most significant sites left.

"The numbers of our people were reduced so drastically," says Mark Franco, the Winnemem headman. "Indians up and down the state lost their land, lost all aspects of their culture, until now we have this one little island, this one little group of people holding on by their fingernails, trying to protect it all, still having the ceremonies." Without the important sites that remain, the Winnemem believe they will have lost so much of their essence that their fingernail hold will finally slip.

The Winnemem "island" is a dusty hillside homestead called Kerekmet, or "black spider woman," in acknowledgment of the tiny black spiders that flourish there. It's a humble place, dotted with run-down house trailers and the husks of debilitated cars, but it also possesses a flourishing organic vegetable and medicinal herb garden and a round prayer house where the tribe holds spiritual meetings. Thirteen miles north of the town of Redding, Kerekmet sits in the shadow of Bear Mountain, another sacred peak, in the Winnemem view now grievously defaced by the California Department of Forestry's placement of a toilet at a ceremonial site there and a watchtower on the peak. Winnemem have lived in Kerekmet's main house since 1941, when Florence Jones, their spiritual and tribal leader for 65 years, having been driven from the McCloud River by the reservoir, built it on land allotted to a fellow Winnemem by the federal government. When Florence died in 2003 at the age of 96, the Winnemem lost the last fluent speaker of their language. Now 30 people representing half a dozen families live together on the outpost in a last-ditch effort to keep the culture alive. The remaining Winnemem are scattered around northern California and a few other states.

On a sunny September day, I sat at the kitchen table of Florence's house with the Winnemem's three activists: Caleen Sisk-Franco, who succeeded Florence as the Winnemem's spiritual and tribal leader; her husband, Mark, the village headman; and Gary Mulcahy, the tribe's spokesman and liaison to the state government in Sacramento. Florence's kitchen has never been renovated. The roof leaks, the linoleum floor has worn through to wood underneath, and the ceiling paint has fallen away. The Winnemem are too poor to remodel it; many of Kerekmet's inhabitants are either ill, infirm, or too young to work, and Mark's pension and Social Security and Caleen's modest earnings from dog breeding pay most of their bills. The three activists ("You're looking at three people who do 98 or 99 percent of the tribal work," Mark said) seemed to have one foot inside conventional American culture, another far outside it. All wore mall-grade T-shirts and shorts or jeans, but they also sported ponytails that extended far down their backs, and the front of Gary's T-shirt showed four rifle-bearing nineteenth-century Indians with the caption "Homeland Security -- Fighting Terrorism Since 1492."

From the Winnemem perspective, that fight has gone steeply downhill. For a couple of hours, as we drank tea from unmatched cups, the three Winnemem congenially outlined the elements of the tribal decline: the epidemics, some spread intentionally by white settlers; the massacres, many promoted by bounties offered by the California government; the signing of a peace treaty in 1851 that would have established a 35-square-mile Wintu reservation if it hadn't been rejected by Congress; President Grover Cleveland's granting of McCloud River land to Winnemem tribespeople in 1893, followed by the federal government's retaking of the land in 1937, without compensation, to make way for the reservoir; the participation in World War II combat by young Winnemem men, who came home to discover that their homes were submerged; and the dismaying realization in 1985 that the tribe was not included on a new Bureau of Indian Affairs list of federally recognized tribes. Through all this, the Winnemem managed to sustain a flickering spark from their traditional fire.

"People want to live here," Caleen said, "because we have a sense of tribalism that is alive and healthy, that includes young kids and the elderly. We have a lot of teenagers who are drug- and alcohol-free, and they're respectful to their elders, they have a purpose, they're not tearing things up." Caleen is short, round-faced, and round-bellied, and exudes a self-assured grace.

The three Winnemem were both gentle and sharp-tongued. As they spoke, a teenage boy walked into the kitchen, picked up a slab of bologna from a package open on the counter, slapped it onto a piece of sliced white bread, and left. As if to punctuate his brief appearance, Caleen bemoaned the contemporary Winnemem diet. "People got a lot more exercise when they ate salmon and deer meat, whereas now, they just open a package of bologna. And do they say a prayer? No."

"Do we sound bitter?" asked Mark with a rueful smile.

It took an hour for us to drive from Kerekmet around the reservoir to the most important of the few McCloud River reaches to which the Winnemem still have access. On the way we stopped at Dekkas, a prayer ground that includes Dekkas Rock, whose serenity will be undermined by a road relocation if the dam is raised. It took the Winnemem only a couple of minutes to determine that outsiders had violated the site's sanctity. Manzanita is the only wood the tribe burns in the fire pit; it burns entirely down to ashes, and the Winnemem believe this hastens the flight of prayers cast there. But on this day Mark found charcoal, evidence that someone had burned another wood. "You're messing around in our Garden of Eden," Caleen said.

We drove on, until the road dipped to a bridge that spans the McCloud, and we got out of our cars for a look. The late-summer McCloud occupied only a fraction of its rust-colored channel, and soft green grass lent the gently sloping banks the look of felt. Gary spotted a snake placidly swimming across the river. We descended to the bank, and Mark found an obsidian arrow point half-buried in soil. Winnemem lived on this spot for thousands of years and still carry out rituals at two prominent rocks. Or try to: The Winnemem have been planning for a year to enact a four-day initiation rite at Puberty Rock for Caleen's 14-year-old daughter, Marine, but they've had to postpone it three times because of conflicts with government agencies -- most recently because the Forest Service wouldn't honor their request to close off 400 yards of the river for four days unless the tribe paid concessionaires $1,400 for lost business.

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Jacques Leslie is the author of Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The book won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and was named one of the top science books of the year by Discover.

Photos: Diane Cook & Len Jenshel

Map: Mike Reagan

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