SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Aug. 28, 2007) – In an effort to reverse decades of injustice suffered by the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Assembly Member Jared Huffman has introduced Assembly Joint Resolution 39, which urges Congress to restore federal recognition to the tribe.
The Winnemem Wintu are fighting to restore their federally recognized status after the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), without any warning, notified them that their education benefits would be discontinued. Until then, they received benefits and treatment accorded to recognized tribes.
“The Winnemem have paid for California’s progress with our land and our lives,” said Caleen Sisk-Franco, the spiritual leader for the tribe. “Without the protection of federal recognition we are denied services we deserve and the tools we need to protect and maintain our culture.”
Unlike the Bureau of Indian Affairs, California state agencies and even federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service recognize the Winnemem as a legitimate tribe. It is included on the list of California Tribes held by the Native American Heritage Commission, and it has been issued state and federal permits reserved for federally recognized tribes.
“Everyone seems to recognize the Winnemem Wintu Tribe except the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They can’t even explain their own actions providing us with benefits and then taking them away,” said Mark Franco, Headman of the tribe.
The Winnemem are a band of the Wintu whose tribal lands stretch south from Mount Shasta, along the McCloud River to Bear Mountain. They were displaced during the California Gold Rush and removed from their remaining village sites in 1938 when Shasta Dam was built and the area flooded.
The tribe has never been compensated for the loss of its lands. Such compensation was required by an Act of Congress passed before construction of Shasta Dam. The loss of their tribal land and the loss of services provided to the tribe have caused hardships for the Winnemem.
“The bureau’s treatment of the Winnemem is a travesty,” said Debbie Davis, legislative analyst for the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water. “After years of failing to distinguish the Winnemem from another tribe, it remains unable to explain how the Winnemem lost their status. This bill sends a clear message urging Congress to correct the bureau’s error and to restore the tribe’s status and eligibility for benefits and legal protections.”
The 125 remaining Winnemem continue to fight to preserve their culture and lifeway. Federal recognition provides the legal framework to protect the tribe’s religious freedom. Assembly Member Huffman’s Joint Resolution, which was introduced last Friday, would reinforce the state’s existing practices regarding the Winnemem Wintu Tribe and add another voice to the effort to restore federal recognition.
“Water projects have caused disastrous impacts on California’s rivers, salmon and other fisheries,” said Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “They also have produced hardships for the tribes who lived by these rivers for thousands of years. The construction of Shasta Dam resulted in the loss of the Winnemem’s lands and is the single largest reason why the tribe is not recognized today. This resolution calls on the federal government to comply with federal law, to recognize the tribe and to compensate it for its lost lands.”