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Winnemem Wintu War Dancers: Shasta Dam a “Weapon of Mass Destruction“

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe over the past 10 years has played a key leadership role in the campaign to oppose the peripheral tunnels and the water bond.

Mark Miyoshi and Chief Caleen Sisk watch as Jesse Sisk and James Ward work on lighting the ceremonial fire. (Photo: Dan Bacher)

For the US Bureau of Reclamation and National Park Service, the 602 foot-high Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River north of Redding is a keystone of the Central Valley Project and a monument to engineering skill.

“Shasta Dam, dwarfed only by Hoover and Grand Coulee dams when it was completed on the Sacramento River in 1945, is breathtaking not only for its great size, but for its majestic setting in the southern range of the Cascades,” according to the National Park Service.

However, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe has a much different view of the dam and the reservoir it created. Tribal Leaders view the massive curved concrete dam – and a federal plan to raise the dam 18-1/2 feet – as a “Weapon of Mass Destruction.” This dam expansion plan would flood many of the remaining sacred sites of the Tribe that weren’t inundated by the construction of Shasta Dam in the 1940s.

“In 2004, we held a War Dance on Shasta Dam, because that’s the Weapon of Mass Destruction,” said Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe before the four-day War Dance that ended Sunday, September 14. “That’s the weapon that took our lands, flooded our sacred places, covered up our burials – everything. And left us with nothing.”

“We gave up a lot of our homeland for the sake of the California people, and got nothing in return. Now the government wants to take our sacred places, and again we get nothing in return. How is this fair, over and over again?” she asked.

Before the War Dance began Thursday evening, two Winnemem Wintu War Dancers, Jesse Sisk and James Ward, worked hard with their fire kit until they were able to light the ceremonial fire at the center of the dance site overlooking Shasta Dam and Reservoir.

After the fire was lit and the flames leaped into the air on the warm September night, Chief Caleen Sisk gave a blessing and talked about the war dance and four-day fast that the tribe would conduct to stop the federal plan to raise Shasta Dam.

“We lost our homes on the river to create a better life for everybody else but the Winnemem Wintu Tribe,” Chief Sisk said. “The 1941 Act was supposed to protect us, but it didn’t.”

The law Sisk referred to was 55 Stat 612. When Shasta Dam was first proposed, Congress passed this law authorizing the federal government to seize the lands and burial grounds that the Winnemem had for a thousand year. Unfortunately, promises were made to the Tribe in 55 Stat 612 that still have not been kept.

“Our sacred places are still here,” she emphasized. “We are putting out our way and our songs so we can continue our way of life.”

“We will pray so we can have a better life not only for the Winnemem but for indigenous people all over the world,” Sisk said, pointing to the battle by Native Hawaiians to stop the the building of a new telescope on their sacred mountain, Mauna Kea.

“We pray that the spirit beings hear us and bring all of our helpers, from the high mountain meadows all of the way to the ocean,” she continued. “Our concern is the health of the waterways. We are here at the dam that blocks the salmon on a river that should be full of salmon.”

She said that California should finally acknowledge its unique role as one of four salmon states on the West Coast.

“We should be a salmon state, not a watermelon or pistachio state. We have the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. We have some of the largest salmon rivers in the West, but people have given these up for agribusiness, for large farms in a desert,” Chief Caleen Sisk said.

She reiterated that Shasta Dam is “a weapon of mass destruction” against the Winnemem Wintu and said the idea of dams is a “horrible archaic project.”

“Maybe we can’t stop them – but we will have a clear conscience the Winnemem did all we could,” Chief Sisk said.

About 15 minutes later, the Winnemem War Dancers, clad in their traditional feathered headdresses and regalia, danced as the Winnemem women, wearing white deerskin dresses and wearing traditional basket hats, sang songs and prayed.

The Winnemem invoked the War Dance in 1887 against a fish hatchery, the Baird US Fish Hatchery, on the McCloud River that threatened the salmon and the Winnemem way of life.

The Winnemem again held a War Dance at the dam in 2004 to commit themselves to the protection of their land and their salmon. Now that the Winnemem face even more of their sacred sites and culture being submerged by the dam, they conducted the dance once again this September.

Before the ceremony, I interviewed several of the War Dancers, all of whom emphasized that the Shasta Dam raise is deeply interconnected with Governor Jerry Brown’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan to build the peripheral tunnels and Proposition 1, the water bond, which will fund the building of Sites Reservoir.

David Martinez, who also danced during the war dances of 2004, 2009 and 2012, said, “Sites, the water bond, the tunnels and the raise of Shasta Dam are all interconnected. Without one, the others don’t work. Right now we transport all of the water that we can to the San Joaquin Valley.”

“We need more tunnels and aqueducts – for what? If the dam doesn’t go up, Sites Dam doesn’t come in and we don’t need the tunnels,” said Martinez.

He sees the tunnels as Brown’s “Zombie Plan back from the dead.” “We killed off the peripheral canal with the vote against it in 1982. He’s brought it back with ‘Zombie Juice’ as the tunnels,” he quipped.

“Since the 1800s, they’ve tried to wipe us out, but we’re still here,” Martinez emphasized. “The main thing is that we keep our sacred sites alive because we still use them. By going there, we are being with the spirits. That’s the way our culture doesn’t die or disappear.”

Martinez noted that there are many Tribal people who don’t have what the Winnemem have. “We have an unbroken connection with our sacred sites,” he stated. “We do ceremony up and down the river. We were never transported out of here and we’re in our original home – we’ve never lost our songs, culture, way of life. We’re still here.”

“Every water monger would rather see us drown or go away. We’re fighting against almost insurmountable odds –but we will win,” Martinez affirmed.

He also invoked Chief Caleen Sisk’s characterization of Shasta Dam as “a weapon of mass destruction against us.”

“It’s just as powerful as a nuclear bomb. It destroyed our home, salmon, our way of life. Now they want to flood us out again. How many times do we have to suffer this? We’re not going to go away. We’ve been here since the dawn of time – and we will be here at the end of time,” he stated.

Gary Mulcahy, a War Dancer who served on the stakeholders group during the Delta Vision process from 2005 to 2007, said the Bureau of Reclamation is submitting an EIS/EIR for the dam raise proposal to the Secretary of Interior, set for approval in December. There are three similar alternatives, all of which propose an 18-1/2 foot dam raise and hold the same amount of water.

“If Congress approves a bill written by Congressman Jim Costa, it will fund the proposal to raise Shasta Dam. They just need the recommendation from the Secretary of the Interior to do it,” he said.

“We are doing the war dance because we have to let the salmon know that we are fighting for them. The Tribe has to make sure that we bring them home and to ensure the sacred sites that would be flooded by the dam raise will be there for them and for generations to come,” he explained.

The one positive development lately that Mulcahy noted is the bill, H. R. 5425, introduced in the House of Representatives last week by Congressmen Ami Beri, Jerry McNerney and John Garamendi to block the use of any federal funds for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan to build the peripheral tunnels.

“If it is understood that the tunnels are a bad deal, maybe somehow in the mix they will understand the the dam raise is a bad deal also. If the EPA is saying the BDCP is such a bad idea, maybe they will understand raising the dam and committing cultural genocide upon those who gave their land for the lake is a bad idea also,” he said.

He emphasized, “We’re amazed that people don’t understand that the Central Valley Project is from Shasta Dam all of the way to the Delta Estuary. To oppose one is to oppose the other. All that has been presented to the public by state officials are falsehoods and misinformation that the purpose of the dam is ecosystem restoration or salmon restoration when it’s actually to provide more water to farmers growing water intensive crops in the desert.”

He concluded, “Dams don’t create water – I’ve never seen a dam rain!”

Michael Preston, Winnemem War Dancer, who graduated last year from U.C. Berkeley with a B.S. in Society and the Environment and is currently an Oakland resident, said, “The war dance is against the raising of Shasta dam. It’s not against Obama. But if he comes out against us, then it’s against him too.”

He pointed out that the War Dance is held for both spiritual and political reasons.

“The spiritual reason is because spirits are calling us to tell us what to do to protect the salmon. Then the politics come in – the politics are what threatens our livelihood,” he noted.

He strongly disagreed with the contention of Bureau of Reclamation officials that the dam raise would “help” salmon by providing cold water temperatures for Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River below the dam.

“The salmon are threatened and there is no plan for getting the salmon around the dam to swim up to their headwaters in the McCloud River,” he said. “The plan does nothing for the salmon. The hundreds of miles of salmon habitat cut off from spawning are what they need, not the Shasta Dam raise.”

He concluded the claim that the dam raise will “help” salmon “is just a ploy to greenwash the raising of the dam.”

The Winnemem Wintu held the War Dance under a permit issued by The Bureau of Reclamation. The Tribe has held numerous meetings with the BOR to raise questions about the feasibility of the BOR’s plans, the impacts it will have on the tribe and their way of life, and the troubled history between the tribe and the BOR.

However, Tribal leaders said that in spite of the numerous terminal flaws with the dam proposal, the BOR is going ahead with plans to raise the dam and will submit its final EIS/EIR to the Secretary of Interior in December. It anticipates the final project plan will be submitted to Congress for approval no later than March 2015.

The Tribe has consistently requested that the BOR study alternatives to raising the dam such as better management practices for existing reservoirs and conservation options, as well as better protection of the fish populations.

“Any raising of the dam, even a few feet, will flood some of our last remaining sacred sites on the McCloud River – sites we still use today,” said Chief Sisk. “We can’t be Winnemem any place else but the McCloud River. The dam raise is a form of cultural genocide.”

Background on Shasta Dam Raise and BDCP:

Raising Shasta Dam will damage, destroy and inundate cultural resources along the McCloud River, sites that are vital to future generations and are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as Traditional Cultural Properties, according to the Winnemem Wintu.

The Shasta Dam raise takes place in tandem with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) to build the peripheral tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the proposal to build Sites Reservoir on the west side of the Sacramento Valley. The BDCP is an environmentally destructive $67 billion project that will export massive quantities of northern California water for use by San Joaquin Valley corporate agribusiness interests, Southern California water agencies and oil companies conducting fracking and steam injecting operations,

The construction of the twin tunnels will hasten the extinction of Sacramento River Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species, as well as imperil the steelhead and salmon populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers. The project will also take vast tracts of Delta farmland, among the most fertile on the planet, out of production in order irrigate toxic, drainage-impaired land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

“I’m still appalled that a lot of people don’t make the connections between the Shasta Dam raise, the BDCP and Sites Reservoir, which is in the water bond (Proposition 1),” said Chief Sisk. “There is not going to be more water for the tunnels if Sites Reservoir isn’t built and Sites can’t be filled unless the Shasta Dam is raised.”

“The BDCP can’t exist without the Shasta Dam raise and the construction of Sites Reservoir to store water for the tunnels. It’s all one project – I don’t know where people think the water is going to come from,” she concluded.

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe over the past 10 years has played a key leadership role in the campaign to oppose the peripheral tunnels and the water bond. The Tribe is also working on a plan to return native winter run Chinook salmon, now thriving in the Rakaira River in New Zealand, to the McCloud River above Shasta Dam. They are researching and developing a proposal for a passageway around Shasta Dam for the returning spawning salmon and the outgoing ocean bound salmon fingerlings.

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2014 917 dam 2Mark Miyoshi, Chief Caleen Sisk, Jesse Sisk and James Ward before the Sacred Fire is started. (Photo: Dan Bacher)

2014 917 dam 3Joe Simmons, a member of the Winnemem Wintu, works on the arbor for the ceremony. (Photo: Dan Bacher)

2014 917 dam 4Chief Caleen Sisk blesses the Sacred Fire. (Photo: Dan Bacher)

2014 917 dam 5Caleen Sisk describes Shasta Dam as a “Weapon of Mass Destruction.” (Photo: Dan Bacher)

2014 917 dam 6James Ward works on starting the Sacred Fire. (Photo: Dan Bacher)

2014 917 dam 7A federal plan to raise Shasta Dam by 18-1/2 feet threatens many of the remaining sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. (Photo: Dan Bacher)

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