At a natural spring high on Mount Shasta, water gently pushes up through fine sand, pools and begins a journey that sustains a meadow and nourishes the souls of people who venture to the mountain’s slopes.
The Winnemem Wintu tribe calls Panther Meadow sacred. They revere the spring as the beginning of life, the meadow is their church. Tribal members offer prayers and perform ceremonies here, as they have for thousands of years.
Red paintbrush, yellow arnica and purple aster grow in the subalpine meadow at 7,500 feet, a fragile ecosystem near the treeline. The peak of Mount Shasta provides a dramatic backdrop, usually snow-covered, but not this year. Glaciers and patches of snow streak the summit. Before smoke from wildfires drifted in late last week, the mountain stood in bold contrast with a blue sky.
Usually, it’s quiet here, with only the sound of spring water tumbling over rocks or a breeze through the trees. Visitors speak softly, admire the wildflowers and gaze down across the meadow toward the Trinity Alps in reverence to this place.
Underlying the tranquility is angst among the tribe, the U.S. Forest Service and those who disrespect the sacred meadow.
Last Saturday, while explaining the history of Panther Meadow and the spring, a U.S. Forest Service ranger paused, then shouted at someone sitting in the meadow to get off the delicate grass and flowers. His voice boomed across the meadow, the loudest sound I have ever heard there.
In July, tribal members confronted another man sitting in the meadow, meditating. He didn’t think he was damaging the flora or undermining efforts to restore Panther Meadow from years of people trampling through to reach the spring. He didn’t respect the tribe’s church.
“They don’t understand,” Caleen Sisk, the spiritual leader of Winnemem Wintu tribe, told me. “Our creation story begins at the spring in the meadow. That’s how we came to be. Our connection is just not a pretty place.”
For years, trails crisscrossed the meadow as thousands hiked to the spring. Visitors dammed the water and bathed. Money, crystals, coconuts, even Tiki dolls were thrown into the small pool.
“It became a trash can,” Sisk said.
The tribe sued the Forest Service for failing to protect the meadow and other sacred and cultural sites in the area. While the specific claim about Panther Meadow has been dismissed, a federal judge is considering the merits of other sites that concern the Wintu.
“We are supposed to be protecting the sacredness of this mountain,” Sisk told me. “It’s our obligation to the Creator.”
I’ve been coming to Panther Meadow and the spring for nearly 20 years. It is a special place. “Leave no trace” has always been my mantra, and I have always respected Panther Meadow. But after listening to Caleen explain what the spring means to the Winnemem Wintu, I’m conflicted. I wonder if I should return.