If Shasta Dam is raised, tribe would lose sacred places and culture

Members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe visit Puberty Rock, one of the tribe’s sacred sites along the McCloud River near Lake Shasta. The rock would be drowned if Shasta Dam is raised.
Members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe visit Puberty Rock, one of the tribe’s sacred sites along the McCloud River near Lake Shasta. The rock would be drowned if Shasta Dam is raised. Sacramento Bee file

The growing demand for water in Southern California is putting my Winnemem Wintu culture and spirituality at risk for a second time. Seventy-five years ago, our land was taken for the construction of Shasta Dam, without the promised compensation. The resulting reservoir submerged sacred sites and ancient villages where we lived along the McCloud River.

We lost our homes, burial sites, sacred places and all runs of native salmon. Adding insult to injury, federal tribal recognition of the Winnemem was summarily cut off in 1985.

The health, education and housing benefits to which our tribal members had been previously entitled stopped abruptly. Despite our efforts, including legislation introduced in Congress, our tribe is still not recognized – harming our health, religious rights and putting our very identity into question.

Who are the Winnemem? We are an indigenous tribe with a well-documented history on the slopes of Mount Shasta and the banks of the McCloud River, the “middle water” for which we are named. Our small tribe has persistently worked to maintain our culture by continuing our traditional customs and religious practices.

Critical to the practice of Winnemem religion is the care of many sacred places on what has always been tribal land. As people deeply connected to nature, the land is the foundation of our religion, providing powerful places of worship and directions for living a good life.

The tribe is responsible for the care of Buliyum Puyuuk (Mount Shasta) and a network of sacred waters, trees and mountains, a task accomplished through prayers, songs and dances. In return, sacred places care for the people by sending healing spirits, visions, water and medicines. If we can no longer perform our religious responsibilities, we believe the world will be thrown out of balance.

In July, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced legislation to address California’s water crisis. Among its measures, it authorizes $600 million for water storage projects, one of which aims to increase the height of Shasta Dam by 18½ feet.

Raising Shasta Dam is a bad idea. U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists say there would be little downstream benefit to endangered salmon – the supposed “public benefit.” Flooding more of the McCloud River would require undoing state Wild and Scenic River protection, setting a terrible precedent.

Finally, new construction will drown most of our remaining sacred sites along the McCloud River. Puberty Rock, where we hold our Coming of Age ceremony, will be gone forever.

The Winnemem are being forced to suffer yet again, even though raising the dam makes no economic sense in the face of faster, cheaper and far better alternatives for the long term. Taxpayers would pay more than $1.3 billion for construction, plus $54 million annually to yield a relatively small amount of expensive water – while harming fish, wildlife, recreational and cultural values, and the religious rights of the Winnemem. Water-saving measures by farmers would save more water than an enlarged dam would yield.

Dams are anachronistic, 20th-century infrastructure projects, funded by our taxes, which benefit the few. In this case, it’s a small group of wealthy agricultural interests in the Central Valley, including Westlands Water District, which could sell the additional, taxpayer-subsidized water at a profit to Southern California developers; or, the water could be used for fracking.

We need California’s leaders to look at the inequitable allocation of water and invest in 21st-century solutions: agricultural efficiency, reuse, groundwater recharge and improving stormwater capture.

Isn’t it time to finally respect the existence of the Winnemem Wintu? All Californians need equitable distribution of water, effective responses to climate change and restoration of our once-thriving river systems. Shasta Dam should not be raised.

Caleen Sisk is chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe.