By Leo van der Vlist

On Friday 24 April 2015, in a side event at the 14th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, Chief Caleen Sisk of the non-federally recognized Winneman Wintu Tribe in California, presented a compelling story on how she was charged with a fine of 10,000 US$ and 1 year in jail after her tribe performed a coming of age ceremony along the McCloud river. How did that happen?

In 1945, when the Chasta dam was built near the McCloud river, it flooded the Winneman Wintu people out of their homes along the river and disrupted this important ceremonial event to bring their girls into womanhood. In 2006, Chief Caleen Sisk re-introduced the ceremony for her daughter Marine. During this ceremony the young celebrate spends 4 days on the other side of the river from the dance ground and on the last day she swims across to be welcomed as an adult woman.

The US Forest Service, which has jurisdiction over the river and the traditional dance ground area, refused the tribe’s request to close the river for the ceremony but only instituted voluntary closures which meant that the most disrespectful people still disrupted the ceremony with their speedboats.

For the 2012 ceremony for the tribe’s future leader, Chief Sisk’s daughter Marisa, the local Forest Service supervisor again refused a request to close the river completely. So the Chief and tribe went to the regional Forest Services headquarters to assert the tribe’s right to a peaceful and dignified ceremony, based on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, endorsed by the Obama administration in December 2010. They also did a social media campaign to support their request. After a month of Forest Service silence Chief Sisk called for a spiritual war dance. In four days of dance and song along the river the Winnemans called on the spirits of their ancestors to give strength and guidance. They also put up a banner to declare the river closed which met with a military response to put the banner down.

When Chief Sisk’s three basic requests of river closure, exclusive use of the camp ground and at no cost to the tribe, were still turned down in a meeting with the Forest Services she found an eagle feather and heated a spiritual call. “It was like that feather just stood up and I knew what to do. I’m gonna go to the river and I’m gonna pray and I’m gonna fast until things change. We always have to be thinking of those seven generations, I mean not just say it, but we gotta really do stuff.”

Finally, and after public pressure a “full four day river closure” was granted. But the ceremonial dance ground was not closed for uninvited people and the closure order on the river only appealed to motorized boats. Moreover, it turned out that this order included the Winneman’s own boat. Instead of making sure that people respected the ceremony, the Forest Service officers’ main concern turned out to be that the tribe’s boat should be moved outside the closure area. After the tribe went into a defensive mode the forest officers moved away, but only to return the next day to deliver the federal charges.

It took the tribe another round of protests before these charges were being dropped including guarantees that nothing would appear on the record of Chief Sisk. Chief Sisk said she was happy that they had been strong enough to stand up for their rights.

“If we don’t celebrate our own way of life nobody else will do it for us. Power to the people!”

I call that great leadership.




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