Journey to Justice
In 1851, the Winnemem (represented by the signature of Numterareman), along with other Wintu bands signed the Treaty at Cottonwood Creek, which ceded to the United States a vast territory, spanning from Sacramento to the Oregon border. In exchange, we were supposed to receive a 25-square-mile reservation along the Sacramento River.
The California legislature lobbied against the treaty to the U.S. Senate which, in turn, pressured President Millard Fillmore to refuse ratiﬁcation of any of the 18 treaties signed “in peace and friendship” by tribes throughout California. As a consequence, we never got our reservation and started losing our traditional lands to encroaching settlement.
Starting in 1893, as non-reservation Indians, some of us received land allotments along the McCloud River, including the village of Tuiimuyali where some 30 of us now live. The creation of the Shasta National Forest in 1906 led to more of our lands falling into government ownership. Then, in 1914, the U.S. government took steps to purchase land for us but the private landowner refused. He was speculating, correctly, that construction of a new dam would increase the value of his land. In 1944, the U.S. Court of Claims awarded $17 million to California Indians as a settlement for Congress’s failure to ratify the 18 treaties including the Cottonwood Treaty. The Winnemem opposed the settlement as insufﬁcient for the losses we suffered and refused to accept payment.
The Effect of Shasta Dam
In 1937, the Bureau of Reclamation took 4,800 acres of allotted Winnemem land and hundreds of thousands of acres of communal tribal land to ﬂood behind Shasta Dam. The people received nothing for their land. Over the next 8 years, we were removed from our McCloud River homes.
Ninety percent of our homelands — houses, allotments and sacred sites — were ﬂooded by the growing reservoir. The 1941 Central Valley Project Indian Lands Acquisition Act ordered that people disturbed by the construction of Shasta Dam be granted like land and funds to repair lost infrastructure. Nevertheless, no land was provided to individual Winnemem and no reservation was created for the tribe in compensation for the ﬂooded lands.
The act also called for our cemetery to be relocated and held in trust for the tribe. The cemetery was relocated near the dam and Winnemem ancestors were reburied there. It continues to be an active cemetery and we continue to bury our dead there, but it was never put in our name as required by law. Today the cemetery is named for a non-existent tribe, the “Shasta Reservoir Indians” and we must get permission to use it.
A Tribe Conveniently Unrecognized
The U.S. government broke many promises to us, but now it refuses to recognize we exist. Starting in 1960, tribe members received federal tribal health, education and housing beneﬁts. In 1985, for no apparent reason, our health beneﬁts were cut off. Similarly, higher education grants were denied to the very families who had received them through the 1970s. Suddenly and without explanation, the Winnemem disappeared from the Bureau of Indian Affairs list of “federally recognized” tribes. Health services were temporarily restored in 1993 but have since diminished, forcing us to travel to more than three hours to the Sacramento Native American Health Center, a non-profit clinic, for basic health care.
The Winnemem continue to work for federal recognition, the restoration of their tribal status, and compensation for our lost lands in the form of reservation lands. The Native American Rights Fund ﬁrst supported the Winnemem’s efforts to achieve federal recognition in 1988. They have been joined by the Inter-Tribal Council of California and the National Congress of American Indians. In 2004, former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell introduced the “Winnemem Wintu Tribe Clariﬁcation and Restoration Act.”
The bill would have restored the Winnemem’s status as a federally acknowledged tribe and required that the 42.5 acres of land we currently reside on would be taken into trust by the federal government and deemed our reservation. The bill included a provision stating that, “The Tribe shall not have the right to conduct gaming…” We requested the inclusion of this provision because gaming is inconsistent with our traditional beliefs. California Legislature has since passed the Assembly Joint Resolution 39 (AJR 39) which recognizes our identity as a tribe and urges the federal government to restore our recognized status.
The Winnemem are not alone in our struggle with the recognition process as the Government Accoutability Office has documented the severe problems, corruption and lack of transparency that plagues the BIA’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment.
By labeling us as “unrecognized”, the federal government can ignore the laws that require it consult us when its actions could affect our sacred sites or have environmental impacts on our ancestral lands. Because we’re “unrecognized,” we are currently shut out of the process and have limited or no impact on decisions that affect our health and way of life.