Coming of Age Ceremony Interference

UPDATES:

March 31, 2013 
Chief Sisk has announced that the Winnemem Wintu are proud to be holding a BaŁas Chonas Ceremony for Alicia Scholfield.

“I am so happy for her,” said her cousin Jessica Sisk, who celebrated her own ceremony in 2010.

Unfortunately, U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Randy Moore has not responded to our November request for a meeting  to discuss arrangements for a safe and peaceful ceremony.

We find it to be a violation of our rights as indigenous people to have to hold a ceremony in fear – either from the interference of the public or from U.S. Forest Service law enforcement. We believe this could be easily be avoided with the appropriate consultation by the U.S. Forest Service.

You can respectfully request Randy Moore’s boss do the right thing by contacting and meet with us by contacting U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell at ttidwell@fs.fed.us or

(202) 205-8439.

Also please consider signing this tribal/organizational resolution in support of a river closure for our ceremony.


May 4, 2012: Regional Forester Randy Moore has missed his May 1 deadline to respond to our request for a mandatory river closure for 16-year-old Marisa Sisk’s Coming of Age ceremony.

In response, we are planning to hold a War Dance, H’up Chonas in Winnemem, to protect our ceremony in the traditional way and to show we are willing to die to protect our women from harassment.

Read the press release and the Indian Country Today story. Follow our web site and facebook page for further updates.

Please continue to contact Randy Moore at rmoore@fs.fed.us and 707-562-8737 to peacefully ask him to heed our request.

Frustrated of being ignored by the Shasta-Trinity National Forest officials for the last six years, we held a direct action event April 16 at the office of Regional Forester Randy Moore, challenging to protect our women’s ceremony by implementing a mandatory river closure.

Go here to read media stories and watch a video about the event, which included us singing traditional songs and a brief conversation between Chief Caleen Sisk and Moore.

Contact Randy Moore at rmoore@fs.fed.us or 707-562-8737. Please keep your messages respectful and peaceful.

Abuse Our Women Suffer at Ceremony

Marine with her mother Caleen Sisk in 2006

In 2006, we held our first Coming of Age Ceremony, Bałas Chonas, in 85 years for Marine Sisk, the daughter of Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk.

Unfortunately, the ceremony was marred by intrusion and heckling from recreational boaters, and these incidents remain emblematic of our struggle to practice our religion freely.

Imagine if rampaging motorcyclists barged into the middle of a Baptism or the reading of the Torah during a Bat Mitzvah. This is essentially what happens to us during the  Baɬas Chonas ceremonies because the federal government won’t provide us the privacy we need.

The ceremonies are held at the sacred Puberty Rock site (Kokospom in Winnemem), which is located on the McCloud Arm of Shasta Lake and is now owned by the U.S. Forest Service. The tribe has held ceremonies here for millennia.  The Baɬas Chonas represents the coming of age for our teenage girls who symbolically transition into womanhood by swimming across the river on the last day.

During the 2006 Baɬas Chonas, the Forest Service refused to close the small 300-yard stretch of the McCloud we needed for the ceremony, instead only applying a “voluntary closure.” Several boaters, some of whom were drunk, didn’t heed the closure and interfered with the ceremony. One group parked their houseboat a stone’s throw from the cedar barkhut where Marine stayed during the ceremony, while another group of boaters drunkenly yelled obscenities and told us “It’s our river too, dude”. One woman on the boat flashed her breasts at us. This was captured on video and is included in this short film.


In 2010, as we prepared for Jessica and Winona’s Bałas Chonas, again the Forest Service was unwilling to implement a mandatory river, even though the 2008 Farm Bill provided them the authority to do so for American Indian religious ceremonies. They argue that the bill doesn’t apply to us because we aren’t a “federally recognized” tribe, despite the fact we have a Memorandum of Understanding with the Forest Service in which they state the Winnemem Wintu are the indigenous people from the McCloud River. How is that not an act of recognition?

A security team from the American Indian Movement-West attended to ensure the ugliness of 2006 was not repeated. An estimated 20 boats did pass through the ceremony site, including a group that dumped cremation remains in the river, the same river our girls would later swim through.

Even though there were no racial slurs or flashing on 2010, the ceremony was still severely disrupted. The fear of an ugly incident was constantly on our minds, and it distracted us from concentrated on the young women, who were supposed to be having the most sacred days of their lives.

Forest Service Law Enforcement did the right thing on the final day, fully closing the river to ensure Jessica and Winona could safely swim across.

In July 20111, we had planned to hold another Bałas Chonas for Marisa Sisk, the young woman who is training to be the Tribe’s next leader, but again we couldn’t secure a mandatory closure from the Forest Service.

Ultimately, our Chief decided the danger was too great not only to Marisa but the future of our Tribe, and she postponed the ceremony until next year. We will be campaigning through various ways for the next year to get a river closure for 2012.

You can stay up to date by visiting the Bałas Chonas blog, and by linking to our Facebook and Change.org profiles. Also, don’t hesitate to send a letter directly to Senators Feinstein and Boxer.

These ceremonies are vital to the fabric of our culture, and if our ceremonies aren’t protected, it means many others’ won’t be as well. To have true religious freedom in this country means every religion must be respected.

Winona and Jessica celebrated their ceremony in 2010