In our language, Winnemem Wintu translates to Middle Water People, as the Winnemem Waywaket (McCloud River) is bounded by the Nomtipom Waywaket (Upper Sacramento River) to the west and the Pit River to the east. We were born from water, we are of the water, and we fight to protect it.
We are indigenous to northern California and have been formally recognized by the California Native American Heritage Commission, an agency of the State of California, with responsibility for preserving and protecting Native American sites and cultural resources in California. We once numbered approximately 14,000; by 1910, after several decades of conflict with white settlers, that number had plummeted to 400. Today the tribe’s population is approximately 150.
Archeological and ethnographic studies indicate that we have lived in our ancestral homelands for at least 6,000 years, but our traditional knowledge and stories provide evidence we have been here for far longer. We are intimately connected to the Winnemem Waywaket (McCloud River), Buliyum Puyuuk (Mount Shasta), and the surrounding meadows. As Chief Caleen Sisk explains, “[O]ur beginning of life comes from Mt. Shasta, so all those stories up and down the river have meaning – from Yellow Jacket Mountain, to Fox Mountain, to the Sucker Pools, all these have stories that belong to the Winnemem people and songs that go with them.”
Recognized by the Federal Government
The U.S. government first recognized the Winnemem Wintu in 1851, when it entered into the Cottonwood Treaty. Through this treaty, the Winnemem Wintu and several other Native American tribes ceded their homelands to the United States in exchange for the creation of a 35-square mile reservation. Due to pressure from California legislators who didn’t want to cede the lands, Congress, however, failed to ratify the treaty and 17 others, and the reservation was never created. The Winnemem Wintu and other tribes were never compensated for the taking of their native lands, and what resulted was an epidemic of homeless, landless Indians throughout California.
Less than thirty years later, an additional 280 acres were taken for the establishment of a government reservation fish hatchery along the McCloud River. The Winnemem were employed at the hatchery by the federal government due to their extensive knowledge of salmon. In 1941, Congress enacted the Central Valley Project Indian Land Acquisition Act, which provided for the creation of the Shasta Dam along the McCloud River. Once constructed, Shasta Dam caused flooding on much of the Winnemem Wintu’s tribal land and many sacred places. The United States has not compensated the Winnemem Wintu for the loss of these lands and has not fulfilled its promise to place new land into trust for the tribe.
Since 1985, the U.S. government has refused to grant federal recognition of the Winnemem Wintu tribe. The lack of federal recognition jeopardizes the tribe’s continued existence in the Mount Shasta area and has cut off federal benefits that are provided to tribes with federal recognition and which the federal government previously provided to the Winnemem Wintu. In the face of these hardships, the tribe strives to preserve its native language, practice its religion and traditional healing methods, and protect its sacred sites and burial grounds from further encroachment by the federal government.
Unrecognized – An Invisible People with Invisible Human Rights
In 1978, what is now the BIA’s Office of Federal Acknowledgement (OFA) was created to establish a formal process for Indian tribes to establish government-to -government relationships. Increasingly, federal Indian policy has used this list of “federally recognized” tribes as a way to define who qualifies as an Indian, even though the list of federally recognized tribes is inaccurate and the process to petition for recognition has well-documented problems, as evidenced by several GAO reports and analysis by various anthropologists and ethnographers. 
Before 1978, the Winnemem were recognized as Indians due to their participation in the California Lands Claim case, and many tribal members still have paperwork verifying their Indian “blood.” They, thus, still received BIA benefits and were able to use the American Indian Religion Act, even though the tribe was omitted from the OFA’s first list of recognized tribes.
A court case in the 80s later changed the requirements so that American Indians had to belong to a federally recognized tribe in order to access these benefits and rights. The Winnemem never received any notice from the BIA about these changes to their eligibility.
The tribe sent to letters to California senators and congressman as well as to the BIA asking for the agency to correct its “clerical error”, but never received any response other than to begin the petitioning process with the BIA’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment.
The Winnemem’s stance is that we should not have to petition for a status we should rightfully have now. Also, with such limited resources, the tribe does not believe the time, money and energy required to put together a petition is worth the sacrifice of time related to cultural activities and knowledge transmission to the youth.
The California Native American Heritage Commission has writtern to the BIA asserting that the Winnemem Wintu deserves federal recognition. The California State Assembly also passed Joint Resolution 39, which called for the federal government to recognize the Winnemem.
Being unrecognized affects the tribe’s efforts to retain and practice their culture in ways large and small:
- Some federal agencies view the tribe as no more important than fishermen, recreation enthusiasts or other non-profits when it comes to infrastructure and development projects with their territory. This is most harmful in the current studies underway to raise the Shasta Dam. The Bureau of Reclamation is not obligated to consult with the tribe even though they are preparing a section of a report on Wintu cultural resources that will be affected and/or damaged by the raise. The dam raise would likely submerge nearly 40 Winnemem sacred sites, but the Bureau has only visited the tribe’s river once in nearly 30 years of studying the raise.
- Winnemem Wintu tribal members cannot legally possess eagle feathers or receive eagle feathers from the federal repository. Our Chief has possessed an “indefinite” eagle feather permit for 25 years, and received notice in April, 2011, that it was revoked because she didn’t belong to a federally recognized tribe.
- The tribe has limited access to Indian Health Services, and has to travel nearly three hours to Sacramento to receive adequate care.
- Their 42-acre village is not recognized as tribal land and is, thus, zoned as single family housing by the county. This restricts the water, sanitation and electrical infrastructure the tribe can provide to the village’s 33 residents, and puts their health in danger.
- The tribe no longer qualifies BIA scholarships. Many Winnemem who went to college on BIA scholarships now have children who are not eligible for the same scholarships.
- Being unrecognized severely limits the number of federal and even non-profit grant opportunities that the Winnemem Wintu are eligible to apply for.
- The U.S. Forest Service has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Winnemem Wintu, but we still have limited say over policy affecting important sacred sites on Forest Service land. A recognized tribe would be able to enter a stronger Memorandum of Agreement.
- We are not eligible for many language restoration grants and other opportunities to find resources to help preserve their language.
- We are unable to use portions of the Farm Bill that allow only “federally recognized tribes” to temporarily close a sacred site for ceremonies and other “traditional activities”.
 GAO Report: “Improvement needed in Tribal Recognition” http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d0249.pdf
 See: http://www.winnememwintu.us/ajr-39-and-nahc-letter/