Lower McCloud River

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Location: Redding, California

Who Considers it Sacred? Native Americans (Winnemem Wintu Tribe)

Significance: The McCloud River is home to the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. They and their ancestors have always been water people, caretakers and guardians of the entire watershed. The lower reaches of the McCloud River were flooded in 1941 with the completion of the Shasta Dam, the eighth largest dam in the United States. Over 90% of the Winnemem’s ancestral lands were flooded when the dam was completed, including many portions of the McCloud watershed. The river provided a critical salmon spawning habitat and salmon runs have been destroyed by the dam.

The Shasta Dam was constructed to supply water to fertile but arid parts of California. In doing so, however, it wreaked havoc on the Winnemem as a people and as a culture. They were forced to exhume the bodies of 183 of their elders and re-bury them in a government-created cemetery. To this day the cemetery is not in the Winnemem name, and is instead a segregated cemetery that is part of another cemetery in Shasta City. The Winnemem lost 4480 acres of Indian allotment land when the dam was built. While the Winnemem were promised land and compensation for all they lost, the government has yet to deliver on any of these promises.

The Threat: Industrial development

Preservation Status: The watershed includes 33 sacred sites, ranging from burial grounds to village sites to ceremonial places still in use by the Winnemem Wintu. These include sites such as Puberty Rock, where coming-of-age ceremonies for young women are held; this sacred place is located next to a former Winnemem village where former leader and healer Florence Jones grew up. The village site, now a US Forest Service campground, is also where the largest Winnemem massacre occurred at the hands of European gold seekers in the 1800s.

Attempts to Preserve the Site: Since the construction of Shasta Dam, the Winnemem have traveled countless times to Washington, D.C. to demand the land and private cemetery promised to them and to advocate for better protection of remaining sacred sites. In 2004, after years of futile advocacy, the Winnemem made a more dramatic stand: they held a war dance on Shasta Dam to declare their opposition to the government’s efforts to raise the dam. Today, they carry on this fight through an intensive, strategic advocacy and organizing campaign designed to provide some compensation for all that was lost with dam construction and pave the way for future preservation of their sacred and cultural sites.

Current Condition: The lower McCloud River and all the cultural and sacred sites in the area are completely under water today, covered by the Shasta Reservoir. The Shasta Dam has changed the rest of the river ecosystem, altering river water temperatures and flows, and destroying wildlife habitat. Most dramatic has been the decimation of salmon runs, which were part of the spiritual and nutritional basis for Winnemem’s lifeways. Recreation on Shasta Lake and at associated campgrounds has further impacted cultural and ceremonial sites. While some parts of the upper watershed remain in pristine condition, due to environmental protections or private preservation, conservation has come at the expense of tribal access to ancestral lands.

Nominated By: The Sacred Land Film Project

For More Information: Sacred Sites Newsletter Volume XX, Numbers 1 & 2, Fall 2008/Winter 2009

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