OurMaps A Spatial Justice Toolkit for Grassroots Organizing


Water Wars and the Winnemem Wintu

Mapping Endangered Sacred Sites and Sacred Stories

Chief Caleen Sisk, Winnemem Wintu tribe, at a protest at the State Capitol building in July 2012. (photo by: unknown)

Chief Caleen Sisk, Winnemem Wintu tribe, at a protest at the State Capitol building in July 2012. (photo by: unknown)

Mapping sacred sites was a crucial part of the Winnemem Wintu’s movement to protest the raising of the Shasta Dam. With the support of researchers at DataCenter, Pacific Institute, and Stanford University, the tribe plotted the GPS coordinates of all of the sites, and then compared them with the area of land that is projected to be flooded with the raising of the dam to see which sites will be affected. The mapping serves two purposes: first, it met the immediate need to create detailed documentation of how the proposed dam raises would affect the Winnemem sacred sites (and thus their spiritual foundations). The results of that spatial analysis are now being used by the tribe as a core piece of evidence in their conversations with the various federal and state agencies that are involved with the dam raise project. Second, the map is a valuable cultural preservation and transmission tool for the tribe. Most of the religious and cultural ceremonies that occur at these sites are passed down through oral storytelling. But with only about 150 members Winnemem Wintu remaining, loss of cultural tradition and knowledge is a growing concern. Through GIS and other mapping software, these spatial points can be paired with audio interviews, photos, or videos to help preserve the legacy and history of these sites, particularly if they are ultimately submerged as a result of the dam raise.

Chief Caleen Sisk, the Tribal Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu, puts it succinctly:

“These are tools to put us back on the map. [The government] has wiped us off and we’re fighting to get back on.”

With all sides gearing up for an intense legal battle, the Winnemem Wintu, led by Chief Caleen Sisk, have documented (through quantitative mapping and qualitative interviews) the extent of impending cultural site destruction. They are now organizing their limited resources to fight for the preservation of their land and culture.

Project Overview

The Winnemem Wintu are one of the few remaining tribes in California. Located just south of Mount Shasta, their name translates roughly to mean “Middle Water People.” They are deeply culturally and spiritually connected to the McCloud River and the surrounding land. Winnemem Wintu identity is integrally tied to a hotly contested resource: freshwater. With ancestral roots in the McCloud River Basin from time immemorial, the Winnemem derive and sustain their cultural practices from the river and the land surrounding it. Each boulder and bend in the river has deep significance, and many specific sites represent the unique location where certain ceremonies are carried out. From birth celebrations to coming-of-age tests to ceremonies that mourn loss of life, every member of the tribe has a profound personal connection to the river’s curves and eddies.

McCloud River Basin (North of Redding), California, USA photo credit:  Map by Mike Reagan reproduced courtesy of Natural Resources Defense Council

McCloud River Basin (North of Redding), California, USA photo credit:
Map by Mike Reagan reproduced courtesy of Natural Resources Defense Council

Yet rivers like the McCloud also became lifelines for colonization of California. The massive diversion of those rivers through extensive dam-building enabled the transformation of an arid landscape into the agriculturally prolific California we know today– the fifth largest global exporter of fresh produce, earning it the name the “salad bowl of the world.” While the diversion has brought bounty, it has also meant degradation of cultural and spiritual traditions for tribes like the Winnemem Wintu.

In 1851, tribal leaders signed what was called the Cottonwood Treaty, which would have set up a 35-square-mile reservation for the tribe, but the U.S Senate refused to ratify it. The U.S. government’s refusal to ratify the 1851 agreement with the tribe means that the Winnemem Wintu are not a federally recognized indigenous group, and so have minimal means of legal recourse to assert their basic land, cultural, and religious rights. The Shasta Dam, completed in 1945, served as a giant “stopper” in the Sacramento River and created the largest reservoir in the US. More than 90 percent of the Winnemem Wintu’s original homeland was permanently submerged.

Despite the extensive erasure of much of their ancestral land without any compensation from the US government, the Winnemem survived and maintained their traditions, albeit with significant alterations. Today, the tribe faces a renewed threat of cultural erasure– this time from a proposed 20.5 foot raise of the Shasta Dam crest, which would increase its storage capacity by 300,000 acre feet. The project will be highly subsidized by the public, though the benefits will go primarily to agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley. But the expansion would mean the partial or complete submersion of 36 sacred sites on the tribe’s remaining lands, and endangerment of 15 others from increased access for recreationalists; it would essentially “cripple Winnemem Wintu spiritual, social and medicinal practices and create an irreversible upheaval of Winnemem Wintu culture as we know it” (Johnston 2012).

Shasta Dam, California, 2009. Photo credit: Apaliwal

Shasta Dam, California, 2009. Photo credit: Apaliwal

The proposal to raise the dam has been in the works for over a decade. The ongoing drought and projected decrease in California’s available freshwater due to climate change have heightened pressure to move the dam project forward. Westlands Irrigation District, the private water distributor that provides irrigation water for more than 600,000 acres of farmland in western Fresno and Kings counties, has already spent over $35 million to buy up more than 3,000 acres of land around the Shasta Reservoir in anticipation of the dam raise. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project is underway.

The Winnemem Wintu have been actively fighting for their land and cultural rights for decades, and escalated their protests over the past 10 years against the proposed 20.5 foot raise of the Shasta Dam. In May 2004, for the first time in over 100 years, the Winnemem held a H’up Chonas– a war dance– at the side of the dam, an act which gained international attention. The purpose of the war dance, according to statement from the tribe, was “not a declaration of war against the American people but a promise to resist against the dam raise and the forces that would cause our destruction through it.” They also issued a report in conjunction with the Bay-Delta Public Advisory Committee in 2005 which declared the project against the principles of environmental justice. Though their organizing slowed the project, the dam raise continues to move forward.

In 2008, the Winnemem Wintu partnered with DataCenter, a research justice organization based in Oakland, to document the importance of their sacred cultural sites through recording oral stories of the tribe members. Michael Preston, a member of the tribe and DataCenter Community Fellow, led the effort. As the project continued, the tribe also wanted to map the spatial locations of all their sacred sites to use as evidence in their fight for cultural preservation. They invited Eli Moore, a program director at the Pacific Institute, to support them. The Pacific Institute and the tribe were both members of the California Environmental Justice Coalition for Water and had worked together in the past.

Moore and his colleagues developed two day-long workshops in preparation for the sacred mapping work. The first workshop was devoted to setting goals and guidelines for the partnership between the Winnemem Wintu and its mapping partners, grounded in the value of partnership centered on the goals and needs of the tribe, and establishing accountability to the Winnemem Wintu. During the first day, the partners built a project agreement that detailed the roles, expectations, and decision-making mechanisms for the collaboration. The second workshop focused on technical skills training of using GPS units, creating map using Google Earth, and storing data securely. Members of the tribe, in particular three youth members, used the GPS units and new skills to map dozens of sacred sites over the following months. The goal of the workshop was not to map all the sites on that day, but to equip the tribe with the tools and experience necessary to do the mapping independently at later time, thus respecting the sanctity of the sites.

Keeping the spatial data private and secure was a primary concern of the tribe. On one hand, the maps and spatial locations of the the sacred sites need to be made public to some degree so that they can be used as evidence in the discussion with the Forest Service and other government agencies. However, a long history of defacement and disrespect of sacred sites by non-Winnemem require that the tribe be protective of the data. The tribe is still in the process of deciding who will have access to what data and how the data will be preserved over the long-term.

In 2011, the tribe also invited Lyla Johnston, a then-student in anthropology at Stanford University, to assist them in producing high-accuracy elevation measurements of the sacred sites and documenting the spiritual histories behind them. After working with the tribe for several months to develop the research design for the project, Johnston spent four months in residence at the last remaining Winnemem Wintu village, Tuiimyali, in 2011 and 2012. Working with Anne McTavish, a professor from UC San Francisco, the team used a precision Trimble Geo XH6000 global positioning system (GPS) unit to record the elevation of sacred sites within a vertical accuracy of 4 inches. The exact elevation of the flood line of the proposed dam raise was published, and mapping the elevation of sacred sites enabled the tribe to document which sites would be lost. The GPS coordinates of the sites were also superimposed onto maps published by the Bureau of Reclamation, in order to confirm that even the highest elevation sites lay below the projected shoreline.

Video interview with Lyla Johnston about the project and the cultural importance of the sites, with photos of Winnemem land and people. Video credit: Lyla Johnston.

Chief Caleen Sisk and Lyla Johnston worked with 25 Winnemem Wintu participants to gather and document the cultural and religious importance of each site, using surveys, semi-structured interviews, and day-to-day conversations. Chief Caleen Sisk led visits to all the sites with small groups of tribe members, visits that were important culturally and socially, as well as technically. “The field trips ended up becoming opportunities to teach the younger generation of Winnemem about their own homeland,” Johnston recalls. The project also solidified Winnemem evidence about the dam raise, and clearly showed that the subsequent expansion of the reservoir would mean the partial or complete submersion of 36 sacred sites on the tribe’s remaining lands, and endangerment of 15 others (by increased access for recreationalists). This would essentially “cripple Winnemem Wintu spiritual, social and medicinal practices and create an irreversible upheaval of Winnemem Wintu culture as we know it” (Johnston 2012)

Video of Winnemem Sacred Mapping: Video credit; Sacred Land Film Project.

The Winnemem Wintu hope that their work mapping sacred sites and sacred stories will be important in the current organizing, but also for years to come. The map of the exact geolocations of the sites is a deeply valuable cultural resource for the tribe. With only about 150 members of the tribe remaining, the traditional methods of oral cultural transmission have been weakened. A digital, web-based map of the sites opens up new possibilities for intergenerational cultural engagement within the tribe. In the future, the tribe could integrate photos, video interviews, and other media into the map to create a living record of these important sites. On a graver note, the map also serves as a cultural record for those sites that have either already been submerged or might be inundated in the future if the dam raise moves forward.

Don't Raise Shasta Dam! Winnemem Wintu action at Shasta Dam, 2013. Photo credit: Stormi Staats, Klamath Media

Don’t Raise Shasta Dam! Winnemem Wintu action at Shasta Dam, 2013. Photo credit: Stormi Staats, Klamath Media

These maps, it is hoped, will also influence the future of the Shasta Dam. The map of the sites is the first and only documentation that the Winnemem Wintu have to present to the state and federal agencies to show exactly how the projected flooding from the dam raise will impact their sacred sites (and thus cultural and spiritual foundations). The real impact of this evidence is as yet unknown– the debates and lawsuits around the dam raise are still raging. It will take at least 2 more years for a final verdict to be reached. But there is no question that the Winnemem Wintu are in a stronger position to find now that they have this concrete spatial evidence to clearly show the devastating impact this dam raise would have on their way of life.

To find out more, please visit Winnemem Wintu website, for information about the Winnemem Wintu, and information about the dam** and other struggles they are engaged in to preserve Winnemem culture and way of life along the McCloud River.

**Please note that due to the sensitivity of the spatial locations of the Winnemem’s sacred sites, there are currently no visual maps publicly available. The tribe is in the process of finding presentation methods that successfully visually communicate the information but also protect the privacy of the specific site locations.

Author(s): Theo Gibbs & Chris Schweidler