Winnemem Fear Forest Service Harrassment During Sacred Ceremony
Less than two weeks away from the Coming of Age Ceremony (Bałas Chonas) for a 16-year-old Winnemem Wintu teenager, U.S. Forest Service officials and the small Northern California tribe are still working on an agreement that would ensure the tribe doesn’t suffer any interference from the public or law enforcement that have plagued previous ceremonies on the McCloud Arm of Shasta Lake.
The tribe is concerned they have yet to see the exact language of the Forest Service’s special use permit or temporary water closure, said Traditional Chief Caleen Sisk.
“It’s frustrating that it’s coming down to the wire again because we should be focusing on getting Alicia [Scholfield] ready, doing the things we need to do to be in the right of frame of mind,” Sisk said. “And what if they present documents right before the ceremony that would turn us into law breakers for practicing our religion like they did last year?”
This year’s ceremony for Alicia Scholfield will be held July 20-23 at the ceremonial grounds on the McCloud, home to several sacred places integral to the proceedings. The land was taken from the tribe by the federal government without compensation during the World War II construction of the nearby Shasta Dam, and it’s now managed as a campground within the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
During last year’s ceremony for Sisk’s niece Marisa Sisk, the water closure order, meant to keep out drunken boaters and fisherman who have harassed the tribe in previous years, didn’t include an exemption for the tribe’s motorboat, which is needed to ferry elders across the river for ceremonial purposes. (Related story: “Winnemem Wintu Tribe Wrestles With Bureaucracy to Perform Sacred Ritual”)
U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officers entered the ceremonial grounds on multiple occasions to question the tribe about their boat. They later issued two citations that carried up to a year in prison for Caleen Sisk because a volunteer ferried her and other elders through the closure area. The U.S. District Attorney later decided not to pursue the charges, and the citations were dropped.
The Forest Service is currently working on the “feasibility” of a temporary closure order for the waterway for motorized vehicles with an exception for the tribe’s boat and a special use permit for the campgrounds, said John Heil, press officer for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region. He also said the law enforcement officers would be focused on assisting the tribe if there are any public safety issues.
“We continue to value the relationship with the Winnemem and their traditions, and that is why we’re meeting with Chief Caleen and the tribe in the near future,” Heil said “We will work with the tribe within our legal authority to provide the necessary privacy.”
However, Heil said Forest Service officials have determined they can’t legally close the land to outsiders, one of the tribe’s stated needs.
Another unresolved issue is the fees owed to the campground concessionaire who contracts with the Forest Service and would normally receive money from campers. Chief Sisk said the tribe won’t pay as it’s insulting to pay to use their own sacred sites.
Adding to the tribe’s concern is a sudden switch in their main Forest Service contact. Since May 31, Southwest Pacific Region Tribal Relations Program Manager Bob Goodwin has met with the tribe and corresponded over e-mail about the ceremony, but he notified them July 1 that Shasta-Trinity Forest officials would be taking over in an effort to restore the local relationship with the Winnemem.
“It seems to be a pattern with them, bringing people in and out,” Sisk said. “It’s hard to establish any connection or real trust.”
Heil said Goodwin would try to attend the next meeting if his schedule permits, and Goodwin told the tribe via e-mail that he’s still available to assist Shasta-Trinity officials.
Because the Winnemem are federally unrecognized, Shasta-Trinity National Forest officials had long said they couldn’t close the waterway for the ceremony, even though in past years drunken boaters motored through the ceremony yelling racial slurs and even flashing their breasts.
After several months of protests and social media campaigning aimed at Regional Forester Randy Moore, whose jurisdiction includes Shasta-Trinity, Moore agreed last June to provide a water closure for safety reasons.
How has all this affected Alicia? She is working on her dress for the ceremony, which ends with her transitioning to womanhood by swimming across the water.
“I’m nervous about the swim across the lake. I hope I make it,” she said. About the issues with the Forest Service, Alicia said: “Religious freedom should be a right for all.”