Winnemem Wintu Tribe Wrestles With Bureaucracy to Perform Sacred Ritual
Following many protests and support from grassroots activists to protect the privacy of their Coming of Age ceremony, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe was allowed to hold its ceremony along the McCloud River in northern California with minimal interference from outsiders.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) owns the ceremony site and runs it as a campground. In the months leading up to this year’s ceremony (June 30 to July 3), the tribe lobbied the USFS to enforce a mandatory river closure so that they could conduct their ceremony with dignity and some privacy. (Previous Coming of Age ceremonies were marred by heckling from recreational boaters and other park visitors.) Following a protest by the tribe at the regional USFS office in Vallejo, California, the USFS finally agreed to a closure of the river—something they had previously said they couldn’t do because the tribe isn’t federally recognized.
Winnemem Wintu Tribal Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk gathered with 200 tribal members and supporters in the honoring of Sisk’s 16-year-old niece, Marisa Sisk, who is training to be the next chief. During the ceremony, which is a rite of passage for all young Wintu women, Marisa spent three nights across the river in a traditional bark hut, where she received blessings and teachings from the spirit beings that inhabit the Two Sisters Mountain. (Traditional dugout canoes were lent to the tribe by the Redding Rancheria and Pit River Tribe, making this the first time dugouts had been used on the McCloud River since the 1930s. Caleen says the return of the dugouts would awaken spirits and add to the tribe’s spiritual protection.)
Marisa also learned about being a Winnemem woman from elders, ground traditional medicines on the sacred Puberty Rock and swam across the McCloud River to represent her transition to womanhood. After her swim, the tribe danced and sang for her. This part of the ceremony included a dance in which the men have to make her laugh, while she tries to keep a straight face as long as possible.
Guided by her aunt, Marisa also traveled to nearby sacred places with other Winnemem women, where they held talking circles and shared important lessons. Marisa also fetched cooking stones and made a traditional acorn soup for the other women in the tribe.
After the ceremony, USFS Law Enforcement Officer Torry Smith issued two citations to Caleen: one for the tribe’s use of a motorized boat to ferry elders across the river (the mandatory closure of a portion of the river banned all motorized boats) and the other for violating the terms of the special-use permit the tribe had signed to get permission to hold the ceremony. Each citation carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison or a $5,000 fine
Marc Dadigan has been embedded with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe since 2010 and was authorized by the tribe to do this reporting and take this photo. Many elements of the ceremony were private and not accessible to the public or photojournalists.