The last time members of
a Northern California Indian tribe held
a coming-of-age ceremony beside a
popular river, they were heckled by
boaters. Drunks yelled racial taunts,
jet-ski engines roared and a woman
flipped down her bathing-suit top as she
The tiny group known as
the Winnemem Wintu saw it as their right
to hold a sacred ceremony on their
ancestral land undisturbed. But some
vacationers on the McCloud River arm of
Lake Shasta near Redding were more in
tune with a man who shouted: "Hey dude —
it's our river, too!"
This weekend the Winnemem
are trying again, preparing an elaborate
four-day rite for two teenage girls. A
third was set to participate, but opted
out because of anxiety about outsiders'
reaction, said Winnemem chief Caleen
The U.S. Forest Service
is putting up signs announcing a
"voluntary closure" along the shore and
on a 200-yard stretch of the river.
Still, the Winnemem are bracing for
trouble during the ceremony, called
"We know what to expect,"
said Sisk-Franco. "We know there will be
some hostile people who go through the
voluntary closure. It's incredible that
the U.S. Forest Service can't find any
way to stop them."
The Forest Service
weighed the public's right to recreation
against the tribe's right to its rituals
and decided it had no legal authority to
shut off the contested portion of river
during the ceremony.
Supporters of the
125-member tribe say they will take to
the water themselves, asking boaters to
reverse course to avoid disrupting the
rites. Forest Service employees will
deliver the same message, according to
Debbie Davis, of the Environmental
Coalition for Water Justice, a
Sacramento-based group that has taken up
the tribe's cause.
"I have to say that the
Forest Service has tried very hard to
figure out how to do a full closure,"
she said. "The challenge is that the
tribe isn't federally recognized."
Under a 2008 law,
agencies can temporarily bar the public
from areas in which tribes are
conducting rituals. But those tribes
must be federally recognized — and most
California tribes, despite lengthy
attempts to meet federal criteria, are
In a letter to tribal
representatives, J. Sharon Heywood,
supervisor of the Shasta-Trinity
National Forest, said it's the Shasta
County Sheriff's Office that has
jurisdiction over boat traffic on the
A spokesman for the
sheriff's office referred all questions
to the Forest Service, where a
spokeswoman had no comment.
recognition has made life more
difficult, say the Winnemem. Last year,
they sued six federal agencies, accusing
them of destroying sacred sites during
road and bridge construction.
position basically is that since we're
not recognized, we're not really Indians
— and can't have sacred sites,"
The Winnemem, whose
ancestors lived along what is now the
McCloud River, say they ceded 4,800
acres to the federal government in
return for land that was never
Meanwhile, the creation
of the lake flooded many of their sacred
Only when the water level
drops in the summer does the place they
call Puberty Rock emerge. It's a central
spot in the coming-of-age ritual, in
which the girls sleep several nights in
a cedar-bark lodge on one side of the
river. On the day after a full moon,
they and their minders swim the 200 feet
or so across the McCloud as tribal
members on the other side welcome them
In 2006, the tribe
performed its first such ceremony in 80
On the final day, Shasta
County sheriff's deputies blockaded the
river for several hours after the Forest
Service asked them to step in.