A Long History Shadows Fight Over California’s Shasta Dam
This article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Judy Silber, was originally published by The Spiritual Edge at KALW Public Radio.
A few years ago, I stumbled onto the story of the Winnemem Wintu people, an indigenous people of Northern California. Theirs is an epic tale and it grabbed hold of me. For several years, I tagged along with them whenever I could.
I was around so much, they started teasing me. The large fuzzy windscreens of my recording setup earned me a nickname. The Winnemem Wintu and their close friends call me and my microphone Gray Squirrel.
Nickname aside, I never took it lightly that the Winnemem Wintu let me into their space. For good reasons, many Native people are suspicious of outsiders. I understood their openness was special and rare. My greatest hope is that you will hear their story of struggle and resilience, of betrayal and a willingness to still believe in the good things to come – and that it will change you as it did me.
Behind the Chief we see the top of Shasta Dam’s immense concrete spillway set against a background of dry, rolling hills. Shasta Dam stands 602 feet high. It’s the country’s 8th tallest. It turned California into the giant, agricultural engine that it is today. It also left a legacy of harm when it flooded the Winnemem and other Wintu people off their land.
“This dam destroyed my people’s land, the burial grounds, the hunting grounds, the fishing grounds,” says Chief Sisk. “None of the people on the river wanted to give up their homes. They didn’t want to leave the river.”
She’s talking about the McCloud River. The McCloud is one of Shasta Dam’s main tributaries and for the Winnemem, it is their homeland. When the dam was built in the late 1930s, early 1940s, they were forced to leave, forever changing where and how they live.
Chief Sisk continues, “We didn’t get any land on the McCloud River. We didn’t get anything for everything that was taken. We were displaced and homeless and our people was in the boarding schools and in the service. And when they came home, they had to have a different kind of life.”
Young men like Calvin Sisk, Chief Sisk’s father returned from World War II to find their homes disappeared. They had to make their way however they could.
Also displaced from the McCloud were Chinook salmon. For thousands of years, they provided a food source for the area’s indigenous people, who regarded salmon as a sacred relative. But when Shasta Dam went up, it blocked the fish. They could no longer get to the McCloud.
“The salmon didn’t run up the river any more and we didn’t have any rights to fish on that river any more,” Chief Caleen Sisk tells the group.
Chief Sisk wears a skirt, long strands of beads and a traditional woven basket hat. Her long, black hair is braided down her back. She’s fairly small in stature, but with the solid build of a former softball player, which she is. Her appearance indicates a person who will stand up for herself — and her people. The Winnemem Wintu are like refugees on their own lands.
“But at this time, we’re trying to pull people back together, “ she says. “And it’s been a difficult fight for us with no land, without our fish, without ownership of our own sacred places. Fghting with the Forest Service all the time to even do our ceremonies. And now it’s like the Bureau of Indian Affairs has forgotten all about the land that they signed off on, on this river.
This is a complicated story. Along the way, I’ll do my best to explain. Here, Chief Sisk is referring to the fact that the federal government had to acquire Indian lands to build Shasta Dam. It was a messy affair.
Thanks to an 1887 law, Native people in the area owned key parcels. But old documents show the U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation, which was the agency in charge, lacked patience to track down these individuals. Instead, it asked Congress to grant compensation in bulk.
To this day, it’s an open question whether those funds ever got distributed. All of this is a point of bitterness for Winnemem. Indian lands helped build Shasta Dam. Yet the Bureau cheerfully spins the dam’s history as a successful New Deal Project. And the Visitor Center doesn’t mention the displacement it caused.
Chief Sisk has a plan.
“We’re going to gather up right around here,” she says. “We, the tribe has a letter to deliver to the Bureau of Reclamation about how absent we are in the information in there.”
“So anybody don’t want to do that, it’s time to duck out,” she says with a laugh.
The group, which includes Winnemem Wintu and supporters forms a line around the side of the Visitor Center. They start to make their way inside with signs and guitars as props, practising as they go.
As they enter, the Winnemem Wintu and their supporters have a lot on their minds. There’s the salmon. Today is one stop on a two-week prayer journey to call salmon back to the McCloud. They want recognition of their history. And they’re fighting a current federal proposal to enlarge the dam by raising it 18 and a half feet. The idea of a bigger dam pours salt on wounds that haven’t healed. It also threatenS sacred sites with more flooding. So this protest at the Visitor Center and Bureau of Reclamation headquarters isn’t just about the past. It’s also about the future.
Once inside, the group fills the small space. The atmosphere quickly turns tense. Michael Preston is the son of Chief Sisk. He approaches a woman seated behind a large desk near the door.
“Can you ask if there’s anyone back there who would be willing to come out to speak with us on behalf of the Winnemem Wintu tribe?,” he asks.
He waits quietly. The woman stares ahead with a blank look on her face. She says neither yes or no. She just flat-out ignores him, as if he’s not there. The non-response agitates the group.
A few members of the group begin to video what’s happening. Meanwhile, the gift shop sales person — the only other employee around — takes out his phone. He points it at the group with a slight smile on his face, as if he’s enjoying the spectacle.
A security guard in a brown uniform enters through a side door. He says he wants to make sure everyone is calm. Redding, the city where Shasta Dam is located, is not a big town. The Winnemem know him through personal connections.
“Are we relaxed?” he asks. “I can’t tell.”
“We can sing a song to get more relaxed,” Chief Sisk says.
Like a flash mob, but without the moves, the group breaks into song:
Respect the people. Tell the truth. Tell the story of the Winnemem Wintu.
We are the salmon and the salmon are us. Built a swimway so the salmon can run.
The song encapsulates the group’s main demands. To include information about the indigenous people flooded out by Shasta Dam. And an investment they’d like to see in a swimway to help salmon return to streams and lakes above the dam.
The audience consists of the security guard, the front desk woman, the gift shop employee and the cameras. The singing offers a release of tension. The expression of frustration with a system that has all but erased the Winnemem Wintu.
Once the song ends, Chief Caleen again tries to plead her case. To the front desk woman, she brings up the Shasta Dam Enlargement Project, which would raise the dam higher.
“We’re just asking…because you know, we’re the tribe from this river and the dam raise is going to impact us,” says Chief Sisk.
The phone rings while she’s talking. The front desk woman, who has been silent until now, picks up. The crowd is incredulous.
Then the security guard, who left briefly, returns. He tells the group the Visitor Center employees are a little freaked out. Chief Sisk says she just wants to read a letter. She asks if there are any Bureau of Reclamation staff around.
“Would you like me to accept a letter on their behalf today?” the security guard asks.
“No, we would want the officials,” Chief Sisk says.
“There’s nobody here to do that today,” the security guard answers.
“Isn’t there anyone you could call?” Chief Sisk asks.
Shasta Dam is a major infrastructure project. Its operations impact farmers and municipalities across the state. The Bureau of Reclamation’s website shows that the agency’s Northern California Area office and Shasta Dam Visitor Center share an address. But the security guard repeats: “There are no administrators around.”
It’s no wonder that they don’t know who we are because there’s nothing here that even says anything about Winnemem Wintu being flooded by this dam,” Chief Sisk says.
The security guard leaves. One of the men in the group is a Pomo ceremonial singer from Lake County named Gary Thomas. He leans over and whispers to Chief Sisk: “Maybe they think you’re all under the lake still. That you don’t exist any more.
The lake he’s talking about is Lake Shasta, created by Shasta Dam. In 1943 (CK), it flooded a huge area. 30,000 acres, including Winnemem Wintu villages, sacred sites and burial grounds. In the process, it expelled a culture that had already survived genocide and settler occupation. Since that forced exile, the Winnemem Wintu have managed to hold onto their identity and culture. But just barely. Chief Caleen turns to the group.
“All we’re asking for is the justice to be recognized and dealt with in a humanistic manner,” she says.
“Like we’re real people. Like we really have something that belongs to this river and the river belongs to us. It’s like that, right there, filming behind the door is the treatment that we get. We’re asking for some justice and to sit down with somebody.”
It’s now one minute before closing. There are no Bureau of Reclamation staff around, but she decides they will read the letter out loud anyway. Her son Michael Preston faces the cameras. He stares down at a piece of paper and reads:
To whom it may concern. We want the history and present realities of the Winnemem Wintu tribe from our point of view to be included in a permanent exhibit in the Visitor Center on Shasta Dam to accurately represent the suffering we have endured for the State of California’s water supply. It is only right that our sacrifice and contribution to California be acknowledged.
The installation of Shasta Dam and its operation since 1945 has had devastating effects on the Chinook and other fish, as well as all the wildlife, beavers, bears, mountain lions, etc. The plant life that have depended on the free flowing waters that have been impeded for 74 years. There needs to be made public a list of all the species that have been negatively affected by the dam.
Such a list should include the reduction of the number of Winnemem Wintu population.
Michael lowers the letter. The front desk employee says nothing. The group begins to file out. She gets up and holds open the door.
On the way out, the group walks past black and white photos that celebrate the ingenuity and labor that built Shasta Dam, that “converted wilderness into empire.”
Once outside, the group forms a loose circle on the grass. Everyone is upset by the treatment we witnessed inside the Visitor Center. But for the Winnemem, this kind of snubbing is not new. They can tick off a long list of indignities suffered through the years. Still, Chief Sisk is visibly shaken.
“It’s good that you got to see this because this is not the first time and it’s not going to be the last time for us,” she says.
“You can tell by the whole Visitor Center,” she continues. “It never mentions any of the Indian people. I mean, these are my people. This is my mom and dad who lived on this river.”
Chief Sisk’s people lived on the McCloud River for thousands of years. But to the federal government, she is an outsider. When it comes to forming policy, her opinions, her knowledge, her concern for salmon, clean water or the welfare of her people, mostly do not have a place at the table.
She worries about the enlargement project proposed for Shasta Dam. A bigger dam will flood important Winnemem sacred sites. Sites that cannot be replaced once they’re gone. So far, the Bureau of Reclamation has ignored their concerns. Officials say cultural resource consultation will begin once Congress has appropriated the funds to build. In other words, at a time when momentum could all but assure completion.
“We’re unresolved,” she says. “And so how is that meeting with us and working through those issues?”
“But yet, it’s still moving ahead.”
As Chief Sisk speaks, a different security guard approaches the group. She announces the group must leave the premises entirely.
“Oh why?” she asks. “We have to have a permit to gather in the Visitor Center place?”
The security guard answers, saying that when the group went inside, that’s when it became a problem and a liability. She says if they don’t leave, she’ll have to call the police.
“So I’m going to ask nicely now, will you leave the premises?”
Flustered, Chief Sisk speaks to the group.
“I don’t quite know what to say about this. We’re being threatened that we’re going to call the police because we want to talk and debrief and pray about this.”
“You know, this is not where I thought we’d get arrested,” she says. “On the public facility that sits on my land. This is my land, the land that they stole. This is all Wintu land, Winnemem land.”
Then Chief Sisk sings a song that she says is calling the old-time salmon back to Mt. Shasta. For the Winnemem, it’s a sacred mountain they call call Buliyum Puyuk.
“It’s calling for them,” she says as her voice begins to crack.
“Calling them home. And so while the treatment hurts my heart, I don’t expect anything more from people who have no heart about what this empire stands for. But we’re going to continue on.”
She calls out two words in the Winnemem Wintu language that mean never give up.
“We’re never going to give up,” she says.
Having gone with the Winnemem Wintu to the dam, being a witness to this confrontation with the Bureau of Reclamation, I was really struck by the fact that they say, they’ll never give up. Here’s this small community. They don’t have a big PR operation. And yet they’re not going to back down from this idea of justice.
JUDY: Lyla June, how do you see it?
LYLA JUNE: Well, I don’t think their cause is entirely lost. I think they actually do have a chance. I think they might have a greater chance than ever before because the world is finally ready to listen to indigenous peoples. We can no longer deny that our systems – our Western, Euro-centric systems are failing. The political systems, the social systems, the ecological systems are unraveling before our eyes. And so we’re like, maybe, maybe we don’t have the answers. Maybe we should take a look at other worldviews. Because here’s the thing. Even if it was a lost cause and the Winnemem Wintu knew that they weren’t going to win. Do you think that they would not put up a fight? No, because even if you’re going to lose and you know you’re going to lose, you have to go down swinging. You have to be able to tell your descendents, I tried. I at least gave it a fighting chance. And through that showing up for a battle, no matter what, you’re going to give it your all. That is a victory in and of itself. They could just sit down on a couch. They could just assimilate into American culture. But they’ve decided that the water’s worth fighting for; the salmon are worth fighting for. The whole future of California, frankly, is worth fighting for. And if they do go down, they’re going to go down with a fight.
We are the salmon and the salmon are us.
The Winnemem Wintu story covers a lot of ground. History, politics, racism, environmental destruction and cultural erasure. To help us understand it, we’ll start at the place where so much of the conflict circles around: Shasta Dam. start this story by talking about what happened to the winnemem wintu in the 20th century and why their relations with the federal government remain so tense. then in the rest of the series, we’ll follow what happens to the Winnemem Wintu as they fight two battles: one, to stop a federal dam project. and two, to return chinook salmon to their homeland.
I couldn’t have completed this documentary without the help of a lot of people. That includes Lyla June Johnston. She’s an indigenous scholar and musician who met and worked with the Winnemem Wintu years before I did. She’ll be a guide for us throughout the series.
She did a study on the Winnemem Wintu, an indigenous people of Northern California. And there’s a part of that study that made a really big impression on me when I read it. She said that to understand the Winnemem, we have to be willing to walk in the shoes of another culture.
LYLA JUNE: When I was an undergraduate student at Stanford University, writing this report with the Winnemem Wintu, and really trying to provide a piece of anthropology that was rigorous, but also useful, I realized that mainstream America would be reading this. And I realized that I would somehow need to relay and communicate this world. Where rocks are sacred. Where people feel this divine duty to protect salmon. And where we are self-designated protectors of the earth. Somehow, we’d have to translate this to a wider world. And so I knew I’d be beckoning people into a whole new universe with textures and tissues of Winnemem Wintu life are driven by these very nuanced desires in their hearts. And I knew I’d be cracking open what we thought was normal and our paradigms to understand this really interesting world.
JUDY: I know that cracking open is what happened to me. I grew up in California and yet I had no idea how much the Winnemem Wintu would teach me about their culture and struggles, but also about California water and the long history of injustice in this state. So we want to tell people that this isn’t necessarily going to be a piece of traditional journalism where you hear from one side and then you hear from the other. The way we think about it is that the American way of seeing things is presented to us every single day. We know that point of view. So the whole point of this documentary is to help people see things in a different way. We want people to come away with an understanding of the Winnemem Wintu, who they are and what they’re fighting for. Lyla June, you’re going to be with us throughout this documentary series. Before we let you go, can you introduce yourself?
LYLA JUNE: Sure. I’ll introduce myself in my traditional language, just to honor my ancestors… Greetings my kin and my people… My name is Lyla June. So I’m from the clan of the Dene Nation. We are also incorrectly known as Navajo. And on my father’s side, I’m Southern Cheyenne and also European. And I’m Ph.D. candidate, musician and a community organizer and I’m very honored to provide some of my commentary on this incredible journey you’ve been on.
A Prayer for Salmon is a project of The Spiritual Edge at KALW Public Radio. Support comes from the Templeton Religion Trust, California Humanities, the Kalliopeia Foundation, Save Our Spirits and The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative of the University of Colorado Boulder. We are produced on Ohlone and Coastal Miwok land.
Thank you to the Winnemem Wintu and the Run4Salmon community for welcoming us, our microphones and cameras into their midst. To contribute to the Winnemem Wintu’s nonprofit, go to sawalmem.io.
Judy Silber is the lead reporter for “The Spiritual Edge” from KALW in San Francisco, California.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.
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JOHN DANKOSKY: Local science stories of national significance. Northern California is home to the Winnemem Wintu Indigenous people. It’s also home to the massive Shasta Dam, which creates power from the Sacramento River. The dam is more than 600 feet tall and supplies water for agriculture and people all over California.
And there’s a proposal to make this big dam even higher. Now the relationship between the Winnemem Wintu and the Shasta Dam is complicated. The Winnemem Wintu live along the McCloud River. It’s a tributary of the Sacramento.
And this conflict is the basis of a new season of a podcast, The Spiritual Edge. It’s from KALW Public Radio in San Francisco. Joining me to talk about it is my guest Judy Silber who’s the lead reporter for The Spiritual Edge. Judy, welcome to Science Friday.
JUDY SILBER: Thanks so much for having me.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Well let’s start first with some history about the Winnemem Wintu tribe. What can you tell me about who they are? And what is their relationship to this land?
JUDY SILBER: Sure, so the Winnemem Wintu are an Indigenous people in Northern California. They’re a tiny tribe. So they only have about 130 enrolled members. And something important to know about them is they. Are not considered to be federally recognized. That is, there’s no official relationship with the Federal Government.
What’s important here to know about that is that they don’t have a reservation. And they don’t own any land along the McCloud River, which is their homelands. This is the place where their ancestors fished and lived. There’s a very strong relationship to place. And they’re constantly going back there. And that relationship to place is what makes them who they are.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So then let’s talk about the Shasta Dam. When exactly was it built? And just how big is it? Because from pictures it looks pretty massive.
JUDY SILBER: It is really big. Yeah, so Shasta Dam was built in the late 1930s. Construction started in the 1930s. It was completed in 1945. And it’s 602 feet tall. It’s actually the eighth largest dam in the entire country. And its reservoir, which is Shasta Reservoir, is the largest in the state of California.
So the reservoir, which is kind of the important part, because that’s the part that holds water, it is 4.5 million acre feet. So that means it can cover an area of 4.5 million acres and then a foot deep of that. So the dam and this reservoir were all built as part of what’s called the Central Valley Project. Which, as someone described it to me, was this audacious attempt to re-engineer California.
So California, in the North, you get a lot of rain during the winter. In the South, you get some but not so much. And the Central Valley Project, with Shasta Dam as a keystone part of that project, moved water from North to South and really completely changed the geography of the state.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And in changing the geography of the state, it changed the lands for the people that we’re talking about here, for the tribal groups.
JUDY SILBER: That’s correct. So the Winnemem Wintu– sort of the heart of their homeland, is on the McCloud River, which is one of four tributaries that goes into Shasta Dam. And so when Shasta Dam was built, all that water is held back. And that meant that their river, more than 20 miles of it, was flooded. And so when it was flooded, you had villages that were lost. You had sacred sites that were lost.
We actually have a clip from Chief Caleen Sisk, who’s the Winnemem Wintu hereditary and spiritual leader. And this is what she had to say about what happened when Shasta Dam was built.
CALEEN SISK: We didn’t get any land on the McCloud River. We didn’t get anything for everything that was taken. We were displaced and homeless. And our people was in the boarding schools and in the service. And when they came home, they had to have a different kind of life.
They’ve spent the time since then, since the 1940s, recuperating from that loss. And they’ve been barely hanging on since then. And so this effort to raise Shasta Dam higher, for them, it’s both like pouring salt on a wound, but it’s also like making the wound bigger, because They could lose even more.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And when we talk about losing even more, we’re talking about something that’s very important to them, the salmon, which is such an important part of tribal life, but also such an important part of the ecology of the region.
JUDY SILBER: Right, so when Shasta Dam went up, the salmon were blocked from being able to swim upstream. So they were blocked from basically their spawning grounds. So the McCloud River was once considered one of the most plentiful spawning grounds in the entire state. Scientists have estimated that within the entire watershed that is covered by Shasta Dam, you had somewhere between a million and 2 million fish that were migrating upriver every year. And the McCloud river was a key part of that.
And so when Shasta Dam went up, they can’t get to the McCloud. They’re blocked. You have salmon numbers that are plummeting. And they and they just have kept going down since then. And so salmon have just really suffered, because they’re not able to access the cold waters that they need to. And then the Winnemem Wintu to have suffered as well because of that. Because they don’t have the species, which for them– well, they consider it a cultural resource.
JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m talking with Judy Silber. She’s lead reporter for The Spiritual Edge. Judy, you’ve talked about this proposal to raise the dam higher. What exactly would the purpose be of raising the dam?
JUDY SILBER: The idea behind raising Shasta Dam, behind building it higher, is to get a little bit more water for these farmers who have actually been suffering during these drought years that we’ve had in California. And so, everyone knows that with climate change, California’s droughts are getting longer and more frequent. And so one of the proposals on the table has been, well, to build a bigger reservoir, which would then be able to hold more water. And then that would give more water to the farmers down South.
The problem with that is that there are people who question whether Shasta Dam will ever fill again. The consequences for the Winnemem Wintu, their pretty severe. For the Winnemem Wintu, it means that more of their sacred sites, even one of the old village sites, would be destroyed. They have sacred rocks that would go under water, rocks that are used for important ceremonies, such as Rite of passage ceremonies for their young women.
And they basically say, we have sacrificed enough for the state of California. We gave you all this water. It’s enough. It’s enough. And we actually need something back now, as opposed to taking more away.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Judy, is there a plan to bring the salmon back to this river
JUDY SILBER: There is. So the federal government has been working on a plan since 2010 to bring one species of salmon– it’s called the Winter-run Chinook Salmon, back to the McCloud River. I don’t want to give everything away, because you should listen to the podcast.
But I will say, that this past summer I was able to attend a ceremony on the McCloud River, where eggs from a local hatchery were actually planted into the McCloud river. Those eggs hatched. And then those little tiny salmon, those juvenile salmon swam downstream, where they were then captured. Because of course you have to get them around Shasta Dam. They can’t just fall over the dam.
So they captured them. And then they brought them to a place below the dam, and then let them be on their way to swim out to the ocean and grow. It was a really moving moment. Because it was the first time in about 80 years that any salmon had been swimming in the McCloud, so since Shasta Dam was built.
So that’s the Federal Government’s plan. The Winnemem Wintu are on board with that plan. But they also have another idea for bringing salmon back. And they’re really intent on this idea. And that is to bring basically wild salmon back to the McCloud.
So the other salmon that are now in the river were hatchery salmon. They want to bring wild salmon. And it’s a wild story as to where those salmon come from. But I’m not I’m not going to spoil the ending on this one. I’ll let people listen. And you can find out what I’m talking about.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Judy Silber is lead reporter for The Spiritual Edge. The podcast is based at KALW in San Francisco, California. Judy, thanks so much for joining us. I really appreciate it. And thank you for this reporting.
JUDY SILBER: Thank you.
JOHN DANKOSKY: The podcast, The Spiritual Edge is airing A Prayer for Salmon, right now. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts and at spiritualedge.org.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.