Site Report: McCloud River Watershed

United States
Report by: 
Amy Corbin
Date Posted: 
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Date Updated: 
Friday, September 20, 2013
McCloud River Watershed

In 2000, California’s water wars entered a new phase with an ambitious plan called the CALFED Bay-Delta Program. Included in the plan was the proposal to raise Shasta Dam, on the McCloud River, by between six and 200 feet, which would impact the native people in the area; however, their voices have been largely left out of the debate. In 2004, Congress adopted the plan, appropriating $395 million for feasibility studies, including raising the dam and enlarging the reservoir. The threat posed by raising the dam led the Sacred Sites International Foundation to include the McCloud River Watershed on its 2008 list of endangered sacred sites. “Raising Shasta Dam even six feet will flood most of our remaining sacred sites along the McCloud River,” said Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader and tribal chief of the Winnemem Wintu, whose cultural identity as winnemem or “middle river people” derives from their ancestral homeland along the river. “We feel like Catholics would feel if it was decided that flooding the Sistine Chapel was a good public works project.”


One day in the 1940s, Florence Jones, the late Winnemem Wintu healer, and her family received eviction notices. Their allotment land on the McCloud River in northern California, below Mount Shasta, was soon to be flooded by the new Shasta Dam. They returned from the post office to find their homes had already been bulldozed. A few years later, the dam was completed and the new reservoir flooded much of the lower McCloud River, including Wintu sacred sites, ancestral villages and burial grounds.

Congress initiated the Shasta Dam project in 1937, and in 1941 approved the Central Valley Project legislation that authorized the government to acquire Indian lands that would be flooded by Shasta Dam. By 1944 the dam was completed. Funds “for the acquisition of other lands” represented a promise by the U.S. government to compensate the indigenous inhabitants of the McCloud River valley for the more than 4,400 acres of allotment land the Winnemem people would lose to the lake, and to provide a cemetery for the relocation of 183 burials.

Although a cemetery now exists in Shasta Lake City, from the point of view of the Winnemem, there is serious unfinished business that needs to be resolved before another acre of land is lost to a new, deeper reservoir. The government broke its promise to compensate the Winnemem for their lost land, has denied them status as a federally recognized tribe, and now wants them to give up more traditional land. Of the sacrifices already made and the additional sites that will be destroyed by this project, Caleen Sisk said, “This is too much to ask of a people.”

Today, speed boats and water skiers roar through the Winnemem Wintu’s ancestral territory, and trout fishermen still enjoy the free-flowing upper reaches of the McCloud River. Though it has become conventional wisdom that large dams are harmful to the environment, there has long been talk of raising Shasta Dam to supply California’s ever-growing demand for water. Raising the dam would result in the second flooding of what remains of the Winnemem homeland.

With a renewed sense of crisis about California’s water and power resources, a number of federal and state agencies, agricultural groups and environmentalists came together in 2000 to negotiate an enlarged system for water storage in the Sacramento Bay-Delta area, between San Francisco and Sacramento, under the guise of a new partnership called CALFED. Water from the delta is used by farmers in California’s Central Valley, by millions of consumers in southern California, and by many threatened wildlife species, including salmon. One part of CALFED's plan is the multibillion-dollar proposal to raise the height of Shasta Dam to store more water. Some environmental groups have signed on, which means sacrificing more of the free-flowing McCloud River, already flooded for 15 of its 35 miles. Other environmentalists—and the Winnemem Wintu—are opposed to the CALFED plan.

In 2001, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced CALFED legislation to fast track the three federal feasibility studies required by law, including the one for raising Shasta Dam. Faced with opposition from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Feinstein agreed to modify her bill and reintroduced it two years later, this time gaining Boxer’s support. This triggered a dramatic succession of events in the latter part of 2004. In August, Sisk, leader of the Winnemem Wintu, says she was directed by tribal ancestors in the spirit world to begin preparations for a traditional war dance, which had not been conducted since 1887. Although the plan to raise the dam had been slowly evolving for years, Sisk felt a sense of urgency and invoked the ancient ceremony.

On Sept. 12, the Winnemem arrived at the dam to dance, fast on acorn water, pray and sing during the four-day ritual. Just as the war dance was about to begin, the Winnemem got word that Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) was preparing to introduce legislation to restore their federal tribal recognition. The Winnemem were asked to cancel or postpone the war dance, so as not to attract negative attention or arouse the wrath of politicians who favored raising the dam. But political compromise could not interfere with their spiritual beliefs and the war dance went on.

On the third day of the dance, after 10 years of stalemate, Feinstein and Boxer presided over the passage of the CALFED legislation that funded $395 million in feasibility studies on increasing California’s water supply, including the raising of Shasta Dam. And then, on the fourth day of the dance, word came that Campbell would remove the language recognizing the Winnemem from his proposed technical amendment legislation. But the dance was completed and was reported in media around the world, including the New York Times. The intense two months ended on Oct. 25, 2004, when President Bush signed the CALFED bill into law. Soon after, the Sacramento Bee quoted Feinstein: “I believe it is a God-given right as Californians to be able to water gardens and lawns. The state is growing by 700,000 to 1 million people a year. It is going to need new water storage.”


The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is currently studying the environmental impacts of raising the Shasta Dam from between six and 200 feet. Raising the dam even six feet would submerge more than 780 acres of land along the part of the McCloud River that still flows free. The dam’s base can support a raise of up to 200 feet, a project that seems unlikely now, but will be tempting as the growing population of California clamors for more water. Any rise in Lake Shasta will drown Wintu sacred sites, including as many as 26 village sites with burial grounds and prayer rocks. Higher water levels would flood the canyon, endangering wildlife and forests, and increasing the number of houseboats, drowned trees and sterile lake beaches. Some politicians acknowledge that the amount of water that would be provided by raising the dam will not make a significant dent in California’s water problems, and that it makes more sense to develop reservoirs in other locations and emphasize conservation of both water and electricity.

While the feasibility study was under way, the Westlands Water District — the nation's largest water district, representing 700 farms in Fresno and Kings counties — purchased 3,000 acres of land around the McCloud River. According to news reports, the $35 million deal, completed in February 2007, was the district’s way of assuring that if the Bureau of Reclamation recommends the raising of the Shasta Dam, there will be no property owners to stand in the way.

In its 2008 list of endangered, lost and saved sacred sites, the Sacred Sites International Foundation included the McCloud Watershed — ranging from Mount Shasta down to Shasta Lake — as one of the endangered sacred sites. The foundation noted that the Upper McCloud River (above Shasta Dam) including Mount Shasta and the Winnemem’s sacred Panther Spring, all within the boundaries of the National Forest Service, have been saved while the lower McCloud River, as well as the Winnemem lands and burial grounds, was lost to the dam’s initial construction in the 1940s.

In addition to their efforts to keep the rest of their homeland from being flooded, Winnemem Wintu must also fight for the right to perform traditional ceremonies undisturbed. In July 2006, the Winnemem held a puberty ceremony for Waimem Sisk, 14, daughter of Sisk and Headman Mark Franco. Waimem spent four days and nights on one side of the river, sleeping in a bark hut at night, walking upriver by day, and listening to aunts, friends and elders pass on women’s knowledge. On the fourth day, along with three attendants, Waimem swam across the river and joined the ceremony as an adult.

After much wrangling with the Forest Service and local law enforcement prior to the ceremony, the Forest Service agreed to institute a voluntary closure and to ask boats to stay out of the small arm of the McCloud River portion of Shasta Lake Reservoir while the ceremony was under way, because children and adults were frequently in the water. Most boaters chose to stay away. A few powered their way in, waving beer cans, yelling insults and baring breasts. This prompted the sheriff to close the river arm totally to boat traffic on the final afternoon, as Waimem swam across the river, and the remainder of the ceremony took place in peace. A deer appeared to watch the deer dance, and a bald eagle landed in a tree across the river at the moment the ceremony concluded.

Although Sen. Campbell introduced a standalone bill titled “The Winnemem Wintu Tribe Clarification and Restoration Act” in 2004, which affirmed the tribe’s assertion that they have had an ongoing, unbroken government-to-government relationship with the United States since the 1800s and that “the Tribe should have been included in the 1979 listing of federally recognized California tribes,” the Wintu still do not have federal recognition. The California Legislature passed a joint resolution in 2008 urging the U.S. Congress to correct this oversight. (Click here to watch our three-minute film clip of Wintu testimony in Sacramento). On April 20, 2009 the Winnemem Wintu Tribe filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs asking for redress for decades of unfulfilled promises and destruction of sacred sites. Continuing the 2004 War Dance at Shasta Dam, a traditional ceremony was held near the Sacramento River on the eve of the lawsuit filing.

In February 2012, the Bureau of Reclamation released a Draft Feasibility Report determining the project to raise Shasta Dam was “technically and environmentally feasible” and “economically justified.” The study found the most economically feasible option, raising Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet, would cost more than $1 billion in taxpayer funds.

The process of raising of the dam is still in its initial stages. The Bureau received public comments on its Draft Feasibility Report and Draft Environmental Impact Statement from July to September 2013. If approved and funded by Congress, the dam raise could be completed by 2021.

The Winnemem Wintu strongly opposed the findings of the Draft Feasibility Study. Chief Caleen Sisk called the EIS a “dehumanizing document. It takes our beautiful culture and summarizes it into a couple paragraphs, and just names a couple sites.”


The raising of Shasta Dam should be taken out of CALFED plans and the Winnemem sacred sites along the McCloud River should be acknowledged and protected by keeping the water at its current level. Discussions should begin about restoring the McCloud River Watershed, its salmon runs and the Winnemem landholdings on the river. Those negotiating water policy should take cultural sites as well as environmental concerns into account when studying the effects of dam construction or expansion. Water conservation and more efficient management of existing supplies should be pursued instead of new storage schemes. Finally, no new Central Valley Project water contracts should be signed until the full biological impact and cultural losses to the Winnemem people can be publicly commented on and evaluated, and the promises made to the Winnemem during the initial construction of Shasta Dam have been redressed. Promising more water now ensures that Shasta Dam will have to be raised.

Nothing will right the historical wrongs done to the Winnemem without federal tribal recognition, which the Winnemem continue to pursue. They have already lost much of their land and heritage to the development of California; now it is time that they are empowered to care for their remaining land.

What You Can Do

Please bring your concerns about the McCloud River and Wintu homelands to the attention of  Sen. Boxer. Ask your Congressional representatives to support federal recognition of the Wintu; read this fact sheet to learn about the injustices that occurred because of their lack of federal tribal status.

For more information, visit the Winnemem Wintu Tribewebsite.You can also contact the Native Coalition for Cultural Restoration of Mount Shasta & Medicine Lake Highlands Defense at 530-926-3397 or by e-mail.


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Coiro, Angie, host. "Shasta Dam." KQED Radio Forum, March 4, 2005. (featuring Caleen Sisk, tribal chief of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, Jeff McCracken, public affairs director for the Mid-Pacific Region of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Keith Coolidge, deputy director of communications for the California Bay Delta Authority, and Sacred Land Film Project Director Christopher McLeod)

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