Winnemem Wintu Nation Fights Against The Clock To Preserve Their Heritage

The Winnemem Wintu Nation only wants the California government to grant them one thing–to allow sixteen-year-old Marisa Sisk to complete her coming-of-age ceremony by legally closing a section of the McCloud River for four days. Unfortunately, Sisk may be blocked from the vital ritual for reasons that started decades ago and continue to this day.

Indian Country Today explains:

Forest Service officials say they can legally close the river only for a federally recognized tribe, and the Winnemem have delayed Marisa’s ceremony, fearing it will be disrupted by the same vulgar disturbances that have marred the previous two ceremonies within the tribe’s ancestral territory along [California’s] McCloud River.

Ignoring voluntary closures, recreational boaters have motored through the ceremony site, now a Forest Service campground, some swilling beer and yelling racial slurs like “Fat Indians!” or disruptive taunts like “It’s our river too, dude!” In 2006, a drunken woman flashed the tribe with her naked breasts, and in 2010 a boater dumped cremations in the river shortly before a ceremonial swim.

“Without a river closure, it’s really scary for us to be out there with the boats and the booze,” said Marine Sisk, 20, who celebrated her own Coming of Age ceremony in 2006. “I want no interruptions for Marisa so she can learn about what it means to be a woman in the right way. A good ceremony is going to help her a lot like it helped me.”

The Winnemem appealed to head Forester Randy Moore, who received them during their visit. However, Moore notes that only federally recognized indigenous groups can request a river closure. The Winnemem are recognized by the state and while they have begun the long process toward being federally recognized it will be too late for Sisk, who needs to complete the ceremony in order to eventually lead the Winnemem people.

There is a 10-minute video that details the tribes struggle and continuing appeal to the state to allow the river closure. The video is slightly NSFW, mostly because a woman confuses a spiritual ceremony with Mardi Gras.

Interested parties can help by appealing to Randy Moore directly–his contact information is However, even if the Winnemem receive this small victory, there is a much harder road to walk. Indian Country Today continues:

The sacred stone [termed a Puberty Rock] is central to the ceremony, and it is where the young celebrants learn to grind traditional medicines in the smooth indentations and it serves as “a sounding board” for the young women to receive teachings from the spirit beings. If the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposal to raise Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet is realized, Puberty Rock would be drowned for most of the year, making it impossible to have the ceremony.

However, all except for the rock at the Forest Service’s campground now dwell under the depths of Shasta Lake, the reservoir of Shasta Dam, which flooded numerous Winnemem Wintu villages and sacred places when it was constructed during World War II.

The lack of other accessible Puberty Rocks, and the interwoven nature of the sacred places is why the ceremony can only be held at the campground, Sisk says. And even the existing Puberty Rock spends most of the year underwater because it’s located where the McCloud River intermingles with Shasta Lake, which has a 30,000 square-acre surface area.[…]

Marine Sisk’s Coming of Age ceremony in 2006 was the Winnemem Wintu’s first since 1924, and they are not alone in bringing it back: flower dances and other puberty ceremonies have enjoyed a resurgence among Northern California tribes over the past 10 years, said Cutcha Risling Baldy, a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis who is studying the ceremonies.

“Bringing back these ceremonies seem to be an important part of these communities’ healing from all the past atrocities and the genocide,” said Risling Baldy, who is a Hoopa Valley tribal member. “In indigenous societies, women were important to their strength and balance, and the ceremonies are restoring that.”

(Image Credit: Indian Country Today)

(Thanks to reader Will for the tip!)

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  • Tomás Garnett

    Heh, there should be a trigger warning for this post. My blood pressure is still through the roof…

    After everything that has happened to them in this land “America”, Native people’s should not have to ask permission for anything. Period. It’s disgusting. And this “federally-recognized” crap should also be done away with. Isn’t it enough that myriad tribes don’t even exist anymore and that we relegated these poor souls to the most un-desireable parcels of land in the continent, that we murdered their children and wiped out their languages?
    The thing that really bothers me is the treatment by these passerby boaters. There maybe be some exoticism-induced exoticism going on, but what’s with this “do you love America” bullsh*t? It’s down right disrespectful and ignorant. We’re occupying their land. We’re the foreigners.  Hell, I can’t even be eloquent! 


    Thanks for posting this, Racialicious. I’m the writer of the ICT story, and just for clarification, the Winnemem Wintu were previously federally recognized, but lost recognition during a policy shuffle in the mid 80s. They were never officially notified as to the reason. They, thus, have not technically filed a petition to be recognized because they believe they should already be recognized.

    Readers can visit my site to read more about this.The tribe argues that federal recognition is a discriminatory policy. Here’s a ALSO short doc explaining why –

  • L’Afropolitaine

    The fact that the women were asked if they were a “federally recognized tribe” is just! I’m done. Not that anyone is obliged to recognize the struggles and disrespect towards others, but I expected more from a Black man. We go on into another conversation about the unfairness of that expectation, but that’s neither here nor there.

  • rin

    That woman who flashed them… Urgh. I have no kind words for her.

  • Jay

    Legal recognition (state and/or federal) is a problem many tribes face. The red tape involved curtails the rights of native people, and makes it very difficult for those few people in government who want to help. Some kind of reform is needed.

  • Anonymous

    This is def the worst thing I’ll read today. Everything about it- including the flashing and “our river too” and the fact that these sacred sites were flooded in the first place. Just makes me both angry with rage and just oddly powerless- while this isn’t even about me in any way.  I will write an email.