I first met Michael Preston, a war dancer, Indigenous rights activist, and son of Winnemem Wintu chief Caleen Sisk, in 2008. Back then he was a student at UC Berkeley, and was in the process of evolving into a fierce advocate for his people. The Winnemem Wintu, one of the several Wintu-speaking tribes, lived for thousands of years in Northern California’s McCloud River watershed. Archeologists estimate the tribe once numbered close to 14,000. Today their population has been whittled down to about 125. The Winnemem lost most of their land during the Gold Rush and through construction of the Shasta Dam in 1945. The only land the tribe now owns is a 42-acre village near Redding, where about 33 tribal members live.
The Winnemem are currently embroiled in a protracted battle against the federal government’s proposal to raise the Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet – a retrofit that they say would submerge or damage many of their remaining sacred sites. Their efforts are hamstrung by the fact that the federal government doesn’t recognize the Winnemem as a tribe. This limits their legal standing to oppose the project and also deprives them of many other cultural and economic rights and privileges granted to tribes recognized by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
I recently spoke again with Preston, now 31, about the Winnemem Wintu’s quest for federal recognition and the various challenges facing his tribe and their ancestral lands.
When did you make a decision to become a public advocate for your people?
I was born into it. I was born into some of these things that are going on – with Mount Shasta and them trying to develop ski resorts and my people fighting against that. I went to a lot of meetings growing up, and kind of naturally fell into it; I always thought I was going to help later on in life. I didn’t start getting into it really, though, until I moved to the Bay Area and started attending rallies and different protests and learning “the ways of the activists.” I had always fought for my people, but now I’m starting to become a leader. It’s time to make things happen.
When did you start connecting with other Indigenous peoples and how have those connections aided or affected you in terms of your awareness and your particular struggles?
The Bay Area connects me with the city, with urban environments and to what other Indigenous peoples are going through – people from the Lakotas, people from the Navajo nations, who are dealing with other issues like mining. But the awareness really kicked off through going to the United Nations and going to the  World’s Indigenous People’s Conference. They had a big, 400,000-person march. They made the official statement on the floor, but the real value came from the actual connections with individuals. People from Finland, from Brazil, a few from Korea, Indigenous people from everywhere were there. That’s when I really learned about what activism is on that level, as far as making official statements and using higher international laws to affect federal lands, because the feds haven’t really done anything to protect native lands and so we’ve had to go to higher-up international courts.
What kind of similarities or differences did you find between the Winnemem and people from other parts of the world?
It’s always about Indigenous people being affected by corporations coming into their lands and displacing them and polluting everything, polluting the water, and it’s all the same story. Mining copper and nickel, and people die because of all that stuff. So through the aid of technology we learn about everything and help each other out.
Are there aspects that you felt were unique to the Wintu?
The salmon and being an ocean tribe was unique. Being a representative of the salmon and of the mountains, and speaking for the mountains and for protecting the water sources from being completely polluted and sucked dry due to farming and mismanagement. We’re speaking up for Mount Shasta and that’s what makes us stand out: the sacredness of that place, and what it’s trying to say to the rest of the world.
The Wintu are a smaller tribe than many in the Western United States, both in terms of population and land. Does that make your struggle different?
Oh yeah, most definitely. It’s just so hard. It’s so hard because there’re so few of us left. There’re only 125 of us and out of that, there’re only a few left who are dedicated to these ways. I also consider myself kind of young, but I’m having to step up. Because there’re not so many of us, I have to kind of speed my way through a lot of these things and catch up real fast and it’s hard.
This article is part of our series examining the Indigenous movement of resistance and restoration.
It’s dangerous to go against big corporations and water-mongers and people who run the whole money game, the economy, and so a lot of people don’t want to do it. There’re only a few people who are dedicated to doing that and that’s with all communities; that’s no different from ours. My mom always kind of relates this to the salmon runs and what they go through on their journeys from the rivers to the ocean and back – not everybody makes it and it’s a real hard thing that we have to go through.
A lot of people get caught up in drinking and this stupid stuff, the social ills that everybody gets caught up in and that communities of color seem to be highly susceptible to. A lot of our young warriors are in prison. My own experience is that being the only native wherever you go creates a certain psychology within and I don’t think people know what that feels like – to be the only person from your area. You’re Native American as a whole for one, and then you’re also Wintu. What does that mean to be a Winnemem, a Wintu person? It’s a very isolating feeling.
How would federal recognition change the situation?
It would give us a land base. Politically we’ll be able to use federal Indian law to our advantage and use it the way we should have been able to use it a long time ago to further protect our sacred sites – that’s vitally important to the continuation of the tribe.
What are some of the stories or things you say that you’ve found really connect with people and create some understanding?
I just try to speak with my heart and do my best, tell the story. I’m just a messenger. I’m not really here to make people understand, cause it’s hard to do that, to explain in that Wintu way. We have to sit you down by the fire for 15 years to try to understand.
You mentioned the word “messenger.” Do you feel like you are a bridge between your people and the more urban world?
I feel like I am nowadays, yeah. I’m getting more comfortable, because I’m 31. I’m a little older now, and have been through a lot and have traveled. But I definitely feel like I am a bridge in certain situations, as far as talking to media goes, as far as going and giving a presentation to the public.
When you were at UC Berkeley did it feel like you were in two worlds – the gilded halls of a billion-dollar academic institution versus weekends spent at home a few hours away?
Yeah, sometimes it is a completely different atmosphere. Sometimes I’d come from a ceremony back to school. It definitely felt like two worlds. Being in the school and having access to the whole thing, it really opened my eyes to how much money there is in that place and what dealing with big money feels like.
What do you see as your role within the Wintu over the next 50 years and where do you see the tribe in 50 years?
I want to get my tribe off the grid. I want the salmon back so we can be off the grid. We don’t have to be dependent on grocery stores. We don’t have to be dependent on government handouts or anything. We don’t have to depend on nothing. Just be on the land, which we always wanted to be since time immemorial. Just to be with our sacred sites and fulfilling our obligation to the land, to making the world spin right. To putting it back onto its axis, because it’s off its axis right now.
Radio reporter Andrew Stelzer helped produce Michael Preston’s story for a documentary on the program Making Contact. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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