Sacred Land Film Project

Earth Island News

Dancing for peace
At dusk, eight Winnemem Wintu dancers emerged along the edge of the Shasta Dam, a massive reservoir that has flooded their ancestral homeland. Eagle, turkey, and heron feathers adorned their headdresses and skirts, and bright orange flicker bands covered each man’s forehead. One stepped forward and began spinning a wooden drill against a dry piece of wood. Smoke appeared, then sparks, and suddenly flames burst from a nest of grass. With the lighting of the sacred fire, the Winnemem War Dance was underway.

Winnemem war dancers. L. to R.: James Ward, Mark Franco, Doug Scholfield, and Rick Wilson
Christopher McLeod photo

For four days and nights the men fasted and danced as the women sang, during a ceremony that was last performed in 1887, when white settlers built a salmon hatchery on prized Wintu fishing grounds. Offering prayers to the fire, the dancers raised spears, bows and arrows, and fists in the direction of the enemy — a 602-foot-tall, 15-million-ton concrete monolith that the US government wants to raise by between 6 and 200 feet. This would submerge 20 Wintu sacred sites, desecrate ceremonial areas and historic village sites, and require the reburial of ancestors along the McCloud River, once known as “winnemem” or “middle waters.”

We were filming the dance at the request of Tribal Chief Caleen Sisk-Franco, who is determined to get the Winnemem message out and win a seat at the table in discussions about the dam. “We have no more to give,” she said. “We can’t tolerate another flooding. We need to let people know that we have been pushed too far, and they can either help us or they will be participating in killing us.”

Early the next morning, I approached Sisk-Franco to tell her that a New York Times reporter was waiting to interview her. She was sitting with her eyes closed, singing. She scribbled words on a pad. “A song’s coming in. Can you get me a tape recorder?” I found one and she sang the words into the recorder. She turned to the reporter and explained that the new song was a prayer to the birds, asking them to carry the dancers’ prayers to the Creator. Sisk-Franco’s story appeared in the following day’s New York Times.

As we continue to document struggles to protect sacred lands, I am struck by the fact that not only do native people pray to the mountain, the water, the birds, and the spirits, they also pray for them — for the Earth.

By the afternoon of the second day, the reporters and photographers were gone. I was standing by the edge of the reservoir looking at the dam, talking with a dancer who was taking a break. I sensed movement to my right and turned to see a huge bird — white head, white tail — soaring by at eye level 30 feet away.

The bald eagle glided by, tilted its wings and looked straight toward the fire and the dancers. I saw its yellow eye flash in the sunlight.

I ran to where the women were singing and whispered to Sisk-Franco that a bald eagle had just flown by. She smiled. After the dance she said, “That was the first time we sang the song that came in yesterday morning, the prayer to the birds.”

Hu’p Chonas
Last summer, the Winnemem grew concerned about the raising of Shasta Dam, when a government proposal to do so, which had languished for 10 years, gathered momentum. Bureau of Reclamation officials held a hearing in Redding to announce that an Environmental Impact Study would begin soon. Sisk-Franco felt the threat of a second flooding of her homeland was so serious that she prayed about what to do. She received guidance that the proper response was Hu’p Chonas — a war dance — to bring the people together to defend their water, land and culture through prayer, dance, and song.

As the Wintu prepared for the ceremony, word came from Washington DC that retiring Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) was preparing to introduce a technical amendment to restore the Winnemem’s federal recognition, which had been mysteriously discontinued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1980s. Campbell needed assurance that Senator Dianne Feinstein would support his amendment. Feinstein, a key player in California water politics, is a major proponent of raising Shasta Dam. Going ahead with the war dance suddenly represented a serious political gamble. Supporters in DC asked Sisk-Franco to cancel or delay the ceremony.

“What is the point of being recognized if we lose sacred sites?” she responded. “Those places are the basis of our identity. We can’t replace sites we have used for centuries. The rock where we initiate young girls at puberty will be lost forever if they raise the dam. I will not trade recognition for the destruction of sacred places.”

The dance went on.

On the third day of the ceremony, word came from Washington that Senator Campbell had decided to withdraw the technical amendment on Winnemem recognition because of Senator Feinstein’s opposition. On the fourth day, news arrived that after being stalled for 10 years, the Senate had authorized $395 million for California water projects, including the feasibility study on the raising of Shasta Dam.

Take action: The Sacred Land Film Project is developing a documentary series on threats to sacred places around the world. For more information, visit

On the final night of the dance, Winnemem Headman Mark Franco donned a bearskin and became the bear. Roaring and growling by the fire, the powerful spirit-being challenged the dancers to join their strength to defend the people and the land. It was a potent demonstration of how native people have come to embody our collective responsibility for the environment, and how caretaking is both a physical and spiritual endeavor.

We shot 15 hours of amazing footage during the war dance and edited a seven-minute film, Winnemem War Dance at Shasta Dam, which was first screened in Washington, DC during the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in September 2004.

That night, we accompanied Caleen and Mark to a reception for Senator Campbell at the new museum. The Wintu warriors had 10 minutes with the senator, during which he offered to introduce a stand-alone bill to restore federal recognition and affirm their sovereignty. Two weeks later he introduced S 2879, entering the Winnemem’s compelling history into the Congressional Register. Though the bill died without a vote at the end of the session, a new sponsor can re-introduce it and move it forward — as the fight against the raising of Shasta Dam goes on. — Christopher McLeod

Water for Sale
The US Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) is forging ahead with re-negotiation and signing of Central Valley water contracts that commit far more water than can be stored in California’s existing reservoirs. If all the contracts are signed they will create strong motivation to raise Shasta Dam in order to meet the contracts’ commitments. The EPA told BuRec in January that its draft Environmental Impact Statement was inadequate, and that BuRec should stop signing new contracts until it has analyzed the environmental impact of full delivery.
The $16 to $61 per acre-foot price for water in the new contracts may be more palatable to taxpayers than the $2 per acre-foot price in the old contracts. But agribusiness can sell that water for $110 to $200 per acre-foot to cities or developers. Meanwhile, the price tag to raise the height of Shasta Dam will be so high ($350 to $480 million) that the cost of new stored water will be $220 to $270 per acre-foot. No one has offered to buy any water at that price. If the dam is raised, taxpayers will once again provide agribusiness with subsidized water to sell at a profit.
Further, California’s Public Resources Code (PRC 5093.542) forbids any state action that would alter the free-flowing segments of the McCloud River. Both California and the federal government are violating state law by spending money to study proposals that will drown up to two miles of the wild McCloud River. NRDC and Earthjustice are preparing a lawsuit as we go to press, with the Winnemem Wintu as co-plaintiffs.

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