US Forest Service hands tied by Bureau of Indian Affairs administrative error.
Redding, CA – Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk and her nephew Arron Sisk have been fasting for eight days and plan to continue until the Bureau of Indian Affairs intervenes to fully protect the site of this week’s Coming of Age ceremony from abuse and harassment from the general public.
After six years of ignoring the tribe’s requests that they protect their young women from harassment, the Forest Service finally did the right thing and announced June 21 that they would enforce a mandatory river closure for the ceremony June 30-July 3 for 16-year-old Marisa Sisk, who is training to be the next chief.
While this was a significant step in acknowledging the tribe’s rights as Indigenous People, Randy Moore, Regional Forester said they can’t keep the general public from wandering through the ceremonial site because the tribe is not federally recognized. If the tribe was federally recognized, then federal law would give the Forest Service the authority to close the area for the ceremony. But, as it stands now, their hands are tied because of the BIA’s failure to include the tribe on their list.
“The BIA has been basically authorizing this abuse of our ceremony by relegating us to their ‘unrecognized’ status,” Sisk said. “We are fasting and praying because they need to come to the table and fix their mistake.”
The Coming of Age ceremonies for the tribe’s young women are held at a traditional village site in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, where previous ceremonies have been marred by harassment from boaters, fisherman and other members of the recreating public who have yelled racial slurs at the tribe and even flashed them with naked breasts.
The Winnemem understand the Forest Service officials are at the end of their legal authority, but they still have a responsibility under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to do everything they can to protect our ceremony from abuse, Sisk said.
“They need to help bring the BIA to the table,” Sisk said. “We are the indigenous people from here. Recognized or not, we have the right to hold our ceremony in privacy.”
To ensure the safety and sanctity of this ceremony, and to give the Forest Service the authority to close off the area, the Winnemem are demanding that the BIA perform a technical correction and add the Winnemem to the list of federally recognized tribes.
Many Winnemem tribal members already have BIA-certified paperwork that verifies they are Indian, and they were previously recognized until the 1980s when a bureaucratic error left them off the BIA’s list.
“I am sure some will say, see I told you, that’s what this was all about in the first place, federal recognition. But they would be wrong,” said Gary Hayward Slaughter, Winnemem Tribal Member, “It is still about having a ceremony in peace and dignity.”
“ The Forest Service has done all they can under their authority, and told us that the only way to get complete closure of the area is if we were federally recognized,” said Gary Hayward Slaughter, “So it is time the BIA stopped tying the hands of the Forest Service, and fix their mistake.”
“They have taken away our right to eagle feathers, our right to scholarships, and our rights to protect sacred places and be Winnemem,” Sisk said. “It’s time we take those rights back.”
This might have happened to many California tribes. In January, the BIA provided a technical correction to the Tejon Indian Tribe, who the agency admitted had been incorrectly omitted from their list.
A technical correction that would provide a land closure is the only way to protect the sanctity of the ceremony. The sacred places at the site, which is a former Winnemem village, work together to provide the young women teachings and blessings during the ceremony.
The tribe protested in April at Regional Forester Randy Moore’s Office in Vallejo, held a War Dance in May and had supporters email and call agency officials.
“We would like to thank all the supporters who have written and called the Forest Service or volunteered to help by blockading the river,” Sisk said. “It was your help that got a river closure, now we hope you can help us get a complete closure and a technical correction.”
The tribe is currently negotiating the terms of the permit with the Forest Service, and plans to cancel the blockade of the river by some 400 volunteers.
Learn more about the Winnemem Wintu at http://www.winnememwintu.us/
More about the Winnemem Wintu at AI/AN ATS
Learn more about the ceremony at www.saveourceremony.com.
Download Video of motorboats speeding past ceremony and flashing the participants at: http://vimeo.com/39867112
Footage of April 16, 2012 protest at Forest Service Region 5 Headquarters in Vallejo: http://youtu.be/oglCy–o7oY