The Winnemem Wintu Tribe, a band of indigenous people located in Northern California, have appealed to the United States Forest Service’s Regional Forester to temporarily close of part of McCloud River, located in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
Forty to 60 tribal members and supporters gathered at Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Randy Moore’s Vallejo office at about 9 a.m. Monday to picket, said Caleen Sisk, the Winnemem Wintu tribal chair. John Heil, a press officer for the regional forester, confirmed that range of protesters.
After an hour of picketing, Regional Forester Moore came out and addressed the group, said Sisk. She said Moore was receptive and that he did "the respectful thing" by listening to protesters’ concerns.
The Forest Service's Heil said Moore will work with the Shasta-Trinity National Forest supervisor in making a decision on the river closure request.
The four-day mandatory closure would allow the tribe to carry out a traditional coming-of-age ceremony, Balas Chonas, in which teenage girls spend four days in prayer and communion with elder women before swimming across the lake and symbolically entering adulthood.
This is the not the first time the Winnemem Tribe has appealed to have the area shut down during Balas Chonas. Since 2005 they have sought to have the area temporarily closed to the public for the religious ceremony, but have only been granted "voluntary closure," in which the area is not physically closed off.
“Don’t we have some rights too?” Sisk said. “There’s 370 miles of lake shoreline out there and we’re asking for 400 yards of it. Is that too much for the traditional, indigenous peoples to ask for? I don’t think we’re asking for too much.”
Last year, Balas Chonas was cancelled because of concerns over the participating girls’ safety. When the ritual took place in 2006 and 2010, young women were harassed and rowdy lake-goers disrupted the sacred ceremony, Sisk said.
The Winnemem Wintu Tribe is not a federally recognized tribe but Sisk does not believe that is a legitimate reason to deny the group’s request.
“Recognition excuses are getting really old,” she said. “Whether we are or not, we are still indigenous to this land, to this river and that’s the important part. Don’t we have a right to continue on our distinctive way of life, recognized or not?”
John Heil said he couldn’t speculate on whether tribal recognition issues would affect the decision on the area’s closure, but said that it “would be part of the equation.”
Sisk said the tribe will continue to appeal for the temporary mandatory closure up until the July ceremony.
Winnemum Wintu Tribe video: Public interference in ceremony