In their correspondence with us, Forest Service officials say the voluntary river closures have worked, that we’ve had “successful” Coming of Age ceremonies and that they’re happy to “assist” us in our upcoming ceremony next month.
If these ceremonies were so successful, why do we keep requesting for a mandatory closure? Why did we pull out Marisa, the young woman training to be our next leader, from last year’s ceremony when we realized the Forest Service couldn’t guarantee a peaceful ceremony?
Apparently, the government not only gets to decide who’s Indian, but also gets to decide what’s a good ceremony.
Essentially, they want to tell us how we should feel. They dismiss our religious needs because it isn’t conveniently congruent with their policy, and they insinuate we should be thankful for what little they provide.
They act as if we are asking for so much, when all we want is to temporarily close a tiny corner to boaters in a recreational area that encompasses 30,000 acres of surface water.
And even if we did secure a mandatory closure, we would still be making concessions: water releases from the Shasta Dam often submerge the dance grounds as well as Puberty and Children’s Rocks through the spring. This makes it impossible for us to hold the ceremony in May when the flowers are blooming and when it was traditionally held.
Instead we have to wait till mid-July, when temperatures are sweltering, endangering the health of our older Winnemem people and making it difficult to dance and sing during the day.
In 2006, Puberty Rock was still underwater when we arrived at the site, and we had to proceed without a sacred rock that’s vital to the ceremony.
It appears we could face this burden again as the long and heavy spring rains have the Lake nearly full to the brim. When we visited the ceremony site a couple weeks ago, the water was near the top of the McCloud Bridge and both rocks were underwater.
Even as we sat at the picnic benches, a group of people on a boat passed by, blasting hip hop music so loud it echoed across the canyon. They waved and yelled at us, exhorting us to join in their party-time romp through our sacred place.
It was so insulting to us and such an invasion of our spiritual space. Is this the sort of “success” the Forest Service expects for us this July?
In our Memorandum of Understanding, the Forest Service states about us: “Historically they are from Mt. Shasta in Siskiyou county where the McCloud River begins and in and around the McCloud River watershed in Shasta and Siskiyou counties, California, and includes relatives and descendants of those who were forcibly removed from the watershed by the Central Valley Act Public Law.”
They acknowledge that we are the indigenous people from this river, they recognize us, and yet they ask us to make more sacrifices in accessing our sacred places than they ask of the so-called recreating public.
We are the people who have lived here since our creation; the Forest Service has only managed this land for a few decades. Their attitude needs to change: their sense that their authority is somehow greater than ours and that the boaters’ rights are equal to our rights.
When it came time for Marine to swim across the river in 2006, she dove down into the water, swam to the Puberty Rock and placed her hand against it. The dam might have submerged our sacred rock, but it could not submerge our prayers.
The Forest Service and the government will fight us with laws and regulations, but we will resist with stronger medicine: with song, with prayer, with our hearts.