Winnemem Wintu - The Journey to Justice

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Location: Redding, CA, United States

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Thinking of Stuff

The Tribe has been busy; meaning that the Boss and I have been on the run working on protecting what's left of the cultural places from the greedy and uncaring. We have garnered a lot of support for this effort and we are truly grateful. Anyway, as I was sitting here this morning, thinking about things other than the workings of the government and those private companies that only see monetary profit and loss (not any other profit and loss like: what can be gained sitting near the bank of a clear, cold stream or river and what the effect of the loss is to our collective souls).

So, as I was saying, I got to thinking about stuff and looked at a story I had written awhile back and I thought, today, I would share another side of myself. Before putting it down here though, I just want to thank all of the people who brought me to the place where I feel I can share: Cal, Memsy, and my very close friends. Thank you and enjoy.

The Old Ones

I observed the old ones standing along the side of the road watching as we picked up their relation and carried him away. Standing, silently observing what we did, watching each step we took as if ready to correct us for any mistakes we may have made. They stood, shoulders stooped from the wait of their years it seemed; stooped over looking to the world around as if sad men at a sad time.

Their relation had been killed on the road, hit by a car and left behind, uncared for, un-grieved and uncovered as the world rode by. We arrived a few hours after he had been killed, pulling over to the side of the freeway, looking carefully and stepping up to do what was only right. While we worked the two old ones stood, watching us.

I think to this day, that I heard them speak to each other in a soft, almost lyrical way; a way that I had not heard in a long time; a way that is almost forgotten today. They spoke in a good way, a way that leant much solace to those around and to the spirit of the one who had died.

As I sit now, remembering and hearing them through my mind’s ears, writing down their words, a tear comes to my eyes like hot water dripping from the leaky sink in my small kitchen. They spoke to me out there on the side of the road. Their message was to others but I know in my heart that they were telling me their story.

“He was a good one, that fellow over there”, the first said. “He was careless” the other replied. “How can you say that? Look at him dead, hit by a car that ran away. Ran away like a thief.” “I remember him” said the other. “He never really paid attention to anything around him, he never listened to anyone and he sure wasn’t good for anything1!” “How can you say that? He was our relation. If he failed at his life then we are as much to blame for his passing as the one who hit him!” “Think of this” the older one said. I remember all of this and remember too thinking how sad it was to watch people arguing in the presence of death.

“Am I to blame for all of this” answered the other. “No, not all of this but we are all responsible for some of this”. The older one continued, “We had an obligation as relatives to help steer this young one in a good direction, to show by example, how to live in a community: how to be supportive, productive and how to walk within the confines of this world. We should have spent more time and energy talking with this young one, at least as much time as we spent talking about him. That would have made a difference”. Saying this, the older one flew off to the west, the sun showing brightly on his wings as he banked slowly and look back at me and the other and the one gone on the ground below.

Even now I wonder why I was allowed into this private world where these two egrets talked about the one killed by the car. Perhaps I need to examine how I reach out to the young men around me; look at the way I help them or don’t help them as the case may be. I think that we can influence people in so many ways either negatively or positively in such subtle ways: looks, a gesture, our body posture, all of these tell such loud stories. When I think of that egret lying in the road I think of our young men who unfortunately also sometimes end up lying in the center of the road without a hand to help them up or a hand to put them away.

A good friend of mine is like that older egret. He has a way about him that I admire and wish I could emulate. He cares for all of his relations without reservation and is able to share the feelings that I keep locked away until I am in a private place where only I can see them emerge.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Tribal Response to the Obama Principles For Stronger Tribal Communities

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe has watched presidential campaigns and candidates with a wary eye for over 150 years. We have watched and wondered what other people make of the campaign promises, the truths, half-truths and outright lies that are made in order to be chosen over another candidate. Through the years we have observed, candidates have generally promised to “remove the Indian problem” from the states and territories: promises that were, unfortunately kept, as evidenced by the loss of tribal lands and movement of tribal peoples from their homes on rivers and fertile plains to barren and desolate stretches of land unfit for people to live and foreign in composition to the lifestyles once enjoyed. Now, following the election of Barack Obama, we see and hear another set of promises made regarding tribal people and documented in his principles on Native Americans “BARACK OBAMA'S PRINCIPLES FOR STRONGER TRIBAL COMMUNITIES.”

There were many issues discussed in his position paper on line at : health care, education, economic and infrastructure development, women issues, veterans, drugs and hunting and fishing rights, but I want to address two of the issues we feel are most important to our tribe and to all of the “un-reckoned with” (or if you prefer “unrecognized”) tribes in California and across the land: SOVEREIGNTY AND TRIBAL-FEDERAL RELATIONS and Religious Freedom and Cultural Protection. For those tribes that still live within their tribal lands and are fighting for their protection as well as the ability to continue cultural practices in danger of eminent loss, these two principles are key to their (and our) survival.

“Perhaps more than anyone else, the Native American community faces huge challenges that have been ignored by Washington for too long. It is time to empower Native Americans in the development of the national policy agenda.” Barack Obama

This first quotation deserves a response. The Winnemem (as well as others) have made treaties and been the “beneficiaries” of government congressional actions since first contact yet in many cases, these treaties and agreements have been ignored for too long. How are we to trust the government when they do not live up to their “bargains”? The treaties ceded away vast tracts of land in exchange for places to live (reservations). In California, as we all know, the treaties were not ratified and the agreements made not lived up to: with the exception of taking the ceded lands. With this initial statement made by the President, should we not expect a fair hearing of concerns from those who were never listened to after the government began establishing homeless Indian land bases and then ignoring those who signed the agreements but were not moved to those said homeless lands?

"We've got to make sure we are not just having a BIA that is dealing with the various Native American tribes; we've got to have the President of the United States meeting on a regular basis with the Native American leadership and ensuring relationships of dignity and respect."
--Barack Obama, Elko, NV, January 18, 2008

Here too, we need to evaluate what is being proposed: the BIA does not seem to have the interest of all native people’s at heart. The BIA continues, it seems, to follow still the practices of Mr. Pratt, who wanted to “kill the Indian to save the man.” They made an internal decision in the 1980’s to allow tribes the sovereign right to determine membership criteria (outside the determination made in the Snyder Act) and then they decided who or what constituted a “tribe”. Webster defines “tribe” as: a group of persons or clans descended from a common ancestor and living under a leader or chief. The BIA decision ignores the fact that there are many tribes who did not follow the imposed IRA formula which calls for tribes to elect leadership and follow the United States model of government. By ignoring the traditional tribes who continue to live in their old ways and follow their own rules of government, the United States has fallen into the same mode of operation of those nations that they so quickly go to war with for doing the same thing. The Winnemem Wintu have repeatedly asked for direct consultation with the president and leadership staff of numerous administrations, assigned to work with tribal governments. These requests have gone unanswered and when we have asked those of the Congressional level this same question, we have been redirected back to the BIA who then, ignore our previous relationship with the government and send us back to the office of Federal acknowledgment, where we must then, much like a dog in an AKC competition prove our pedigree.


Honoring the Trust Responsibility: Barack Obama recognizes that honoring the government-to-government relationship requires fulfillment of the United States’ trust responsibility to tribes and individual Indians. More specifically, Obama is committed to meaningful reform of the broken system that manages and administers the trust lands and other trust assets belonging to tribes and individual Indians. Further, he is committed to resolving equitably with both tribes and individual Indians litigation resulting from the past failures in the administration and accounting of their trust assets.

We hope that this is indeed the case with the new administration: that the government will look into the specifics of tribal and individual Indian cases without merely shifting the burden of proof from the government to the Indians. In our case, we are still waiting for the government to live up to its obligations related to the Indian Land acquisition act of 1941 that took Winnemem land and flooded it with the waters of Shasta Lake. The system is indeed broken; take a look at the case of the California Valley Miwok and how the BIA has played the divide and conquer card, siding with a faction who apparently do not represent the people who dealt with the government for years and then stripped the government they had agreements with of their funding and ability to serve their people. (Check out their website )

We believe that the issues that stand before the courts on trust mismanagement and the practice of forced assimilation (yes that is still happening, under the guise of economic development)and the issues of federal acknowledgment need to be examined by a panel of reviewers who are schooled in the area of ethnographic study as well as historic documentation – taking out the component of fear that is instilled in the tribal folks working for the agencies responsible for their relatives that “more Indians entering the pool means less money for those already swimming.” If the President is serious about honoring the trust responsibility, then there needs to be adequate funding to care for the people, their health, education and housing needs. There needs to be adequate funds allocated to make good on those promises made but not fulfilled that people like the Winnemem and other nations still wait for, and their needs to be a real effort to rehabilitate Indian Affairs to raise it to a cabinet level position on its own, away from Interior where all the other “natural wonders” are served. We are people, not things and deserve to be treated as sovereign peers of this country.

Cultural Rights and Sacred Places Protection: Native American sacred places and site-specific ceremonies are under threat from development, pollution, and vandalism. Barack Obama supports legal protections for sacred places and cultural traditions, including Native ancestors’ burial grounds and churches.

This one is near and dear to the Winnemem as we are a Traditional people who still carry out our ceremonies and responsibilities laid for us by the creator. This statement by the President calls for a reevaluation of the policies of the major government Bureaus and agencies (BLM, US Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation) to change the mindset that posits the idea that to allow for closure of sacred places and those used for ceremony, violates the commerce clause (in some manner) and the establishment clause of the constitution. These clauses talk of establishing religions but Tribal people are not establishing a religion by practicing their cultural connection to their creator, rather they are exercising their right to worship, as any other religious follower would; we have often stated that to allow anyone to access our (meaning all tribal people’s) sacred sites in whatever manner they choose would be like us going into an established religions house of worship and building a fire in the alter area because “that’s the way we pray.”

Additionally, the protection of grave areas, and the ability to request the return of remains taken for “examination”, some of which have been in museum and educational facility control for better that 100 years, would fit in with the President’s apparent intent to protect our ancestors. Many of us believe that we must return those remains to the earth for the protection of the departed’s spirit and for that of those who remain here until we join them again in the next world.

Universities and others seem to think that they will find some special meaning in the bones and related grave goods/funerary items, which have somehow escaped them since they were first dug up. By not acknowledging the connection of the historic/traditional tribal people, many of whom in California, at least, who are unrecognized and with no voice in government is classism and racism at its worst. We would hope that the President would recognize this; give some power back to those of us who are disenfranchised and allow us to regain our legacy from the people who “study” for profit and let us close the circles that have been broken.

We will continue to watch what happens with the President’s plan and, since he seems to be a man of heart, we will be patient. Those who advise him, we hope, will look at all aspects of all tribal arguments before “rubber stamping” opinions that have now, long been proven to be faulty.

There are more aspects of the President’s plan that will be addressed by those more skilled at analysis than me, but I hope that whoever reviews opinions for the President will share this humble statement and that we, the tribal people, the first nations of this land, have a real opportunity for change and growth and that the legacy of the past be changed for the future generations of us all.

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