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Location: Redding, CA, United States

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Our River is Our Name from International Rivers

Our River is Our Name

Caleen Sisk-Franco, Tribal Chief and Spiritual Leader, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, (California, U.S.A)

Caleen Sisk-Franco
Caleen Sisk-Franco

The name of my tribe, Winnemem Wintu, translates to Middle Water people and is taken from the name of our river, the Winnemem Waywakit, which is bounded by the Upper Sacramento to the West and the Pit River to the East.

Now known to most as the McCloud River, it rises from glacial waters in the Cascades, and it runs so clean you can clearly see the rocks, sand and insects that populate its bottom. A series of well-known waterfalls cascade over its basaltic lava beds in feathery ribbons of white and foam.

Because of its beauty, most people here in Northern California probably believe the McCloud is healthy and pristine. But that is only because they don't remember, as my tribe does, how it used to be before it was butchered by dams and left clinging to its life.

The Shasta Dam was built during World War II and flooded the lower 26 miles of our river under its reservoir. It also blocked our sacred relative, the salmon, from traveling to its traditional spawning places. In 1965, the McCloud Dam was built on the upper river and started diverting water to the Pit as part of a lucrative hydroelectric project.  Because of these diversions, our once powerful and rushing river, which once had a winter flow of 6,000 cubic feet per second, now trickles at a mere 200 cfs.

Our river is starved on one side and swollen on the other.  And yet they are not done with it. As we fight to bring our salmon back, we also fight against a proposal to raise the Shasta Dam as well as a McCloud Dam re-licensing that could sustain the crippling diversions for another 50 years.

Just as they have carved up our river, so too have they tried to break our bond with it by extricating us from our traditional lands and refusing to acknowledge our history and right to exist. But they underestimate our resilience: our spiritual connection to our river remains strong and unbroken.

Our river is our name. And we are willing to die to defend it.