"Their Sleep Is to Be Desecrated": The Central Valley Project and the Wintu People of Northern California, 1938-1943

By Farnham, April | Ethnic Studies Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

"Their Sleep Is to Be Desecrated": The Central Valley Project and the Wintu People of Northern California, 1938-1943


Farnham, April, Ethnic Studies Review


O, white man, take the land of ours,

Guard well its hills, streams, and bowers,

Guard well the Mounds where Wintoons sleep,

Guard well these canyons wild and deep.

Alfred C. Gillis, "To The Wenem Mame River" Excerpt1

The morning of July 14, 1944, was intended to be a moment of celebration for the City of Redding, California. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes had been scheduled to arrive in the booming city to dedicate Shasta Dam, a national reclamation project of great pride to local citizens and construction workers. Just days prior, however, the dedication ceremony had been canceled due to the inability of Ickes to leave Washington D.C.. Instead, a small group of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) officials, Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) officials, and local city officials quietly gathered within the dam's $19,400,000 power plant. A BOR official flipped a switch to start one of the plant's two massive generators, sending a surge of 120,000 watts of hydroelectricity into California's transmission lines and the Pacific, Gas, and Electric (PG&E) distribution system. This energy would fuel the West's war industries and the federal defense effort in World War II. Though without fanfare, the switching event signaled the official start of commercial production of power from the world's second largest dam and keystone of the Central Valley Project (CVP). From Washington, D.C., the event was heralded by BOR Commissioner Harry W. Bashore as "a milestone in the fulfillment of visions Californians have had for nearly 100 years."2

Yet not all Califomians shared in the hopeful "visions" associated with Shasta Dam. Indeed, for one group of Native Californians, the dam was more the making of a tragedy than the fulfillment of dreams. In 1941, U.S. Indian policy was modified in response to political pressures connected to the CVP, an action that resulted in the immediate dispossession of several Native families. Shasta Dam thus fragmented a distinct Native community that had already experienced close to a century of cultural loss. Up until 1943, families of Native descent had lived in the rugged and beautiful river canyons now submerged by the waters of Shasta Reservoir. The words of one local "Indian", otherwise identified only as "Wintu," spoke loud and clear. "It was against all Christian ethics to move them-we have laid our dead with tears, and great hope, and we are grieved that their sleep is to be desecrated."3 Government officials had relocated some, but not all, of his ancestors' graves to higher ground; yet his traditional homelands and spiritual sites now lay under water.

The Native man who eloquently spoke of his ancestors' burials belonged to an ancient California tribal group most frequently identified as the Wintu of northern California.4 The ancestral territory of the Wintu covered parts of Trinity, Shasta, Siskiyou, and Tehama Counties, and encompassed a substantial portion of the river drainage system that feeds the Shasta Reservoir of Shasta County. This drainage system includes the upper Sacramento River, the McCloud River, the Pit River, and Squaw Creek. The people of the Wintu were originally divided into nine major groups (or bands) identified by the traditional names that referred to their geographic territories, including the nomti-pom ('in-the-west ground') on the upper Sacramento River and the wenemem or wene-em ('middle water') on the McCloud River.5 Those individuals belonging to or descended from the wenemem (today spelled Wwemem or Wmnemem) group, or the McCloud River Wintu, were most heavily affected by construction of the dam. Today, approximately 145 Wiimemem descendants belong to the Winnemem Wintu tribe.6 Five descendants are currently organized as the Wmtoon Tribe of Northern California, INC.7 Other current Wintu groups of Shasta County are the Wmtun Tribe of Northern California, faNor-ElMuk Wintu Nation, and the Toyon-Wintu? …

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