A lone tree protrudes from a verdant hillside. In the distance, a purple-hued sunset fades behind the glimmer of a lake.
The Winnemem Wintu gather strength and wisdom to defend their culture and way of life at sacred sites high up in the mountains above the McCloud River. This spot is called Universe Rock. (Judy Silber/The Spiritual Edge)

Raising Shasta Dam Could Put Sacred Indigenous Sites Underwater

Raising Shasta Dam Could Put Sacred Indigenous Sites Underwater

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Shasta Dam is just nine miles north of Redding, California. It’s one of the state’s largest dams, built in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Behind it, three rivers backup creating Shasta Lake, the largest reservoir in the state. As California looks for ways to alleviate drought, the federal government is considering raising Shasta Dam by 18-and-a-half feet in order to store more water in wet years. If the dam enlargement proceeds, areas up river from the dam that aren’t currently underwater will flood.

The Winnemem Wintu people and others have opposed the dam enlargement project. Much of their ancestral land has already been taken from them and the proposal would flood many of the group’s remaining sacred sites.

"We travel back to the river all the time, but we don’t really have a landing place," said Chief Caleen Sisk, the Winnemem Wintu leader. "We don't have a place that we can leave our things, like 'this is home.'"

Many of the remaining Winnemem Wintu people live in Redding. When they want to visit the sites where their ancestors have held sacred rituals for hundreds of years they have to ask for permission from private landowners or from the government. Chief Sisk says if the sacred sites located next to the McCloud river flood, her people will be left with very little to remember their cultural heritage.

"Coyote Rock will be underwater," Sisk said as she listed affected places. "This village will be underwater. The burials that are across will have to be moved."

The Winnemem Wintu say their sacred sites exist as a constellation. So if one is flooded, all of them can be changed. Those on the rivers would be directly impacted by Shasta Dam’s enlargement, but it would also energetically alter those high up in the mountains. It’s an outcome that weighs heavily on their minds.

Today on the California Report Magazine we're going on a journey "around the world," a Winnemem Wintu phrase for visiting the sacred sites, to understand what these places mean to their original inhabitants. It's part of a series about the Winnemem Wintu's fight to save the river, reported by Judy Silber called A Prayer For Salmon, a production of KALW's The Spiritual Edge podcast.