Building Shasta Dam Flooded Out A California Tribe. Why Are They Still Not Included in the Dam’s History?

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Shasta Dam, uses its Visitor Center to share a comprehensive history of the Dam’s construction and purpose. What that history omits is any mention of the Winnemem Wintu, a local Tribe that was flooded out of their homes along the McCloud River when the Dam was built. Leaving the Tribe out of the Visitor Center’s official narrative is intentional, scholars and Tribal members say, because it helps deny legal claims to their ancestral waters and lands now. In recent years, the Visitor Center has become the center of ongoing tensions over how the Dam’s history is told.

Marisa Sisk, Winnemem Wintu tribal member, holds a portrait of the Tribe’s late Top Doctor and Spiritual Leader Florence Jones. In 2021, Winnemem Wintu tribal members attempted to deliver portraits of their ancestors, who lived on the McCloud River before it was flooded, to the Shasta Dam Visitor Center. Photo courtesy of Will Doolittle.

At the Shasta Dam Visitor Center outside the City of Shasta Lake, tourists can learn about Frank Crowe, the innovative engineer whose pioneering inventions and masterful planning were key to the successful construction of the 602-foot dam during World War II.

What they won’t learn is that Frank Crowe also allegedly watched the demolition of Winnemem Wintu people’s homes along the McCloud River as the area was cleared to be flooded by the Dam. A journal entry and oral history passed down by Florence Jones, the Tribe’s top doctor and spiritual leader at the time, document that story. It was Jones who kept the Winnemem Wintu people together after the dam flooded their homes, rendering them homeless and blocking the migration path of Chinook salmon, a key to their culture and subsistence, the Tribe’s current Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk says.

In many ways, Crowe is emblematic of the conflicting histories the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Tribe tell about Shasta Dam. Owned and operated by Reclamation, the Dam is the keystone facility in the agency’s Central Valley Project, a network of canals, reservoirs and dams that can store and transport millions of acre-feet of North State water to the more arid regions of California.  

For Reclamation, Shasta Dam represents a watershed moment in a type of American progress that is characterized by engineering feats that “tame” wild rivers to facilitate the development of hydro-electric power and irrigation water for far-away industrial farms.  But for Winnemem Wintu people, the Dam is a destructive force that uprooted them from their beloved river, decimated a sustainable salmon economy, and ruptured their community in ways they’re still struggling to repair.

Three years ago, the Tribe demonstrated at the Shasta Dam Visitor Center, advocating for Reclamation to finally acknowledge their side of the Dam’s story. This July, that history of activism led to a surprisingly intense response from Shasta Dam security staff when tribal members and supporters gathered at the Dam for a picnic. While the Tribe says the way armed security guards treated them was obvious discrimination, a Reclamation administrator said Dam staff were only trying to avoid another “disruptive” protest.

Tensions between Indigenous peoples and government agencies about the official history of projects like Shasta Dam are not unusual. For Indigenous peoples, the fight for their stories to be included at sites like the Shasta Dam Visitor Center is central to challenging mainstream narratives about progress that ignore how Shasta Dam and other infrastructure projects required the sacrifice of Indigenous cultures and lands. By curating a history that excludes how their projects harmed Indigenous peoples, Reclamation continues to wield power over them, affecting their legal, religious, and cultural claims to the ancestral lands they were once flooded out of, experts say.

“We have a problem of invisibility (at the Shasta Dam Visitor Center),” says Sisk, the Tribe’s chief and spiritual leader. “We want (Reclamation) to recognize that we’re the people who had to sacrifice for them to make this great ’empire’ with Shasta Dam and that they need to do right by us.” 

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Winnemem Wintu traditional dancers pose at Shasta Dam following a H’up Chonas (Dance in the Old Way, War Dance) ceremony held in 2014. The Tribe has held two H’up Chonas ceremonies since 2004 as part of their resistance against a Reclamation plan to raise Shasta Dam an additional 18 feet. Photo by Marc Dadigan

Why Do Federal Officials Not Include the Tribe in Dam History?

Donald Bader, Reclamation’s manager for the Northern California Area Office, is responsible for the operation and maintenance of Shasta Dam as well as the Visitor Center. Expressing doubt about whether it would be appropriate to include Winnemem Wintu perspectives at the facility, Bader said it’s “a place for Reclamation to tell its story.”

Informational displays at the Dam Visitor Center celebrate the engineers and workers who built the dam. Reclamation also uses the space to tout the Dam’s many benefits, such as hydro-electric power generation, recreation, and flood control, as well as its importance to the local economy and the war effort during World War II.

Bader said that the Winnemem Wintu Tribe have opportunities to tell their side of the story elsewhere, including at the Wintu Museum in the City of Shasta Lake. He says he once offered to make a space for their brochures at the visitor center, but they declined. 

Bader also explained that “there were many others impacted by the Dam” in addition to Winnemem Wintu people, noting that the Dam also flooded Kennett, a company town for the Mammoth Copper Company. However, the comparison isn’t quite accurate: unlike the Winnemem Wintu people, the residents of Kennett weren’t a distinct, sovereign people, with a deep cultural, religious and economic relationship with their ancestral watershed that spans thousands of years. 

He added that any changes to the Visitor Center displays would likely have to be approved by Reclamation leaders in Washington D.C. Shasta Scout sent a total of four e-mails to National Reclamation Public Affairs as well as the agency’s historian, asking for information about the process to change the displays at the Visitor Center. None responded.

Sisk, the Tribe’s chief and spiritual leader, says Bader and others at Reclamation seem unable to acknowledge that the Tribe’s story became embedded within Reclamation’s story when the Dam flooded them out. “When you drown out the people and steal their land, when you stop all the fish from coming up the river, that should be part of the story too. People should know the costs of their ‘empire.’”

“When you drown out the people and steal their land, when you stop all the fish from coming up the river, that should be part of the story too. People should know the costs of their ‘empire.’”

Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader, Caleen Sisk

Flooding from Dams Is a Way to Erase Native Culture And Rights

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The Winnemem Wintu Tribe aren’t the only Indigenous people who’ve been flooded out by Reclamation projects.

In his book Our History is the Future, Lakota historian Nick Estes writes extensively about the Pick-Sloan Plan, a series of dams that Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers built around the same time as Shasta Dam and that flooded seven Indian reservations in the Missouri River basin. While Indigenous land had long been coveted, Estes writes, the big-dam-building era brought a change, a decision to flood valuable western land, in pursuit of access to energy.

But, Estes argues, the flooding of Indigenous homelands was also something more, a way to extinguish the culture of Native American Tribes and terminate their rights as sovereign peoples. His argument is backed by California Indian scholars, who note that a hydrological map of California can also be read as a map of Indian dispossession.

A memorial plaque at Shasta Dam hints at this intentional dispossession, dedicating the Dam to the “pioneer mothers and fathers . . . whose courage to overcome hardship opened the unknown West, converting the wilderness into empire.” The plaque has long drawn scrutiny from tribal members because it reinforces the type of pioneer myth that obscures how Tribes have lived in and cultivated societies based on reciprocal and respectful relationships with the natural world for thousands of years.

“(As Florence Jones) always said, ‘That was no wilderness, that was our home!’” Sisk said, referring to the 27 miles of the McCloud River that were flooded by Shasta Dam.

Reclaiming History As a Matter of Justice

When such problematic narratives are promoted by Reclamation, the history of big infrastructure projects like Shasta Dam become important battlegrounds for Indigenous people to assert their legal, religious, and cultural claims to their ancestral lands. Estes, the Lakota historian who’s studied other Reclamation projects, writes that Indigenous people have different ideas about time than non-Natives, as their actions in the present are often guided by their understanding of the past and by the responsibility they feel to their ancestors. Sharing their suppressed histories has become an important strategy to address the discrimination and oppression they face in the present day, he argues. 

For example, Winnemem Wintu leaders argue that in part because of the Shasta Dam and the omission of their Tribe’s story from the Dam’s official history, they remain a federally unrecognized tribe, which means they lack the legal status to have government-to-government relationships with federal agencies. This creates many challenging obstacles as they advocate for the restoration of salmon to the McCloud River, struggle to reclaim a land base on their ancestral watershed, and fight to create a more autonomous tribal economy.

Because it is so connected to their contemporary struggles, one piece of history the Winnemem Wintu Tribe particularly wants shared at the Visitor Center is how they have never been compensated for the harms caused by Shasta Dam, despite federal promises. In 1941, Congress passed a law that authorized potential payments, as well as the establishment of a new cemetery, for Winnemem Wintu people  to make amends for their flooded lands. But in 1943, a federal agent who investigated the potential of compensating the Tribe concluded they should leave the area instead, writing, “The interests of many of the Shasta County Indians would be served better if they would leave the county entirely.”

If Reclamation and other federal agencies had carried out that 1941 law, Gary Mulcahy, the Tribe’s current government liaison says, the Tribe would likely still have land on the river, as well as riparian and Indian water rights. It’s also likely the law would have contributed to their ability to maintain federal recognition, giving them a stronger footing from which to achieve their long-term vision of recovering from the cultural ruptures caused by the Dam’s flooding.  

Today, there are still powerful interests that don’t want to see the Tribe’s legal standing restored, Mulcahy said. Shasta Reservoir provides millions of acre-feet of water to wealthy farmers, such as those in the Westlands Water District, where some growers earn millions from their almond and pistachio crops. Maintaining that status quo requires control of the Tribe’s river, Mulcahy said, whereas acknowledging the Winnemem Wintu Tribe’s history and rights would represent a challenge to it.

For nearly two decades, the Tribe has been fighting Reclamation’s plan to raise Shasta Dam 18 feet, which would flood their cultural sites a second time. Mulcahy said that if the Winnemem Wintu Tribe were recognized and had rights to land along the McCloud River or Shasta reservoir, Reclamation and Westlands would have to pay a steep price if they were to enlarge the Dam. “They don’t want us to have any say over the water,” he said.

The “Ghosts” That Won’t Go Away

If Reclamation’s web site for its 120th anniversary is any indication, it seems like the Winnemem Wintu Tribe will have a steep climb to be acknowledged in official agency narratives. Online information about the Dam includes a 1994 history about the Central Valley Project in which there is only a single reference to “Wintun” people. They are described in the past tense as having “inhabited” the area at one time, a suggestion that they no longer exist. But Reclamation officials must surely know they do still exist as a Tribe, given Winnemem Wintu people’s activism at the Visitor Center and involvement in numerous Reclamation meetings over the past two decades.

Kevin Brunyeel, a professor at Babson University in Canada who writes about colonialism and collective memory, said Indigenous people are often excluded from histories about big infrastructure projects in an effort to paint them as belonging to the past, rather than as active parts of the present.

“They’re saying (to the Winnemem Wintu), we’ve displaced and replaced you. Your story as Indigenous people is not part of our story,” Brunyeel said. “And therefore we can ignore (the Winnemem Wintu’s) challenges to Reclamation’s moral, economic, and political justifications for the Dam.”

Brunyeel added that it’s understandable that Indigenous people would fight to be included at places of public memorialization such as the Shasta Dam Visitor Center, as history is so often used as a weapon to make them invisible. This is especially true, he said, in the case of Reclamation’s proposal to further raise Shasta Dam. “(The Tribe is) saying what you did to us historically is what you’re doing right now, and we’re not going to let you erase the memory of us to justify your project now,” he said. “They’re the ghosts that won’t go away.”

They’re saying what you did to us historically is what you’re doing right now, and we’re not going to let you erase the memory of us to justify your project now. They’re the ghosts that won’t go away.”

Babson University Professor, Kevin Brunyeel

After decades of activism and outspoken advocacy, the Tribe has proven to be more than phantoms haunting Reclamation. The recent incident at the Shasta Dam Visitor Center has spurred more community support for their demand to be included in the Visitor Center displays, including support from a group known as Shasta County Citizens Against Racism, as well as from City of Shasta Lake Council Member Janice Powell.

“There are so many people who visit our area who have no idea what the Wintu people have gone through because there’s no historical information that tells about what they have suffered,” said Powell.

Despite nearly two decades of planning, Reclamation has yet to procure the funding to raise Shasta Dam, in no small part due to the Tribe’s resistance, Sisk said. Mulcahy, the Tribe’s government liaison, added that the Tribe’s advocacy in recent years secured them a $412,000 grant from Reclamation to support research for their culturally-based plan to restore salmon above Shasta Dam. Reclamation is also part of an inter-agency fish-passage committee that recently offered a co-management agreement to the Tribe on a project to reintroduce endangered salmon eggs to the McCloud River.

“Reclamation’s lack of acknowledgement of us has been a problem since the Dam was built because they didn’t want us to be an impediment to raising it,” Mulcahy said.  “But change is coming, and they see it.”

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