Federal Project Managers Halt Redding-Area Construction Threatening Ancestral Village Site

Construction on a Sacramento River trail expansion south of Redding was halted after Wintu officials investigated at the site and found that construction had exposed cultural items and was occurring close to burial sites. After weeks of negotiations with federal and city project managers, Wintu people have secured a culturing monitoring contract with the Federal Highway Administration to help protect their ancestors’ village during the trail expansion.
Wintu Tribe of Northern California Cultural Resources Manager Art Garcia views a scraping rock he located while serving as a cultural monitor at a Sacramento River Trail expansion project south of Redding.

As the Cultural Resources Manager for the Wintu Tribe of Northern California, Art Garcia is tasked with coordinating protection when development projects occur in Wintu people’s ancestral lands, including those in the City of Redding. Garcia is one of several cultural monitors who observe construction near culturally sensitive areas in order to limit damage to the remains of ancestors, cultural items and Wintu people’s current cultural practices. 

It’s a busy job. Prior to colonization, the historic nine bands of Wintu people were extremely populous societies, with hundreds of villages located throughout what is now known as Shasta County, especially along the Sacramento River. And the often rapid pace of today’s development can make it challenging for small tribes with limited resources to monitor the multitude of cultural sites in the path of construction. State and federal laws require public and private developers to notify Tribes prior to starting construction in areas that may be of cultural importance, but those notifications sometimes slip through the cracks.

That’s apparently what happened with letters sent to local Tribes three years ago, notifying them of a planned Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) trail expansion project in collaboration with the City of Redding. In late August, while Garcia was monitoring another site, he noticed construction occurring nearby, along the Sacramento River in an area he knew to be a well-documented ancestral Wintu village. After investigating, Garcia was disturbed to find construction occurring adjacent to a mound where Wintu ancestors are buried.  He also found numerous Wintu cultural items, including arrowheads, pestles, and mortars that had been exposed at the site by the recent construction activities, he says.

He notified federal and city officials, who responded to Garcia’s concerns by granting the Wintu Tribe immediate access to establish an unpaid monitoring presence. But Garcia said the FHWA initially balked at negotiating  a contract with the Tribe for paid cultural monitoring at the site, which would also provide liability insurance for any on-site injuries. Such a contract would also provide an opportunity for the Wintu Tribe and FHWA to co-create a plan for handling any cultural items or ancestors’ remains accidentally dislodged by construction.

“What we’re trying to do is get our people in here,” Garcia told Shasta Scout on September 2 after notifying officials, “so we can preserve this area, protect these artifacts so we can rebury them.” 

Prior to Garcia’s intervention, federal and city officials told Shasta Scout they felt comfortable moving forward with construction despite its proximity to the village site. An archaeological consultant had conducted research and a pedestrian survey of the site, they said, and had already concluding there was no risk of cultural harm. They felt it was likely that cultural items Garcia and other monitors found at the site had been previously exposed and not unearthed by construction. They had tried to notify local Tribes by letter about the project in 2019, they said, but had received no response from the Wintu Tribe of Northern California or four other local Tribes. Without a response, they explained, they hadn’t included the costs of paying for the Tribe’s cultural monitors, at often more than $40 an hour, into their budget for the trail expansion project.

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“We expressed to (Garcia). . . that the city does its due diligence and we want to make sure things work out,” said Menne, the Redding projects manager, but “on this one it didn’t work out with requesting monitoring and unfortunately we can’t go back in the timeline.”

Garcia immediately instituted unpaid and uninsured monitoring at the site while he continued to negotiate with officials for its protection. He disagreed with officials about the site survey, saying it was conducted while the area was overgrown and didn’t  justify the assumption the construction wouldn’t impact the village site. 

“I  told them I want to work together if they’re willing to cooperate with us,” Garcia said. “They know they messed up.”

After several weeks of meetings between Tribal officials, government officials and archaeologists, the FHWA confirmed for Shasta Scout on September 22 that construction activities at the site had been stopped in response to the Tribe’s concerns. They also acknowledged that they were too quick to conclude that construction wasn’t disturbing the village site and said they’re now working with an archaeologist to further assess what impact ground-disturbing activities had on the site and whether future construction could cause further cultural harm.

Wintu Tribe of Northern California Cultural Resources Manager Art Garcia and his brother Robert Garcia stand in the newly expanded section of the Sacramento River Trail south of Redding, which widened what Wintu cultural monitors say was a thin “deer trail” adjacent to a well-documented burial mound and Wintu village site. 

What Went Wrong: Tribal Consultation Did Not Follow the FHWA’s Policies or California’s Best Practices

The Sacramento River Trail expansion project is part of a program to increase access to federal lands. Management is complicated because the area around the village site is a patchwork of county, city and federal Bureau of Land Management lands, but the project is led by the FHWA, which is paying  for about 90 percent of it, said Travis Menne, Senior Community Projects Manager for the City of Redding.

State and federal law require that agencies request consultation with Tribes whose village sites, ancestors’ remains, and cultures may be impacted by a new construction project or policy. That consultation process allows Tribes and agencies to discuss ways to “mitigate” potential damage to Tribal cultural resources. It also allows them to negotiate terms for a cultural monitoring contract, including payment and worksite insurance, and develop plans for how to handle cultural items or the remains of ancestors that may be unintentionally unearthed during construction.

While both a consulting archaeologist and the State Historic Preservation Office initially agreed construction wouldn’t cause any damage to the cultural and historical significance of the site, Garcia said the village is well known to be laden with physical and intangible Wintu culture. A large excavation was conducted in collaboration with Wintu people during the mid-2000s and archaeologists who led the dig concluded the area was once a large village where many people had died from a malaria epidemic brought by Hudson Bay company traders in the 1830s. The archaeologists found prehistoric house pits, an earthen lodge, a cemetery, and many items used for cooking and hunting in the area. That documented history of the site was enough evidence that they should have had cultural monitors and an archeologist on site when construction began, Garcia said. 

While the letters sent regarding the project meet the minimum tribal consultation standard required by law, they fell well short of consulting principles set forth in  FHWA’s own policies and the state’s best practices. Because many Tribes, especially in California, have limited staff and resources, these policies say agencies should try multiple times to contact a tribe to request consultations and the FHWA’s consulting policy specifically states that the agency should not just rely on a letter but follow up multiple times and never assume “silence is concurrence”. 

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Garcia says the lack of follow-up indicates an unusual lack of effort to engage in tribal consultation “in good faith” as outlined in the policies. “Usually when a project is getting started, they keep sending you reminders or follow-up emails because they really want us to respond,” Garcia said. “But that didn’t happen here.”

The controversy over the trail expansion reveals there are often large gaps between what is required by governmental law and the desires of Tribes to protect their sites and ancestors. The controversy also reveals the kinds of cultural and power differences between agency archaeologists and Tribal officials that can leave ancestral sites vulnerable to desecration. Tribal concerns can often be unacknowledged by archaeologists’ studies because they’re often focused on material items, such as how many arrowheads or pestles they see.

Wintu cultural monitors have gathered and cataloged many arrowheads, mortars, pestles and other cultural items that belonged to their ancestors at the trail expansion project.

Archeologists may also lack knowledge of how the site is still significant to the contemporary cultural practices of Native people or how it is connected to a broader cultural landscape, said Peter Nelson, a citizen of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a UC-Berkeley Assistant Professor and an expert in Indigenous archaeology. But when archaeologists really listen to Tribes, Nelson said, they can form strong partnerships in protecting Tribal heritage and culture.

“(Archaeologists) should be acting in the spirit of the law, and be more geared to looking at full cultural landscapes and treating tribal people as the experts about what’s significant and appropriate in those places,” Nelson said. 

The severity of construction’s  “impacts” on a cultural site can also be in the eye of the beholder. Archaeologists may assume a site that has already been excavated or heavily disturbed is no longer pristine or historically significant. Yet for Wintu people, who feel a responsibility to caretake for their lands and their ancestors’ resting places, seeing dislodged cultural items and ground disturbances near burial mounds still matters deeply, regardless of the site’s lack of official historical integrity.

“As a cultural person, it breaks my heart to see them cutting through an area like this. Our ancestors made these tools, made these mortars and pestles,” Garcia said “. . . this isn’t just ‘stuff’, this is our ancestors’ way of life.”

Annelise Pierce contributed to this story.

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