The Pit River Tribe’s History of Daring Activism Will Be Brought To Life in Locally-Produced Documentary

With a focus on promoting community-wide healing, Sky Scholfield, a Shasta College graduate and tribal member, is shooting a documentary about the Pit River Tribe, whose ancestral lands span eastern Shasta and Modoc Counties. The film will explore the Pit River people’s occupations of PGE and national forest lands during the 60s and 70s and as well as their contemporary efforts to reclaim lands and cultural practices.

Editor’s note: To learn more about why Shasta Scout emphasizes coverage of Indigenous issues as well as our approach to these stories, read this Open Notebook piece by Marc Dadigan.

By Marc Dadigan

Beginning with the Gold Rush era, Euro-American settlers and their governments have sought to brutally sever Pit River people from their ancestral lands through genocidal violence, forced removals and assimilation policies. But the Pit River people’s vision for a restoration of their tribal sovereignty has never dimmed. And their resistance burned especially fervently during a nationwide resurgence of American Indian activism in the 60s and early 70s.  

During this period, Pit River people organized a series of actions to reclaim their stolen ancestral lands, believing their survival as a tribe was at stake. Although federal agencies and wealthy corporations technically owned the majority of Pit River territory (and still do), Pit River people were stirred by a 1959 federal court decision. The judges of the Indian Claims Commission ruled Pit River people had never officially ceded their aboriginal title to the more than 3.5 million acres of tribal territory that includes much of eastern Shasta County.

Over the course of the next several years, Pit River people and supporters occupied the posh PG&E campgrounds in Big Bend, took over a PG&E dam on the Pit River and briefly reclaimed small parcels of Lassen National Forest. During these actions, they demanded the return of their stolen land while facing threats of arrest and police brutality. 

Although the Pit River people’s activism didn’t directly lead to the expansion of their land base, it drew international media attention and cemented their reputation as staunch defenders of their tribal rights. Yet the story of the Pit River people and these land occupations have largely been excluded from local history books, and the memory of that era has slowly faded even among some tribal members.

The late Pit River activist and political leader Raymond Lego speaks to Scandinavian documentary filmmakers during the tribe’s series of occupations of PGE and national forest lands during the late 60s and early 70s.

For instance, Sky Scholfield, a Shasta College graduate and local filmmaker, says he never learned about this history of the Pit River people while attending local schools. As a young person of Wintu descent and an enrolled member of the Madesi Band of Pit River, he said he rarely heard stories about the land occupations while growing up in the local Native community.

It wasn’t until he was in his early 20s, Scholfield says, that he started to discover this history, and his thirst for more knowledge soon evolved into a filmmaking project to share the Pit River people’s story with the world. Scholfield, 33, has now been working on the Pit River Documentary Project for nearly three years, consulting with cultural advisors and raising funds. He hopes the project will present a more accurate historical depiction from key eras of the region’s past by foregrounding the Pit River Tribe’s experiences. By doing so, he is striving for the film to promote healing from intergenerational trauma for the Pit River people.

“I think this is the perfect time for the documentary as we’re seeing a resurgence of Indigenous activism across the hemisphere, especially tied to standing up for our lands and waters, and I think people want to learn more,” Scholfield said. “But most people don’t know really know this history, and why we’re making these stands.”

Sky Scholfield, a local filmmaker, is leading the production of the Pit River Documentary Project. Photo Courtesy of the Pit River Documentary Project.

The general public’s lack of knowledge about the history of local Indigenous peoples can have many detrimental impacts, Scholfield said. These can include the exclusion of local tribes from important decision making processes, the continuation of painful stereotypes, and the dismissal of Indigenous knowledges that are integral to solving many current crises, such as climate change.

“I’ve noticed there’s a lot of explaining that needs to be done whenever Indigenous people are trying to speak at a city council meeting or protect cultural resources,” Scholfield said. “I think we need to set the historical record straight before we move forward. We can’t have emotional healing unless we acknowledge what happened and face the very conscious forgetting (about the history of Indigenous peoples) that happens here.”

After working for several years in multimedia production in Portland, Scholfield recently returned home to Shasta County in order to focus on the film, and he has been filming interviews and scenes at Pit River gatherings this summer. As currently proposed, the documentary will focus on three periods of the Pit River people’s story: the era of genocide and forced removal during the mid-1800s, the land reclamation activism of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the tribe’s cultural restoration and sacred site protection in recent times. 

A map of the territories of the 11 autonomous bands of the Pit River Tribe. Map courtesy of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

In many cases, Indigenous people are often erased from American histories, but even those narratives that include Indigenous stories often portray them as passive victims. Such depictions diminish the many ways Indigenous peoples often advocated, fought and resisted. Thus, the documentary, Scholfield says, will focus on the Pit River Tribe’s activism, accomplishments and inspiring ancestors without soft pedaling the brutal history of colonization. 

For example, the documentary will share how Pit River people were forcibly removed from their homelands and marched or shipped to faraway military reservations during the last half of the 19th century. It will also highlight the miraculous stories of those who made the dangerous escape from those reservations to be reunited with their relatives. 

Scholfield also plans to challenge another common but harmful stereotype about Native people: that they no longer exist or have been fully assimilated. For the film, Scholfield is currently documenting how Pit River people’s land-based religious practices have continued through the tribe’s spiritual runs. These are four-to-five day ceremonies during which Pit River people and other community members run relay-style for more than 100 miles to strengthen their connection to their homelands and pray for their ancestors.

“I think the film will be important for everyone in Shasta County to see to understand where they come from,” Scholfield said, emphasizing that the film won’t be a one-dimensional chronicle of historical atrocities. “Looking at the big picture, what we need is hope. Oren Lyons (Seneca faithkeeper and political leader) said one of the biggest jobs of leadership is giving people hope.” 

Scholfield has already raised $25,000 for the film, including a significant sum from the Pit River Tribe itself, a meaningful gesture of support for the project, he said.  Scholfield said it’s vitally important that the Pit River community feel they are honored and involved in the production process. After meeting with elders and seeking their input for the overall vision of the work, he says the constant message he’s received is they want the film to be a vehicle of healing for Pit River people, he said.

It’s a message that makes sense to him too. “Taking care of yourself, tending to our internal landscape, healing personal and intergenerational trauma: these ideas have always been interwoven into our culture,” Scholfield said.

Scholfield’s documentary will likely include footage of the Return of the Ancestors Walk/Run to depict contemporary Pit River people’s spiritual practices. During this ceremonial journey, Pit River people, friends and allies travel from Round Valley to the Pit River territory  to pray for their ancestors who were removed by the military and forcibly marched to the Round Valley reservation in 1859. Photo Courtesy of the Pit River Documentary Project.

Healing Trauma through Filmmaking

Historical and intergenerational trauma are scholarly terms to describe how disastrous collective experiences can impact the health of communities for generations to come if they’re not fully addressed. Scholars such as Eduardo and Bonnie Duran have described Native peoples’ historical trauma, which includes displacement from their homelands, as a “soul wound”.

Collective historical trauma can also be triggered by contemporary events that are connected to atrocities of the past, such as the destruction as a sacred site. However, Native people have a wide array of healing practices that can address historical trauma, such as advocating for the acknowledgment of historical atrocities and restoring ceremonial practices.

Scholfield plans to explore community filmmaking as another form of healing for historical trauma. Inspired by community theater projects that have been used to successfully treat military veterans with PTSD, Scholfield plans to provide opportunities for cultural healing by inviting Pit River people to embody the roles of their ancestors and re-enact historical events that will be dramatized in the film. 

To develop this process for the film, he’s been consulting with mental health professionals, including his sister, Vanessa Scholfield, who is Wintu, Wylacki and a member of the Madesi band of the Pit River Tribe. She also has a master’s in social work with a mental health concentration and works in behavioral health for the Redding Rancheria Tribal Health Center.

Rather than focusing simply on the individual therapist-client relationship, Vanessa Scholfield and other Indigenous practitioners often take a more collective approach to mental health, understanding that healing sometimes must occur as a community. Trauma, she said, is most damaging because it disconnects people from their own cultures and families, but the film could work as a suture for the ruptures of community-wide traumas. 

“The documentary is important because it will provide another framework for the Pit River people to continue and strengthen that identity as a community. It will bring people together to experience our history and better understand ourselves,” she said. “That’s the healing.” 

Vanessa Scholfield , a mental health professional who’s serving as a consultant on the film. Courtesy of the Pit River Documentary Project.

While the goal is to create a film for and by Pit River people, Sky Scholfield said he believes the documentary will be relevant to audiences across the globe and across cultural boundaries. As local Native people continue to assert the importance of their knowledge, history and sovereignty in building Shasta County’s future, films like the Pit River Documentary can provide a foundational piece of education, he said. 

“Ultimately, the key message of the film will be about how Indigenous people treat the world in a way that’s conducive to longevity, and that’s knowledge we’re going to have to draw upon to survive the tough times ahead,” he said.

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