Tribal Picnic at Shasta Dam Triggered Federal Security Response

In July, Run4Salmon participants say they were discriminated against by Dam staff who closed the visitor center and activated increased security protocols in response to their presence. A federal official who manages the Dam said security’s actions were necessary because the group had previously caused a disruption by demonstrating on site. The incident is the latest chapter in ongoing tension between the Tribe and federal officials over the erasure of Tribal history from Dam visitor center narratives.
Run4Salmon participants gather for a group shot during a bicycling segment of the prayer journey near Mount Shasta. Photo courtesy of Run4Salmon

Many people who’ve joined the  Winnemem Wintu Tribe on their annual Run4Salmon Prayer Journey have developed a profound respect for the sacred fish as they travel hundreds of miles each year from the McCloud River to the Pacific Ocean. Nadia Lucia Peralta, who has served as a medic during the journey for the past two years, is among the many supporters who say they’ve been moved by their experiences with Run4Salmon, which includes several ceremonies to pray for the salmon’s return to the Tribe’s river. 

That spiritual intent was deeply disturbed this July during Run4Salmon’s annual stop at the Shasta Dam, Peralto says, when she and others in the group were treated like dangerous and threatening criminals by Dam security staff. 

During the group’s July 15 visit, Peralto says she was confronted by armed security guards as she and another Run4Salmon participant tried to enter the Shasta Dam Visitor Center to use the restrooms and were told by security guards that they couldn’t enter if they were part of “that group,” a reference to the approximately 45 Run4Salmon participants who were eating lunch at picnic benches outside. 

According to nine people interviewed by Shasta Scout over the last six weeks, Peralta was one of multiple Run4Salmon participants who experienced what appeared to be discriminatory treatment from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation staff and security contractors at the federally-operated dam that day. This treatment included the monitoring of Native visitors by security guards both inside and around the Visitor Center and a decision to lock the facility doors just as a group of Native women and children tried to enter to use the restrooms. After the facility was closed, the witnesses said, Visitor Center staff were escorted in single file to their cars by security personnel, as if the staff were endangered by the Run4Salmon participants.

Donald Bader, the US Bureau of Reclamation Area Manager who supervises Dam staff and security contractors, confirmed that Run4Salmon participants’ descriptions of increased security responses on July 15 were accurate. Bader said he authorized closing the facility and supported his security guards’ actions, saying the decisions were not discriminatory because he had legitimate concerns about a “repeat” of a 2019 Run4Salmon demonstration held inside the Visitor Center.

Run4Salmon participants gather outside the Shasta Dam Visitor Center after staff suddenly closed it just prior to them trying to access the restrooms. Photo Courtesy of Will Doolittle 

Bader’s decision and the actions of his staff have outraged many Run4Salmon supporters who were at the Dam that day, including Dania Colegrove, a Hoopa Valley Tribal Member and prominent Indigenous river advocate. Colegrove says she was particularly concerned about how the actions of security contractors appeared to target Winnemem Wintu Spiritual Leader and Chief Caleen Sisk and her five-year-old granddaughter, Mya, who were among the small group that Dam staff barred from entering the Visitor Center.

In addition to being the Tribe’s leader, Sisk is a member of the state’s Truth and Healing Council, and has been recognized internationally as a guardian of sacred sites and Winnemem Wintu culture. Her impassioned advocacy for salmon restoration helped the Tribe secure a co-management agreement this summer with state and federal agencies to re-introduce baby salmon to their river, an accomplishment that has garnered national media attention.

“I think they need to apologize to (Sisk),” Colegrove said, “She’s the traditional leader from that land, and it’s very rude and disrespectful for them to say ‘You can’t come in here because you’re you.’” 

Bader disputes that anyone was targeted, saying he authorized staff to close the facility after they reported seeing some of the same members of the Run4Salmon group that were present for the 2019 demonstration. That protest included about 50 tribal members and supporters who sang songs and read a letter inside the Visitor Center to protest the absence of Winnemem Wintu history in the Visitor Center’s informational displays.

According to Bader, 2019 Tribal demonstrators were “aggressive” and rude to staff and their demonstration was disruptive in part because they stayed past Visitor Center hours. He also complained that Run4Salmon participants posted on social media after the event, “bad mouthing” Reclamation and Dam staff.

That history was what led him to close the facility early on July 15, he says, when he realized the Run4Salmon group was on site and entering the Visitor Center. Bader said it was simply a coincidence that the Visitor Center doors were locked just as Sisk and her granddaughter approached to use the bathroom. He noted that all visitors had access to portable bathrooms in the parking lot. 

Sisk said she struggled to understand why a peaceful demonstration three years ago would have spurred such an intense security response, especially because the Run4Salmon group wasn’t carrying signs or marching towards the Visitor Center as they did during the demonstration.

“I don’t see how we have incited that kind of fear in the staff,” she said. “(In 2019) we sang and we read a letter; it’s not like we broke anything or hurt anybody.”

A spotty livestream video of the 2019 demonstration shows Run4Salmon participants, mostly women and elders, entering the Visitor Center and encircling the information desk, waving signs and singing a protest song. Sisk asked to speak with an administrator and share a letter outlining the Tribe’s demands to be represented in the Center’s informational displays. After some awkward silences, she was eventually told no administrator was on site and that staff were uncomfortable with the number of people filming and taking photographs. Eventually, a tribal member read the letter out loud and the group left peacefully singing:  “Respect the People, Tell the truth . . . Tell the story of the Winnemem Wintu.” The Run4Salmon group continued to sing outside the Visitor Center until a security guard told Sisk they would call the Shasta County’s Sheriff’s Office if they didn’t leave, she said. 

Run4Salmon participants sang a protest song and asked to deliver a letter to a Reclamation administrator during the 2019 protest at the Shasta Dam Visitor Center. Chief Caleen Sisk, center, wears a traditional basket hat. Photo Courtesy of Christopher McLeod

Sisk suggested that the treatment they received in both 2019 and this year indicates some staff at the Dam may be affected by old stereotypes that Native people are dangerous savages. There have been recent examples of federal security contractors treating Indigenous protesters as enemy combatants instead of community members.

While Bader said he was acting to protect his staff and facilities, Sisk said she was concerned about the impact of armed security guards’ actions on the mental and emotional health of her community, especially the children who were present. Her granddaughter expressed to her after the encounter that the Visitor Center was “just for white people” because she had seen white people leave the facility just before being locked out.

“If we had done an action and (security had responded this way), I could talk to (Mya) about it and explain it. But in this case what can I say?” Sisk said. “They’re not letting this child in because of why? She perceives it as because she’s different and not white, and it’s hurtful.”

Discrimination and Civil Rights Violations

Run4Salmon participants see the actions of Bader and his security staff as clearly targeting Native people in a way that likely violated their civil rights. But a UC Davis expert in Constitutional law said that while the behavior of security staff at the dam sounds “troubling,” true violations of civil rights can be difficult to prove because of complexities in the law. 

Ash Bhagwat, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law, said it’s illegal to retaliate against any group for their past speech or activism, and it would also be a civil rights violation to bar someone from using the restrooms because of their race or tribal identity. But if Bader had a legitimate fear a disruptive protest might take place, Bhagwat said, he likely had a right to close the Visitor Center under a complex body of law known as the “public forum doctrine“, in which only certain designated public spaces are required to remain open for protests and demonstrations.

“It’s about motive, which can be tricky to prove,” Bhagwat said. “If (Reclamation staff) were motivated by the race of those who were involved or were trying to retaliate for a view they expressed previously, that’s illegal. But if they’re trying to prevent them from occupying the building, they’re allowed to (close it).”

While the question of whether a civil rights violation occurred may be legally murky, Run4Salmon participants are adamant that what they experienced was clearly discrimination. They also found the episode disturbingly ironic, noting Reclamation’s history of aggression against the Tribe.

“It was an incredible turn of the narrative to act like they’re the victims, to distract from the truth of what’s going on here — that it was the Winnemem Wintu who lost their ancestral lands from the dam,” Peralta, the Run4Salmon medic, said of the security staff’s behavior. 

Tribal History Has Been Erased From Shasta Dam Narratives

As Peralta referenced, tensions between Reclamation, which owns and operates the Dam, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe are an ongoing result of a devastating history that has long been unacknowledged at the Visitor Center. 

When federal officials erected Shasta Dam during World War II, they flooded 27 miles of the Winnemem Wintu people’s lands along the McCloud River, rendering the Tribe homeless and blocking the once-abundant salmon that were essential to their way of life from returning. Since the early 2000s, the Tribe has been resisting a Reclamation plan to raise Shasta Dam another 18 feet, which would flood the lands a second time, inundating or damaging about 40 sacred sites integral to the Tribe’s culture and religion.

But the throngs of locals and international tourists who visit the Shasta Dam would never know about the harmful impacts the Dam has had on Winnemem Wintu people. Informational displays and documentary films at the center celebrate the Dam’s engineers and workers and tout the Dam’s integral role in providing 1940’s wartime power and irrigation water for California’s bountiful Central Valley agricultural industry. But Winnemem Wintu people are not mentioned in any of the Dam’s narratives.  

The Tribe’s political status makes it challenging for them to advocate for changes at the Visitor Center. While federal agencies are required to engage with federally-recognized tribes as sovereign nations, the Bureau of Indian Affairs stripped the Winnemem Wintu Tribe and many other California Native peoples of their recognition in the 1980s. Without such recognition, government agencies can more easily ignore or dismiss issues of vital importance to the Tribe.

As a result, the Winnemem Wintu have often gotten creative when they’ve felt unheard and unseen. The Tribe has held demonstrations at other federal sites to garner the attention of officials, with positive results. In 2012, they waved signs and sang songs inside a U.S. Forest Service Office in Vallejo, action which drew then-Regional Forester Randy Moore to the facility’s lobby to discuss their request for a temporary river closure for an upcoming ceremony. 

But citing the need for security vigilance given the Dam’s  “critical infrastructure” designation by the Department of Homeland Security, Reclamation Area Manager Bader said the Tribe could organize future events, but only outside the Visitor Center and only if they fill out a land-use permit for large gatherings.

“We’re not excluding them,” Bader said. 

Sisk, the tribe’s spiritual leader, expressed doubt whether a large group of white visitors who had gathered to eat sandwiches outside would have been required to get a permit or face security scrutiny. She said that Reclamation staff should receive cultural competency training to learn more about the history of the Dam and the Winnemem Wintu people, so they’re more understanding of the Tribe’s point of view.

“I really don’t understand why the staff would be so afraid of the Winnemem Wintu people,” she said. “That’s one reason we want (our information) to be in the Visitor Center; the staff should know who we are.”

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