Some Wintu People Call For “Land Back” During Riverfront Meetings. Here’s Why.

The land we now know as Redding has been a part of Wintu people’s vast homelands for thousands of years. Today, after surviving state-sponsored massacres, violent removals, and discriminatory legal doctrines, Wintu tribes remain almost entirely landless. For some Wintu people, the proposed sale of riverfront land is inseparable from the need to reckon with this often-suppressed history.

Correction 4.19.2022 12:20 pm: An earlier version of this article included a graphic which was incorrectly titled. We have corrected the graphic.

Mercy Kravitz (Winnemem Wintu/Madesi Band of the Pit River Tribe) was moved to tears as she spoke about her people’s history during a November 18 workshop about the City of Redding’s proposed riverfront land deal.

“It’s a miracle I stand here as a Wintu person,” Kravitz, age 23 said, referencing Wintu people’s survival of campaigns of state-sponsored extermination, cultural oppression and forced assimilation.  “. . . if the city truly considers this land as surplus, the most just action will be to return it to the unrecognized Wintu people. In the words of our Wintu ancestor, Norelputus, ‘Will there ever be justice for the Wintu?’ . . . .Land back!”

For community members in the audience, Kravitz’s invocation of the Land Back movement may have seemed like a confusing diversion. But for some Wintu people and other Native community members, the future of key riverfront land that includes the Redding Rodeo ground and Civic Auditorium, signifies something more important than it does for the average citizen. For them, the Council’s decision Tuesday night could either serve to further sever their connection to their homelands or provide an opportunity for the greater Redding community to finally begin healing. 

“Land Back” is a contemporary rallying cry for Native peoples who are organizing to reclaim their ancestral lands which were dispossessed through the process of colonization. For Native peoples, whose cultures, religions and political sovereignty are deeply connected to relationships with their ancestral lands and waters, the return of stolen land is often seen as essential for suturing the ruptures caused by the atrocities of the past. 

One of the original local Indigenous Land Back activists was Norelputus, a 19th century leader for Wintu and Yana people, who by any measure should be remembered as one of the region’s most significant historical figures. During the late 1800s, a period in which his people survived incredible violence, homelessness and upheaval, Norelputus mobilized both a spiritual resistance and a successful political lobbying effort. Although he couldn’t write or speak fluently in English, his clarion call for justice reached the hallowed halls of Washington D.C., which eventually spurred the federal government to purchase land for homeless Wintu people.   

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But Wintu people would only be able to hold on to those allotments for so long. While riverfront land could soon be purchased by developers, many Wintu people, whose relationship to the same riverfront spans millennia, still lack a land base. What’s often hidden from sight is the history of how the Wintu people became homeless and landless, a process largely due to violent massacres, discriminatory laws and dereliction of duty by state and federal governments. (The federally recognized Redding Rancheria, which has a land base of about 30 acres, originated as a place for homeless Native people of Wintu, Pit River and Yana descent).

Healing from historical trauma is challenging for Wintu people, they say, because they’re so often omitted from the dominant historical narratives about Redding and the riverfront itself. As the late Haitian-American anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot observed, the writers of history wield their power through “bundles of silences.” In other words, the power of history lies in who and what we choose to exclude or fail to even remember.

Redding’s City Council meets tonight to discuss the future of riverfront land. At Shasta Scout we’ve gathered local Indigenous history in an effort to unwrap some of the local silence’s in Redding’s dominant memory.

Before Contact, California’s Statehood and Genocide

Local histories, including what’s found on the  City of Redding’s website, often briefly describe Wintu people in the past tense, as the people who lived here before “civilization,” erroneously implying that Wintu people did not have a rich civilization of their own before encountering  Euro-American people.
But for thousands of years prior to the arrival of white settlers, Wintu people sustained a complex civilization that included long-distance trade networks, a rich ceremonial and cultural life, complex systems of justice and diplomacy and sophisticated land cultivation and fishery stewardship practices that yielded bountiful food supplies. There were originally nine bands of Wintu with a village that was the central political and social organizing hub. Thee Wintu people have always preserved their unique histories, values and memories through the oral tradition, or passing down insights from the past through spoken word from generation to generation.

In 1846, when California was still under Mexican control, a local massacre set the stage for a bloody period of colonization when Army Captain and future Republican Presidential candidate John C. Frémont led a mass murder of somewhere between 300 to 700 Wintu people who had gathered to harvest spring run salmon at a likely fishing camp on the Sacramento River. Based on the description of the area by witnesses, it’s possible the massacre occurred near modern-day Redding. UCLA historian Benjamin Madley argues that Frémont’s massacre is what ushered in an era of genocide, when vigilantes and state-sponsored militias waged what the state’s first governor called a “war of extermination” against Native peoples.

With the onset of the Gold Rush, the newly minted state of California’s militias and local settlers decimated Wintu people through massacres, enslavement, and forced starvation, until  their population declined from at least 34,000 people in 1850 to about 379 people in 1910. Because many California settlers and leaders believed Native people were destined for extinction, they reasoned that mass murder was not a crime but the execution of a fate pre-ordained by God. These ideas stemmed from the widespread embrace of “Manifest Destiny,” a nearly prophetic belief that Euro-Americans were destined to “conquer” the North American continent and bend its resources to their will.

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After California was admitted to the union, both the state’s constitution and early legislation ensured Native people would remain vulnerable to massacres and chaotic violence. They were deprived of citizenship and the right to testify in court, as well as the ability to claim ownership of ancestral lands where they had lived for thousands of years. The state legalized what amounted to the enslavement of Native people, as early ranchers, miners and agriculturalists sought cheap and exploitable labor. The state also codified that all young white men could be mandated to serve in the state militia, which was largely formed to decimate Native people’s resistance and quell their defense of their homelands. Militia expeditions cost the state about $1.2 million between 1851 and 1859, according to a study from the California Research Bureau.

“Protecting the Settlers” – an 1864 illustration depicting a massacre of California Indian people by a militia.

Local cities also raised their own funds to send vigilantes to massacre Native people’s villages. Officials in Old Shasta City offered $5 bounties for every Indian head in 1851, more than the average gold-miner income of $3 a day, making the area an epicenter for down-and-out miners to make a living hunting Wintu people. These attacks were often made in revenge for what were called “Indian depredations.” While there are records of isolated cases of Native people attacking settlers, historians such as Cliff Trafzer, Brendan Lindsey and Jack Norton say these were often initiated in response to encroachment and violence.  Many of the “depredations” were actually involved displaced Native people stealing cattle or supplies to fend off starvation. In other cases of reported “depredations,” settlers faked Indian attacks in order to stoke the ethnic cleansing of desirable Native land, according to Lindsey. One 1851 massacre caused the deaths of about 70 Wintu people who were gathered about 20 miles from Shasta City on the West Side of the Sacramento river, possibly in modern day Redding.

The Cottonwood Treaty, Stolen Land and Broken Promises

Though Wintu people suffered a nearly unfathomable loss of life, they constantly fought, hid and negotiated in order to survive, as historian Albert Hultado observed. One way they sought a better future for themselves was through treaty making. Faced with threats of constant violence, Wintu and Yana leaders signed the Cottonwood Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which was ostensibly intended to establish a 35 mile square reservation that included most of Redding east of the Sacramento River.

Visualization of the Wintu/Yana reservation authorized by the Cottonwood Treaty courtesy of Winter Fox Frank

In total, Native people throughout California signed 18 treaties between 1851 and 1852, which would have led to the allocation of nearly eight percent of the state’s land for reservations. But even after Native people had ceded vast swaths of their ancestral lands in order to retain small reservations where they would be protected, the treaties were ultimately never enforced. Fearing the loss of such valuable land as well as their cheap labor source, California legislators successfully lobbied Congress not to ratify the treaties, arguing mining and agriculture would be a better use for the land. The treaties remained squirreled away, filed under an injunction of secrecy until 1905, leaving many Native people, including Wintu people, homeless. According to local oral histories and historian Jack Forbes, many Wintu people had already moved to what they thought was their reservation land before Congress rejected the treaties.

The Norelputus Letter, also known as the Wintu-Yana Petition

Believed to be born in 1800, Norelputus was described as a tall and strong “old time Indian ” who “knew everything.” A steward of Wintu songs, histories and stories from the oral tradition. He’s remembered among Wintu people today for his tireless pursuit of justice and his unwavering belief his people could restore a better world by staying true to their Wintu beliefs and cultural practices. Jeremiah Curtin, a renowned Smithosonian linguist and naturalist, started working with Norelputus in 1884, to document Wintu culture, religion and village sites. Observing that Wintu people had no land and had largely been neglected by federal and state authorities, Curtin translated and wrote a letter to President Harrison in the words of Norelputus and a group of Wintu and Yana men, beseeching him to address the widespread suffering and homelessness of California Natives. 

The letter appealed for “some little share of justice” from the president:
“From being a people many thousand in number, strong, happy, rich, we have been turned into a people a few hundred in number, a poor, weak remnant without land, without money, without education, without credit, looked down upon by men who slew our kindred and possess our ancient home. . . .Such are the Wintu today.”

After receiving the Norelputus letter Harrison appointed a federal official to travel to Redding to investigate whether land in the vicinity could be set aside for Wintu and Yana people. In 1893, Mike Reid assisted a federal agent with the formation of 993 allotments, or single family parcels, of 160, 80 or 40 acres each, designated for Native people in three states, including California. A few years later in 1900, another agent provided 44 allotments to Wintu and Yana people in the Shasta County region, according to Alice Hoveman’s research in Journey to Justice: The Wintu People and the Salmon.

While it was the not the same as a reservation, the allotments provided Wintu people some relief during a desperate time as well as a tiny foothold in their ancestral lands. 

The California Claims Case and Shasta Dam

In 1905, the injunction of secrecy surrounding the unratified treaties was lifted, and Indian welfare organizations collaborated with California Indians to rigorously document the widespread landless and destitute conditions they suffered. As a result of this advocacy, the federal government began purchasing lands for landless Native people in California, commonly referred to as rancherias. In 1922, the Bureau of Indian Affairs used federal funds allocated for Indian services to purchase 31 acres south of Redding along Clear Creek. This was to establish a “colony” for homeless Pit River, Wintu and Yana people, and this land would become what is today known as the Redding Rancheria. 

To gain political momentum, California Indians and their supporters spoke widely about the “lost treaties.” Wintu people organized the Baird Auxiliary Council, a local chapter of a statewide California Indian-led movement to seek compensation and justice for the unratified treaties by filing a federal lawsuit. This lawsuit eventually became known as the California Claims Case.

In 1922, Baird Auxiliary chairman and Winnemem Wintu political activist, tailor and poet Alfred Gillis, advocated before Congress for restitution for the unratified treaties and lost reservations. Elegantly articulating the vitality of Wintu culture, Gillis compared his roundhouse of elders to the white man’s great historians, and testified to the strength of the Wintu people demonstrated in their resistance to assimilation. “When I lie down to die I want to see that the children that come after me and the old people are properly taken care of,” Gillis told Congress, “and I believe that this government should not shrink from that obligation. . . . The Indians do not want to be colonized. They get along better when they buy their own land along the river or wherever they want to live.”

Traveling throughout the state, Gillis rallied support among other California Indians for the claims case. He also published  poetry and travelogs in a short-lived newspaper called the California Indian Herald, which provided updates on the movement’s political campaigns. While the claims case percolated through the courts, Gillis and the Baird Auxiliary successfully helped end bans that stopped Indian children from attending public schools and secured citizenship rights for non-reservation California Indians.

Alfred Gillis, courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC-Berkeley.

The California Claims Case concluded in 1944 with the U.S. court awarding California Indians just over $17 million, based on the $1.25 per acre price paid by early settlers, as compensation for the 18 unrealized reservations promised by treaties that were never ratified. The federal government then deducted more than $12 million for the lands that had already been established as reservations and rancherias for homeless Indians. With what remained, Congress authorized the payment of just $150 to each California Indian based on a census of California Indians that contained 36,095 names.

This would not be the end of Wintu political organizing, but without significant funding from the claims case, many Wintu people lost their allotments through discriminatory bureaucratic processes. And another diaspora was caused by the construction of Shasta Dam and the federal government’s subsequent removal of Winnemem Wintu people from the McCloud River.

But Winnemem Wintu people would likely still have land on the McCloud River if not for another betrayal by the federal government.  In 1941, Congress passed the Central Valley Indian Land Acquisition Act, promising compensation for Winnemem Wintu people whose allotment lands were to be flooded by Shasta Dam. But in 1943, as federal authorities evacuated the Winnnemem Wintu people from the river and bulldozed their homes, Indian Agent John Rockwell wrote to the federal Indian Commissioner that compensating them for the land wasn’t worthwhile, noting that the “interests of many of the Shasta County Indians would be served better if they would leave the county entirely.”

In the dark aftermath of dam construction, the late Winnemem Wintu spiritual leader Florence Jones, and other leaders, guided their people through ceremonies, political advocacy and cultural practices that continue to live on, making California’s war of extermination against them an abject failure.

Today, many Native people, whose lifeways have been deeply connected to the river and surrounding land for millennia, oppose the sale of public riverfront land for development, calling instead for “Land Back” rather than a continuation of the history of dispossesion.

Marc Dadigan is Shasta Scout’s Associate Editor. His writing has been published in Reveal, Yes! Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, and Indian Country Today. He welcomes your emails at [email protected] Do you have feedback? Email us, or join the community conversation at Shasta Scout’s Facebook page.

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