“You Cannot Sell What Is Not Yours”: Indigenous Peoples Say Their Voices Should Be Central in Riverfront Discussions

Native people presented a united front against selling riverfront land to private developers at Thursday’s Redding City Council riverfront development workshop. They invoked their responsibility to protect their homelands and the remains of their ancestors and pledged to prevent further erasure.

This story is part of Scout’s ongoing coverage of proposed riverfront land development.

Riverfront development workshops held by the Redding City Council have largely portrayed local history as beginning when white settlers arrived. But on Thursday, wearing her basket hat as she stood before the packed city council chambers, Jess Rouse (Wintu, Pit River, Hupa) countered that narrative, speaking emotionally about vibrant and sophisticated Wintu lifeways that have existed here for millennia prior to the city’s founding.

“Along this riverfront is where the healing ceremonies took place, where our wild salmon were caught, smoked and served, where acorn mush was served in tightly woven baskets from willow gathered along this river … but settlers came in, demanding our people to leave as you do today,” Rouse told the council Thursday. “Our identity as the original Indigenous people of this land is being erased all for profit, all for development. The land is stolen land, and you cannot sell what is not yours.” 

Jess Rouse

Rouse was among nearly 30 Native people who attended Thursday’s fourth public workshop focused on a proposal to develop some of Redding’s key riverfront land. Representing nearly a third of public commenters, the 12 Wintu and Native speakers criticized the lack of tribal consultation and expressed a commitment to resist any riverfront development that would continue the dispossession, cultural erasure, and disrespect of the Wintu peoples. 

“We’re going to see this all the way through. I’m going to keep sharing my voice until we’re stopped being treated as less than,” Rouse told Shasta Scout after the meeting. 

At that meeting, Indigenous peoples presented their own idea of what development means, in this case preserving their ancestors’ resting places, prioritizing salmon runs, and acknowledging Turtle Bay as their unceded Wintu homelands. Arthur Garcia, a cultural monitor for the Wintu Tribe of Northern California, suggested a possible path forward. “If you’re going to sell this land, why don’t you give it back to the original owners, that is the Native Americans of this area?” 

Arthur Garcia

In addition to comments from individual members of the Native communities, representatives of tribal governments also spoke at Thursday’s meeting. Garcia’s statements opposing the development project were made on behalf of the Wintu Tribe’s Chairman Gary Rickard. And Winnemem Wintu Hereditary Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk also spoke to the council, voicing her tribe’s opposition to the project. 

The riverfront proposal was made by a consortium known as the D&D group, which includes locally-based K2 Development Companies and Missouri-based Populous, as well as the McConnell Foundation and Turtle Bay Exploration Park. They’ve asked the city to sign a non-binding, exclusive negotiating agreement allowing them to masterplan, purchase, and develop about 45 acres of riverfront land that includes the Redding Civic Auditorium and Redding Rodeo grounds.

Although they emphasize that the community will be highly involved in the master planning, the D&D group’s original letter of intent laid out a vision for transforming the riverfront into a hub of high-end dining, mixed commercial properties and state-of-the-art entertainment venues.

At a riverfront workshop on November 10, the Redding Rodeo Association and Asphalt Cowboys voiced skepticism about the D&D group’s proposal. Those groups criticized D&D’s failure to involve them in the planning process, including a potential relocation of the rodeo grounds. But on November 15, those organizations released a letter they, Advance Redding, and Turtle Bay Exploration Park had signed. The letter includes a memorandum of understanding that outlines the potential land deal’s regulatory process as well as several safeguards.

Last week, former Wintu Tribe vice-chair Greg Burgin Jr. speaking to the council, noted the marked contrast between the lack of consultation with Wintu tribes and the D&D group’s new involvement of the Asphalt Cowboys and the Redding Rodeo Association.

“We know the history of Indians and cowboys,” Burgin Jr. said, “Guess who’s the stakeholder here. The cowboys are and the Indians are not. I’m still wondering when things are going to change. Everyone is profiting off of us, and how many dollars do the Indian people have?”

Sisk explained to the council that prior to colonization, Turtle Bay was a Wintu fish camp running all the way down to what is now Knighton Road. She said while the city, developers, and business interests seek to profit from the riverfront land, the Wintu people remain federally unrecognized and lack the land base and resources to restore culturally-based economies, such as their ancestral salmon runs.

“That land should be for the fish, the state should be a salmon state, we should be a salmon stopping place.” Sisk said. “It would be better for the people and the water…”

Indigenous Woman with long braids holds salmon while speaking to council
Caleen Sisk

A Grave Concern

Many Native speakers also expressed a commitment to protect the resting places of their ancestors, many of whom, they said, are buried on both sides of the river. Despite the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, California Indians struggle to protect their ancestors’ remains from being disturbed by construction, development, grave robbers, and even the impacts of climate change. Many local Native people tell harrowing stories about having to respond to construction workers’ unexpected “discoveries” of burial remains or encountering evidence of tomb raiding. As part of his job as a tribal cultural monitor, Garcia said he is “watching all these developments going on, they’re uncovering our people and our artifacts. It’s heartbreaking … we put our people to rest in these areas. They’re not supposed to be removed.”

City Council member Julie Winter, who made a motion Thursday to move forward with declaring the land surplus, said she was “happy to see so many Native American voices” at Thursday’s workshop, calling it “critical” that Wintu people be involved in the planning of the riverfront’s future.

Reassuring the audience, Winter contradicted Wintu speakers’ claims that development would desecrate the graves of their ancestors. She said she had been told by two local archaeologists that there’s no evidence Wintu villages and remains are located within the Civic and rodeo grounds properties because the area was historically a floodplain. Though Winter acknowledged the area is still culturally sensitive, several Wintu people told Shasta Scout her comments were offensive because they discredited tribal knowledge and misled the audience. 

“She’s wrong,” Sisk said. “Village sites aren’t governed by flooding; the villages aren’t permanent, they move with the water systems. It’s like saying there were no Wintu people in the McCloud River because it’s a canyon.”

Shasta Scout reached out to Julia Pennington Cronin, Turtle Bay’s Curator of Collections and Exhibits, who confirmed that she and another archaeologist had spoken to Winter a couple weeks prior to the meeting. Pennington Cronin explained that what they had told Winter was more complex than what was presented at the council meeting and said she told Winter an extensive archaeological review in close collaboration with Wintu people would be required before making any conclusive decisions about archeological remains.

“Just because there isn’t easily visible physical evidence that people were on the land, does not mean they weren’t there,” Pennington Cronin wrote. 

Native Inclusion in Development Processess

On Thursday, Council Member Michael Dacquisto echoed many Native speakers’ concerns about selling the land and what he called the “smoke and mirrors” process of the workshops. He suggested it would make sense for the McConnell Foundation to front the $1 million necessary to conduct the master plan for the riverfront without requiring a land sale or any kind of exclusive contract.

“So far there have been virtually no discussions about whether we should even sell the property,” Daquisto said. “I don’t fault McConnell, K2, or Populous for trying to make a buck … but I’m not in favor of selling the property.”

Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jake Mangas said his organization supports the development because they envision a “world-class” project that will “put Redding on the map” as a tourist destination and make it “the premier river city in the West.” Notably, Daniel Knott, Executive Officer of K2 Development Companies, sits on the Chamber’s board. 

Other speakers in support of the D&D group also expressed a desire for nice dining options close to the river and cultural events attractive to young professionals.

In order to sell the land as the D&D group propose, the city must first declare the riverfront properties “surplus.” Ultimately, the City Council voted 3-2 to direct city staff to research the process of declaring the riverfront properties surplus while also investigating other options for private-public partnerships to develop the land. The council will have the opportunity to hear those other options or to officially declare the land surplus on December 21st.

Under Assembly Bill 52, the city will have a legal obligation to consult with Wintu tribes as part of any environmental review process related to riverfront development. If the city makes changes to the general or riverfront specific plan for the development, staff will also be required to consult with tribes about those changes under Senate Bill 18. Although council members pledged unofficially Thursday that only the Civic and rodeo grounds properties would be considered for development, many Wintu people expressed doubt about whether the process of privatization would stop there. 

“It’s the gateway to development,” Sisk said. “They’re moving down the chain. First they did the bridge, then they did the Sheraton. It’s not going to stop at the rodeo and the Civic.”

While some public commenters in favor of the D&D project emphasized the need to let go of the past, for many Native people who spoke at Thursday’s meeting, it’s extremely difficult to forget a history they see as continually repeating itself. 

“It’s the same story. First they wiped us out with their weapons, now with their laws and policies.” said Kenwa Kravitz (Wintu, Madesi Band of Pit River.) “Seeing all our people come out (to the workshop) speaks to our connection as Indigenous peoples to our homelands. We’re committed to this fight because if we don’t maintain that connection to our homeland, we’re not going to continue to exist.”

Marc T Dadigan covers Indigenous Affairs and the Environment for Shasta Scout. His writing has been published in Reveal, Yes! Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, and Indian Country Today. He welcomes your emails here.

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