The Winnemen Wintu, a Native American nation of northern California, is not federally recognized, making them a “ghost tribe.” In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act gave special rights to native people to help protect their ceremony sites and cultural traditions. The Winnemen people used to be protected under this act, but in 1986 the Supreme Court ruled that in order to receive the special benefits, Native American nations had to be on a federal government list.
A Ghost Tribe
The Winnemen, along with 75 other “ghost tribes” in California, were left off the list. They were then excluded from all benefits dedicated to Native Americans, including the Indian Child Welfare act, which keeps adoptions within nations, federal scholarships, and the right to call anything they make “authentic Native American”. They also no longer have the leverage of government to government negotiation, as formally recognized Native American nations do.
Because of their status, the Winnemen’s sacred sites are no longer protected by the government and are now owned either by the government, as part of the State Park Service, or by private organizations or people. Because many of their sacred sites are now public property, their ceremonies are at risk of disruption. For example, at a coming of age ceremony along the McCloud River, an intoxicated woman on a boat flashed her chest and insulted all people who witnessed it. Their land may even disappear with the proposed raising of the Shasta dam 18.5 feet. It would ruin 7 miles of their territory and 40 sacred sites. Part of their land has already been flooded, when the dam was built in 1945.
We Must Respect Indigenous Culture
The Winnemen have been fighting for the ability to close the river during future coming of age ceremonies, in which the river is an integral part. They have also been fighting against the raising of the dam, for it would make passing on their traditions to their children impossible. Their efforts have seen little pay off with their status, and the process to become a federally recognized is incredibly difficult. Only one tribe in California has successfully petitioned for recognition, as extensive paperwork documenting tribal existence and cohesion over the past century. They deserve greater respect then they have received, and they should be allowed the right to self-govern. There are only 125 Winnemen people left, of which only 33 live in the 42 acre village by the McCloud River. We cannot continue to let sacred indigenous cultures die off because of infiltration and abuse from “modern” culture. Cultural diversity is important and should be embraced and nurtured by governments and citizens.