Film highlights local Native American tribe’s religion, challenges

For the Winnemem Wintu near Mount Shasta, the land is their religion

Mark Franco (second from left) with Winnemem War Dancers at Shasta Dam in September 2003.

Mark Franco (second from left) with Winnemem War Dancers at Shasta Dam in September 2003.

Photo By christopher mcleod

See the film
Screening of In the Light of Reverence Chico Green Film & Solutions Series Ayers 120, Chico State campus, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22
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For most Westerners, religion comes neatly packaged in a box. There’s a building—a church or a temple, for example—with a religious leader at the helm who typically changes every few years or so. They’re organized, with presidents and priests and books that outline the belief systems and prayers.

But what about land-based religions, where there is no box, or church, to sit in; there are no prayer books and potlucks on Sundays? For many Native Americans, the idea of religion is tied directly to the land—to sacred sites—and it is sometimes difficult to get this idea across to those who see religion as occurring in a church.

This is the main issue addressed in the film In the Light of Reverence, which will be shown in Chico Oct. 22. The documentary, created by Toby McLeod of the Sacred Land Film Project, aired on PBS in 2001 and features three Native American tribes—the Hopi of the Four Corners region, the Lakota of the Black Hills in Wyoming, and the Winnemem Wintu of the Mount Shasta area.

“What about their freedom of religion?” That’s the main question the film poses. And it’s a valid one, because sacred sites for all three tribes are in serious danger—some have already been destroyed—by “the white man” for profit.

Filmmaker McLeod explained that he got the idea for the film about 30 years ago, while making another film in which he spoke with Native American elders about environmental erosion. They told him, “This damage to resources is painful to us, but our sacred places are being destroyed, and that is the biggest wound.”

He chewed on that for a long time, consulted friends and scholars, and finally decided to go ahead and make a film about sacred places, which by nature are supposed to be secret. He found, however, that in divulging a little bit, these tribes felt they might be able to get some protection.

“There are taboos certainly about filming ceremonies,” McLeod said. “It began a long process for me. But I learned that opening up a little bit and talking about sacred places might be worth the risk.”

The Wintu tribe signed a treaty in 1851 giving up much of their land spanning up toward the Oregon border. In that treaty, which was ultimately never ratified, they moved to a small reservation along the McCloud River, near their “genesis” spot. In the 1870s part of their land was turned into the Baird fish hatchery, and in the 1940s the Shasta Dam engulfed 90 percent of their tribal lands, including the majority of their sacred sites. The dam also eliminated salmon—a large part of the Wintu’s diet and culture—from the McCloud River.

When the Wintu first made contact with white settlers, their numbers were near 14,000. By 1910 they had dwindled to 400. Today the Winnemem, one band of Wintu Indians, number about 120. They are not recognized by the federal government.

“It’s not easy to be a Winnemem tribe member,” said Mark Franco, headman of the tribe. His wife, Caleen Sisk-Franco, is the current chief. “You must be devoted.”

It’s not easy because the Winnemem don’t operate like many modern tribes do. As they are not federally recognized, Franco explained, they do not have to have a constitution and jump through other bureaucratic hoops to remain legitimate. Instead, they hold onto their traditional culture, their traditional religion.

For instance, their leader is not voted in—Sisk-Franco was hand-picked by the previous chief, Florence Jones, who is featured in the film and headed up the tribe for 67 years until her death in 2003. Members are also expected not just to attend ceremonies, but also to be an active part of them. For this reason, some Winnemem have chosen to join other Wintu tribes or not affiliate at all, as it is a serious commitment.

“We have the trappings of modern society, but everything is still done based on the teachings of the old ones,” Franco said.

“The Winnemem are a truly authentic example of people who are protecting their culture,” McLeod said. “They are persevering. I think it’s important to recognize their struggle.”

If the Francos sound familiar to Chicoans, it’s because they are familiar with Chico. Sisk-Franco is a Chico State alumna, and she and Franco both worked at the university in the 1990s, before moving back to their homeland. They still own a house here, but visit rarely. They will both be on hand—as will McLeod—after the screening to answer questions.

“A lot has happened since the film,” he said. “We’ve moved forward.”

Since 2001, the tribe has faced a number of challenges, from the proposed raising of Shasta Dam to the increasing number of New Age believers who flock to their sacred lands—Panther Meadows—each summer, sometimes as many as 10,000, Franco said. In 2007, for the first time in tribal history, its sacred spring, featured prominently in the film, ran dry.

Another item on the Winnemem agenda is helping to repopulate the salmon that used to flourish in this region. Franco explained that years ago, the Baird fishery—the one on the McCloud River—took fertilized salmon eggs and sent them all over the world to see where they would do well. They thrived in New Zealand.

“In 2004, [after] we did our war dance to protest the proposed raising of the Shasta Dam, New Zealand asked if we wanted those salmon back,” Franco said. So the tribe is working with the Maori to possibly return the favor, in essence returning the fish to their original habitat.

“It’s meaningful that eight years later we’re collaborating on a screening in Chico where they’re going to continue to tell their story,” McLeod said of the Winnemem. “It’s about having dialogue and opening people’s hearts and minds. Their perspective on the environmental crisis is critically important. They’re determined to prevail and endure.”

Franco explained that the tribe has been recognized by the state of California, which is one step toward legitimacy. But it still battles regularly with companies and individuals who threaten its way of life, its culture, its traditions.

“We have a long-standing history with a relationship with that place,” he explained.