California Supports Winnemem Wintu Tribe

Senate passes Joint Resolution urging restoration of federal recognition status

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe drew one step closer to righting years of historic wrongs today. The Senate passed a Joint Resolution urging the federal government to restore federal recognition status to the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. The resolution, authored by Assembly Member Huffman, passed with 24 votes.

“California has sent a clear message today: our state stands in solidarity with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe to correct a terrible injustice by the federal government,” said Assemblymember Jared Huffman. “It’s not time for the federal government to acknowledge its mistake and once again recognize the Tribe.”

The Winnemem were mysteriously dropped from the list of federally recognized Tribes in the 1980’s. For years, the Winnemem received benefits from the federal government, such as housing and educational assistance. They abruptly stopped receiving benefits, ending access to local healthcare, housing assistance, and cutting families off from scholarships they had only years before used to pursue college degrees. To this day, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has failed to provide an adequate explanation for what happened.

“This resolution is long-overdue. For years, we have struggled to maintain our traditions on our own,” explained Caleen Sisk-Franco, leader of the Winnemem. “Recognition would enable us to maintain our spiritual lifeways, get our youth scholarships and healthcare. To have the State of California declare their support for us sends a message that we are no longer alone on this issue.”

The Winnemem are a traditional, non-gaming Tribe from Northern California. They have been unable to get a clear answer as to why the federal government stopped recognizing the Tribe, and the resolution will aid the Tribe in rectifying the historic injustice. The Winnemem Wintu, together with and the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, introduced AJR 39 in 2007. The Resolution documents the state of California’s long history with the Winnemem Wintu and urges the Federal government to fix an incomprehensible mistake that has drastically impacted the Tribe.

State agencies and many other organizations maintain relationships with the Tribe, but recognition can only be granted by the federal government. The Native American Heritage Commission lists the Winnemem as a California Tribe. Agencies such as the California Department of Fish and Game hold Memorandums of Understanding with the Tribe. Even federal agencies maintain a relationship with the Winnemem; the Tribe has legal agreements with the U.S. Forest Service, and their leaders receives religious protections and rights only guaranteed to Tribes under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

“We will be taking this resolution to Washington D.C. We hope it will be impetus for our Congressional representatives to help us,” said Mark Franco, headman of the Winnemem. “Recognition impacts our very survival as a people. California is in danger of losing a part of its cultural heritage if we do not act on this now.”

The resolution comes at a particularly important time for the Winnemem. The US Bureau of Reclamation is investigating the possibility of increasing the size of the Shasta Dam, which would flood the Winnemem’s few remaining sacred sites and ancestral lands. Recognition would force the Bureau to negotiate directly with the Tribe throughout this process.

The vote today signaled the growing support for the Tribe and the overwhelming need to address this long-standing inequity. The resolution will now be memorialized in federal Congress as a permanent statement on the California Legislature’s support for the Winnemem Wintu Tribe.