What makes a native American tribe?
Small groups of native Americans are still looking for tribal recognition from the federal government.
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The BIA also solicits input on completed petitions from outsiders, which could include communities not wanting a nearby casino or recognized tribes who don't want their slice of the federal pie reduced, says Mr. Field.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Tribal land rights
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But more than just benefits are at stake for unrecognized tribes like the Winnemem who say recognition would provide the basic legal protection their culture needs to survive.
Boaters versus sacred sites
That cultural battle is tangible on the banks of the McCloud River in northern California, where ancient Winnemem traditions take a beating by modern-day outdoor enthusiasts.
In the shadow of a traditional bark hut, a swirling filigree of bristly cedar, Sisk-Franco was teaching her 15-year-old daughter, Marine, to grind traditional medicines during a 2006 coming-of-age ceremony. The hut was erected on a traditional former tribal village site that the US Forest Service now runs as a public campground. But the Sisk-Francos' religious reverie was cracked when boaters motored past, their shouts – "Fat Indians!" "This is our river, too, dude!" – echoing across the canyon.
Despite the intrusion from boaters, the Forest Service denied the tribe's request for a four-day closure of 300 yards of river for their 2006 and 2010 ceremonies because the tribe isn't officially recognized. The agency provided a "voluntary closure," which several boaters ignored.
Fearing another ugly incident, the Winnemem postponed their 2011 coming-of-age ceremony for Marisa Sisk, the young woman training to be the next tribal leader.
"We've held these ceremonies for generations on the river, but our rights to [do it] aren't any more important than the boaters and fishermen," Sisk-Franco says.
The traditional Winnemem territory stretched 77 miles down the McCloud River to modern-day Redding. But they started losing land to ranchers and miners during the gold rush that began in 1849, and the construction of the Shasta Dam in the 1940s flooded more than 26 miles of the lower McCloud, including Winnemem villages.
The only tribal ceremonial sites the Winnemem can access are now owned by the government. The tribe managed to survive and carry on their traditions by holding ceremonies in secret and through the strength of Sisk-Franco's predecessor and mentor, Florence Jones, an internationally renowned Indian doctor.
Yet the Winnemem say their struggle is getting more challenging: The US Bureau of Reclamation is studying raising the Shasta Dam by six to 18 feet, which would submerge the coming-of-age ceremony site and most of what's left of the Winnemem's sacred places.
"Without our sacred places, without our ceremonies, we could no longer be Winnemem," Sisk-Franco says. "It seems like every time we have a bit of hope, it gets knocked down," she adds. "Then you wonder: How long can you keep that hope? And if you lose it, what happens then?"
IN PICTURES: Tribal land rights