Guest artist: Lyla Johnston

The Endangered Sites of the Winnemem Wintu

For more than 8,000 years, the Winnemem Wintu tribe has inhabited the central waterway that feeds into the Sacramento River in northern California. Their name is translated as “Middle River People,” so critical to their identity and culture is their relationship with these waters. After the Shasta Dam was constructed in the 1940s, the tribe lost “hundreds of villages, cemeteries, tools, sacred objects and historical sites” beneath the waters of the resulting Shasta reservoir, according to HW Guest Artist Lyla Johnston. This is directly contrary to Article 11 of the 2007 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states in part:

Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.

Now, the Winnemem Wintu face an even larger threat–one of cultural extinction–as the Bureau of Reclamation and the Westlands Water District (the largest agricultural water district in the United States) are devising a plan to raise the Shasta dam water level by up to 18 feet in order to secure water for agribusiness. Here, Lyla Johnston tells their story. ~ Diana Rico

Lyla Johnston is a Diné and Lakota researcher working with the Winnemem Wintu tribe to assess the cultural impact of the proposed Shasta Dam water level raise. She studies environmental anthropology at Stanford University and is working to facilitate constructive communication between divided peoples. As a native of Taos, New Mexico, she created and is helping to organize the First Annual Taos Celebration of the Young on Labor Day weekend 2011, a response of love to past and recent youth suicides and to “a blatant issue of misunderstanding of our youth in Taos”; you can find more information about the celebration here and here and here. Johnston is also an accomplished slam poet who has performed for Nobel laureates in Bali and won a slam poetry award in New York.
Video © 2011 by Lyla Johnston. For permission to reuse, contact the artist at lylaj [AT] stanford [DOT] edu. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples may be read in full here.

About Diana Rico

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