U.N. human rights expert visits California tribe


Arron Sisk took the smoldering sunflower root and undulated it from Catarina de Albuquerque’s feet to the top of her head, its pungent smoke curling above her like a spectral crown.

He then held it beneath her nose, and told her the root would clear her mind from bad thoughts, allow her to see and hear only the good things and to speak honestly from her heart.

“Ho!” the Winnemem Wintu Tribe said in unison. More than 30 of them gathered Sunday in the tribe’s small prayerhouse to welcome a special guest to their small village of Tuiimyali, 42-acres of former allotment land outside Redding, Calif.

Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk-Franco discusses her village's sewer system with the U.N. Independent Examiner Catarina de Albuquerque.

De Albuquerque is the first United Nations Independent Expert on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and Tuiimyali was her only Western destination during her first fact-finding mission to the United States.

“We’re glad you agreed to meet us at this traditional site, where Winnemem have always lived. It’s hard to tell people about our sacred places and our story from behind a microphone at a meeting,” said Caleen Sisk-Franco, the tribe’s chief and spiritual leader.

Sisk-Franco began by telling de Albuquerque about the various threats to the tribe’s cultural practices, from a hydroelectric project that reduces the flow of their river to a proposal to raise the Shasta Dam an additional 18.5 feet, which would flood what’s left of the tribe’s sacred places -- rock formations, pools and meadows that are integral to the tribe’s religious practices.

“For us, the right to water means more than just good tap water,” Sisk-Franco said. “We have no right to say what happens to the river, how it’s diverted and what water is used for fish.”

Sisk-Franco then led de Albuquerque and her team on a tour of the village, which has a substandard sewage system that is difficult to upgrade because county laws and regulations are not geared toward communal living. One grant, for instance, would require the land to be divided into individual parcels for to all 33 residents, most of whom live in trailers.

Drinking water is also problematic because the county has zoned the land as single-family housing, restricting the possible infrastructure. Most of the wells, the traditional source of water at Tuiimyali, have long been contaminated or sucked dry by development, Sisk-Franco said.

The McCloud Bridge, which is near the site where the tribe holds it's coming-of-age ceremonies for its young women, would have to be lifted 20 feet higher if the Shasta Dam is raised the proposed 18.5 feet.

The U.N.’s Human Rights Council passed a resolution in July 2010 declaring access to clean water and sanitation a basic human right, and U.S. law is so fragmented that its residents’ rights to water are not appropriately protected, according to the U.N.

De Albuquerque and her team had previous made stops in Boston and the Washington D.C. metro area to examine the labyrinthine system of laws that govern water in the U.S. through the lens of non-discrimination.  Her arrival in California coincided with that state's legislators' introduction of a package of bills that will guarantee residents the right to water and make changes to state law to implement and promote that right.

More than 11.5 million Californians rely on water from suppliers that received at least one violation of State Drinking Water Standards, according to Debbie Davis, policy director for the Sacramento-based Environmental Justice Coalition for Water.

The human right to water has gained momentum in recent years among water advocates who worry that a forthcoming water crisis could turn clean water into a luxury commodity that only the rich can afford. That investors such as oil magnate T. Boone Pickens have begun buying up water rights and aquifers in anticipation of widespread water shortages certainly has done little to calm their fears.

In her visit to the Winnemem, a federally unrecognized, traditional tribe of about 123, de Albuquerque gained insight into the tribe’s unique view on the human right to water and how it intersects with their religious and cultural freedoms.

During a boat tour of the McCloud River, Sisk-Franco pointed out several sites that would be flooded by the proposed Shasta Dam raise, including several places near Kokospom, where the Winnemem hold their coming-of-age ceremonies for their young women.

The boat also passed over one sacred blessing rock that is now submerged due to the dam. Sisk-Franco described how one rainy, cold February day, the tribe had seen the rock above water for the first time in several years. Though the McCloud is known for its bone-chilling water, five Winnemem teens and young men immediately jumped into the river, swam to the stone and rubbed it with their hands for good luck according to the tribe’s tradition.

“We didn’t know when we’d ever see it again,” Sisk-Franco explained. “So they didn’t want to lose that chance.”

De Albuquerque admitted that some of the concerns from the tribe were beyond her jurisdiction, but she encouraged them to write a letter addressed to all the rapporteurs, who collectively, could pressure the U.S. to face and address the tribe’s complaints.

She will hold a press conference March 4 to discuss her findings and will later file an official report to the United States with recommendations for policy changes to better ensure equal access to water.

“I think can go tell this tribe’s story and help apply some pressure,” she said. “In general, I think it’s helpful for an unbiased, outsider to come in and look at these issues with fresh eyes.”

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Marc Dadigan is a freelance journalist based in Redding, California. He's currently living with the Winnemem Wintu tribe and writing a book about their spiritually guide salmon restoration project.

Photographs courtesy the author.