The Winnemem Wintu’s Struggle for Religious Liberty


Dver at A Forest Door and Jason at The Wild Hunt have written about the infringement of religious liberty of this California tribe, but as it is close to the heart of my concerns at finnchuillsmast I wish to expand on it here.


The Winnemem are attempting to hold a very important initiation rite for young women of  the tribe on Memorial Day weekend and the Forest Service which controls the stretch of the McCloud River and Lake Shasta which is the custom place for this ceremony, have refused to issue them a permit (a people who have an 8,000 year presence in the area!). The tribe is one of the many which is not recognized by the Federal Government, and thus reside in a legal limbo. As a last resort they are holding a protest. Last year they report that recreational boaters were present and mocked the girls.


This is abhorrent on so many levels, and touches close to me as a California pagan. I have worked with plants and had a deep spiritual experience on the wild reaches of the McCloud, which flows down from the sacred Mt Shasta, the colossal glacier-tipped mountain that dominates the landscape for vast distances. Part of the McCloud is a preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy. But the tribe’s ritual is traditionally held in the section close to the artificial.



The Shasta Dam went up in the 1940s drowning hundreds of Wintu villages, cemeteries, and sacred objects. Today the government wants to raise the dam even higher which would flood many more sacred sites ot this tribe. Lyla Johnston, a Stanford University researcher, says that the Winnemem Wintu have a “mutual and interdependent relationship with the local environment” and this water conflict is one between cultures, the industrial one, ever seeing rivers, lakes, and land only as resources, in this case water for the agribusiness corporations that control California’s Central Valley and siphon vast quantities of water from far away to feed their meat and plant factories that have riddled the region  with high levels of toxins. She states the raising of the dam would drown 50 more sacred and medicinal sites, and would be a form of ethnocide.


Johnston says of the Winnemem Wintu, that “they are the river and the river is them”  truly a culture of deep animist thought, perception and understanding. I think there is much to meditate on in that statement.


I think it is very important for Pagans to stand up for indigenous practitioners; many people pay lip service to native peoples of this continent, but for there to be understanding and future alliance-building Pagans (those of caucasian construction especially), need to support their struggles, both in terms of religious freedom, the environment and social justice. A button to make a donation can be found at this site:


Lyla Johnston’s informative video can be found here:

Finding Your Mountain, Coming Home

I feel an important part of orienting to landscape as a Pagan is to find a sacred mountain. Many readers are probably familiar with Walter Evans-Wentz, the author of the early twentieth century study of the Celtic fairy faith. Some know he edited and compiled translations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead also, but fewer will know his book Cuchama and Sacred Mountains. Tecate Peak is known as Kuuchamaa, a sacred mountain to the local Kumeyaay people (also called Dieguenos). This work written in the last years of his life while living in San Diego, California was published posthumously. It’s still worth reading and besides writing about the humble appearing but powerfully sacred Kuuchamaa it surveys sacred mountains around the world., which are often considered the center of local cosmologies.

All around the world one finds reverence for mountains, mountain worship and mountains as symbols of spiritual wisdom. A small sample of famous sacred mountains would include Mt. Kailash,  Fujiyama, , Kilimanjaro, Mt. Snowdon, Denali, Mt. Shasta, Popocatepetl and Mauna Kea. I think one of the most important steps Pagans can take in orienting to their sacred landscape is finding a local sacred mountain (or several). When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989, one of the first things I did was make contact with eminent mountains. In my case it was Mt. Tamalpais to the north, Mt. Diablo to the east, and San Bruno Mountain to the south.

On a smaller scale, one might find a hill that is much nearer one’s home to make contact with and commune with more frequently. Such practices are being called local focus paganism/polytheism/animism. With such practices we start to weave a fabric of bringing our paganisms home. I hear people who say they have such a sense of loss due to living so far from their ancestral homelands. While on one hand I can understand, and have at times poignantly felt that, I think it imperative that we start to celebrate the landscape and attendant spirits and creatures of where we live, and that this constitutes a coming home, a leaving of an exile which I see truly associated with Abrahamic religions with their casting out of Eden narrative. As a Druid, Ireland and other Celtic lands have deep sacred resonance for me, but I live far to the west, a direction that in the lore was associated with the Otherworld, often with archipelagoes of Otherworld Islands. How intriguing to think of my land, California, which the European colonialists first thought to be an island, as one of those islands. There is such magical resonance in approaching the local land goddess with this myth in mind. California was named for Califia, an Amazon-like queen of a mythical island (let’s say otherworldly island) in a romance that was popular in Spain in the 16th century. She has been a popular subject of local art in more recent times, and I have come to think of our Land Goddess as Califia.

If one lives in a land where the lore has been lost, one can still find many clues to help remythologize the land.

Animism On The Mountain

The mountain strikes me with its exuberant greenness. Green covers such an expansive chromatic range, the pastel of lichens, the dusky dark of some of the conifers, the emerald brightness of the moss in the dripping woods. Then the mottled grays speckled with russets, ochres, oranges, and the glassy reptilian shininess of the greens, blues and black of serpentine. Surely this rock is well named, the mountain is studded with its outcrops. Its acidic nature controls the plant communities that grow on and amidst it, some species, like some manzanita, uniquely adapted  to it. Rocks break through the surface, through the skin of the land, and through my psyche; these are minor acts of revelation. Do their spirits call for my attention? Some emerge and others seem aloof, concealed.  The mountain runs with dozens, probably hundreds of creeks, some whispering, some chortling and some singing melodiously as they tumble down their courses; some in a hurry and others meandering. I come to a bench, a perfect place for practice, a creek just to my side; just beyond the trail sketchily climbs up a rock strewn slope. Directly in front of me is a meadow, where two deer emerge from their camouflage, white tails flashing, and do a weird high stepping routine. Irises grow around me, faded violet, pinkish, they seem late as do many of the wildflowers, extending their blooming season in this late wet season.

The soft rain does not deter me; it makes for more solitude. I only come upon a few people. Solitude, an interesting word to poke and prod at. We think of solitude as being key to spiritual practice, we meditate in solitude, in that aloneness. But paradoxically it is a setting aside of ego where often other voices emerge, perhaps out of self or from our surroundings. In our abiding the boundaries between self and other slips, we become much more permeable than in ordinary situations. We are immersed in spirit(s), surrounded and permeated with a multitude of intelligences. The mountain is speaking, whispering, uttering all around me.