Jane Goodall and Chief Caleen Sisk, press conference at the 2016 World Conservation Congress

Caleen's Story

The Winnemem Wintu people, my ancestors, have been here for thousands of years. My elders always lived on the McCloud River. Even with California becoming a state in 1850, and the extermination policies to kill Indians, we survived that. In 1910, there were only 395 of us, but that was a lot more than many tribes that had far fewer left, or were entirely exterminated.

My mother and father were born on the river. I don’t think most people realize how recently it was that we had a good way of life that was taken away by Shasta Dam.

Up until 1938, we lived on the river. Until the houses were bulldozed, because our people didn’t want to leave. Our land was taken and flooded for the benefit to the wider society.

You know, we didn’t get the right to vote until 1924, we didn’t get the right to be in a public school until 1934, and we were not public school-educated until my generation. My mom and dad, as young teens, were sent to boarding school in Riverside, California, 500 miles away from home. From there they went into the service. My mom served at McClellan Air Force Base, and my dad was in the Navy. He was stationed on the USS Enterprise out of Pearl Harbor when it was bombed. When they came home to the McCloud River, there was no home. It was all underwater.

We didn’t have that many tribal members, and we had even fewer leaders who went to school. When the dam came in, many of my people were Winnemem-speaking people. English was a second language. My dad had to learn English. People look at Native Americans as, “that was a long time ago,” but this was the 1940s, when our lives changed to surviving as homeless people in the area, where there was hostility towards Indians. And still, the leaders of the tribe kept us going to our remaining sacred places on the river and in the mountains, and those were important things that we had to do. Before roads were built around the lake in the 1960s, we would boat up there. That keeps you close to the land. We knew when the pine nuts were ready, when the wild irises were blooming. We use the wild iris to make cordage, to catch fish. So there is a relationship we have with everything that is out there.

I worked in the orchards with my parents. We picked peaches and plums, paid by the box. My sisters and I sorted nuts in warehouses. Your hands get really torn up. Farm labor is tough. Agriculture is a huge part of our state economy, and we need to protect the workers. Farmers depend on them. Crops rot on the vine if you don’t have knowledgeable people willing to do that hard work. A lot of immigrants are afraid of deportation now, people who came to this country to do hard jobs that most Americans avoid.

I decided to go to college. I started at Shasta College, then graduated from Chico State and got my teaching credential there. I recruited low-income and Native American students, to get them to college. I was a classroom teacher for many years, and an administrator. I raised my two children. I was also, all this time, active in my tribe and traditions.

Being Chief of my tribe is not a paid position. It’s not an elected office. I was chosen by Winnemem Wintu ways and affirmed by my elders. To be Winnemem Wintu, we must keep our culture and traditional knowledge alive. We’re not a casino-supported tribe. We don’t have federal recognition, though the State of California does recognize us. Our ceremonies continue, no matter what, even without the protection of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act or other laws applied to recognized tribes.

In the last few years, I’ve worked as a spiritual advisor in one of our understaffed prisons, high stress for guards and inmates alike. It’s important to me that we provide them with opportunities for success, to make our communities stronger and healthier. I also work for IHSS, In Home Supportive Services, taking care of my cousin with Down Syndrome so that she can live at home.

I am the first Native American woman, chief of a tribe, to run to represent this Assembly District. I have experienced prejudice, and I’ve also found tremendous respect and cooperation from unexpected friends. I have made alliances with leaders throughout our state and around the world, which have given me practical strategies for problem solving and collaboration.

I grew up drinking out of streams and rivers that are now too polluted to drink from, rivers that were filled with salmon now on the edge of extinction. I hope to bring my understanding of traditional ecological knowledge to Sacramento, to make needed changes for all of the people of this district, and our future generations.