Scorched Earth – Part III: ‘We are the Land’

One of California’s best-kept dirty secrets is its trail of tears. While rewriting United States history, California’s history seems to leave gaps in its own history. In 1859, the Pit River Nation, once 11 different tribes, were forced to march to the Round Valley Reservation for their own “protection” during winter. Driven from their homes and ancestral lands since time and immemorial, the tribe members waded through deep snow to make night camp at Bunchgrass or Hatchet Mountain, a sacred site for them and their ancestors predating Euro Americans.

Generations had fasted and slept on this ridge for vision quests. This time, with no choice of their own, the people of the Pit River Nation would forego food, already half-starved, with no blankets to clear the way for another people’s vision for their land. Those surviving the freezing night got scraps for breakfast. Those refusing or unable to continue the forced march would end their journey there, if not elsewhere along the route. They were left to starve or executed on the spot. Babies were ripped from their mothers’ arms and killed; their heads bashed against trees. Mothers watched in horror and unbelievable grief, helpless to stop it. As the snow turned red from the blood, and tears fell to the hallowed ground, sorrow from the atrocities became engraved upon their hearts forever. Wind turbines now hide the sins of the past, but not the memories etched into the hearts of their descendants.

Miraculously, a few of each band survived, finding their way home using the topography. Each peak told its own story. Each place had cultural significance. They were driven by soldiers in boats around the ocean in circles so they couldn’t find their way home, but they didn’t forget. They knew the land; they are the land; they couldn’t forget.

As Europeans came, the Pit River Nation faced horror and atrocities, but the discovery of gold and greed changed their way of life forever. They were hunted, rounded up, raped, executed, starved, enslaved, and children were killed so they wouldn’t one day seek revenge.

California State Congress legislated Chapter 133 to “protect the Natives.” It was a thinly veiled extermination order that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 80 percent of the Native population between the 1848 Gold Rush and 1900. The definition of genocide is destroying a language, religion, tradition, way of life, and ancestral lands. Genocide can be overt by killing, or subtle and disguised by assimilating one’s own culture, taking resources they depend upon for survival, and making laws that allow civil people to act uncivilly toward a specific race.

Workers on reservations and other “apprenticeships” were left in continual neglect. These reservations made it easier to exploit Native citizens. Alcohol was used as a salary to appease them. Alcohol couldn’t buy land, food, or necessities, but it created workers’ dependence on their employers. Children were torn from their families, sent to boarding schools, punished for speaking their language or practicing their culture. Religion was used as a weapon against them to commit some of the worst atrocities. Mass graves at the “schools” hint this wasn’t to civilize or convert. Priests, nuns and other religious leaders became some of the worst perpetrators.

A Native American Boarding School. Unknown date

California allowed citizen militias to handle the “nuisance” and compensated them for “taking care of the problem.” The Natives stood in the way of obtaining precious gold, lumber, space for livestock; the California Dream. Citizens of Shasta County generously compensated those who “fixed the problem.” A scalp was worth $1.25 in gold, and one head would get $5. One man brought 11 heads in one trip.

Image 2: San Francisco Chronicle July 12, 1867, discussing the morals of paying for scalps. A conversation that was in newspapers across the state of California

State land-use laws made it impossible to live how the Native people had lived for thousands of years. The settlers unwittingly created problems for themselves. Acorn gathering, seasonal hunting, fishing and domestic mobility were destroyed by the land-grabbing, resource-hungry people. The Natives knew how to use fire to maintain a natural environment. One law banning fire, which had helped the Natives for centuries, backfired. The fires killed pests. Without fire, pests flourished and destroyed the newcomers’ crops. Today’s burning forests show how unwittingly we pave the way for disasters. Dams, water diversion and forest practices killed fish and damaged the water supply.

Millions of acres of California forests are burning from restricting fires and drought conditions. Fires have become unstoppable.

An Associated Press report in 1968 stated that PG&E could build powerlines because the last “reluctant woodcutter” accepted $4,000 for four acres, or $1,000 an acre. The Native Americans opposed, but got $.47 an acre, half a percent of what the woodcutter received. Few took what they saw as blood money; many had no choice but to cash the check; their conditions too dire.

The Fountain Wind applicant promised the tribe $250,000 over the life of a project to destroy the last 10 square miles of what was once 100 square miles. That equals about $7,142 a year to spread amongst the Pit River Nation. Ten square miles equals 6,400 acres. This time the tribe will receive 89 cents an acre. Forty-seven cents in today’s dollars equals $3.61. Their last 10 square miles is worth only 24 percent of what they got in the 1960s.

The Fountain Wind Project encompasses all of the Madesi Tribe’s ancestral homeland. Madesi Tribe representatives said, “We have endured. We are ancient. We are the rightful and legal owners of this land. No amount of money can buy Mother Earth. The earth is our mother and we cannot sell her.”

For 89 cents, they could be forced to give up their last ancestral lands. If the Board of Supervisors overturns their appointed Land Commissioners, the County will be one step closer to finishing the war declared in 1852 by Governor H. Burnett. His words will be prophetic “… a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires indigenous peoples and historical site impacts to be analyzed. Still, there is no fee for a take permit or monetary payment to destroy a people, but you can pay to kill or take a bird from its home.

Members of the Pit River Nation stood at the public Shasta County Planning Commission hearing, showing their determination, resilience, and courage, reminding us they are alive. You won’t find their ancestors listed in the pioneer families recognized by the Shasta County Historical Society.

During the hearing, one Native representative asked, “When do we get to heal? Why is our history and culture not as valuable as anybody else’s… in our homelands?”

Many others spoke of ancestral Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from genocide, the Fountain Fire, and the prolonged effects of being hunted, degraded, and used. They only desire freedom to practice their religions, cultural beliefs and to protect their homeland.

The speaker continued, “When they cannot kill us anymore, they take away our sacred land, take away our resources, minimize, eliminate, remove, discriminate and exploit for future gain.”

This isn’t just history. It is their past, present and future. In May, a prayer walk in Sacramento drew attention to the injustice of killed and missing indigenous women. Between San Francisco and Oregon, 105 cases have gone uninvestigated. That number is likely much higher. In many cases, rapes and killings follow pipelines and infrastructure projects.

Genocide destroys people, not just by killing, but by taking away what makes them unique. The length of time doesn’t matter. The Pit River Nation people are as important as anyone else. Their ancestral lands have been taken and used for everyone’s gains but their own, without their consent. Is that what we want as our legacy: selling off a people, allowing foreign companies and out-of-state companies to destroy our county, and a race? Throughout this war of extermination, citizens willingly and complicity have allowed this to occur. We can’t continue to stand by and watch it happen.

Who decides whose culture matters?

One steering committee letter for a new proponent of Fountain Wind, one whose many steering committee members spoke opposing the project in June, named me a key organizer of the opposition. I am not. It states I imply the most compelling arguments involved indigenous peoples. The history of these people did impact me. It is incredibly persuasive, but so is fire, leaving a community without fire protection and taking advantage of all races and vulnerable people who will carry the risks with no benefits. The document shows a callous attitude and acceptance of killing a culture. The author justifies it for what the “majority needs,” saying, “I fully acknowledge that whites have treated indigenous people horribly… but the world’s population has grown… we don’t have room for all the hallowed locations of all groups… I think the benefit for the majority of living people… outweighs the cultural concerns.”

I believe all genocide starts this way.

A new proponent discussing how to support Fountain Wind, part of a 40 page document

Which groups deserve “hallowed locations,” and who decides this? Wouldn’t it be best to place turbines on unhallowed ground? And in the screenshot above, how does this improve Native people’s health if their culture is dead? How does it help bats and eagles?

The author further stated: “Every bit of progress on renewable energy reduces the risk that their ancestral lands will be turned into cinders from other-wise increasing wildfires.”

This project does not reduce the risk; it increases wildfire risks. The author states they prefer cremation; if so, which is worse to burn from wildfires or be buried in various amounts of concrete with 700-foot turbines atop them? The author gets to choose cremation, but what gives others the right to decide for someone else? Wouldn’t you want a choice?

Perhaps, if the Fountain Wind project is passed, they will find what the early settlers discovered when they exploited the land and its people. They took everything from the land without any thought of the consequences. They suffered from their actions, and we still do today. The proponents may repeat history; the land they thought would continue to give eventually runs out or has unforeseen consequences. There will be nothing left to take. Their actions may produce the opposite results. Maybe they should pick up Jared Diamond’s book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”

History must not be repeated

The Shasta County Board of Supervisors must uphold its Planning Commission’s land-use permit decision. There is no more “compelling reason” than stopping genocide, though there are many reasons. The language used by the Land Planning Commission states it would destroy the health, safety, peace and morals of those living in and around the project. Isn’t that what genocide does? What are we saving the environment for. if it is not for people and future generations? Perhaps it’s just one culture for which it’s being preserved? History has taught us that some acts are too atrocious to be repeated. I hope the Shasta Board of Supervisors will not continue the extermination and exploitation of a people and the entire community. One of the two languages used by these people is extinct. When will it stop? The Pit River People were declared a dying race in the 1800s, but they are alive.

Approving the Fountain Wind Project’s land-use permit will repeat history and continue, as Governor Burnett said, “with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race.”

Let’s substitute Governor Burnett’s words “[I struggle mightily with], the inevitable destiny of the race.” The author of the document above had struggled mightily over the issue. No matter – it benefits the majority. This same rationale by Californians led to the deaths of 80 percent of Native Americans, so the non-Native majority could get what they wanted.

Peter Burnett, California’s first governor.

Show me the money? What Money?

If the Fountain Wind Project proceeds, once again, the Pit River Nation’s way of living will be destroyed. Their economy now depends on tourism, which members reiterated throughout the public hearing. Turbines will decimate tourism for the entire county. People choose vacation destinations for beauty, nature and recreation – not industrial plants. Many studies have proven this, and some indicate that while many people support the concept of wind turbines, 80 percent would not vacation where turbines are prominent. Hundreds of studies have confirmed this. It significantly impacts areas that are already tourist destinations where turbines contrast with the natural environment. If built, the turbines will be visible with the naked eye throughout the county– especially Lake Shasta. Not only will people be extinct, but forests, the watershed, and beauty may go extinct with them – it happened the first time. The same watershed feeds into Lake Shasta. The lake attracts tourists, and the tourists spend money on local businesses. The same tourists also benefit the rancherias in Shasta County.

Landing Page promoting tourism to the North State? What’s left to see with the forests burned, Lassen Peak, Mt. Shasta burned, and turbines.? Will the hikers come to see turbines? Where is Hatchet Wind, if it is such a popular tourist attraction?

In 2019, tourists spent $544 million in Shasta County directly to local businesses, and provided $17.4 million in direct tax revenue locally; as studies indicate, what happens if that tourism is lost. Even proponents admit a conservative loss of tourism of 4 percent loss. Using Connectgen’s economic report, which lists 35 years as project life, I will use the same time to demonstrate the impact on tourism. The only scenario that outweighs direct tax losses from tourism is if only 4 percent of tourism is affected, but the loss will take half of the income. Even with the most conservative estimates, local businesses will suffer an annual loss of between $20.9 and $163.2 from tourism. If more than 4 percent direct taxes will result in a loss between $.87 million and $5.22 million annually. Drought potentially worsened by damage to the watershed could have a cumulative effect of the project. Tourism-related jobs could lose between 190 and 1,503 jobs.


How does this even make economic sense to those proponents and the applicant who tout the economic benefits? COVID cost Shasta County tourist money, and it tore the county apart in a bitter battle on the verge of a civil war. Shasta County lost $4.7 million in direct taxes from tourism, while businesses lost $248.7 million in direct spending.

Numbers from tourists lost may mirror COVID’s effect on tourism. Others say 30 percent is a conservative loss to tourism. Tourism is just one economic impact; there are many. It sounds a little like that 47-cents an acre the Native Americans got in the 1960s. But no one will be paying the county; instead taxpayers will pay Connectgen, possibly thousands of dollars per acre. Still want the turbines for their economic benefits? 12 permanent jobs won’t replace those lost if tourism suffers; 650 tourism-related jobs were lost to COVID. Will each of the 12 employees spend $2.4 million or $4.8 million or more on local businesses each year? If so, where do I sign up? Will they make up for the job loss of 190 to 1,503 jobs?

There are other options to provide permanent jobs. The Redding Rancheria expansion could go forward; a hotel or food franchise brings more jobs. You could even make a joint venture with Turtle Bay (maybe if some business bought it up as it seems for sale, they could see a visionary opportunity). I didn’t organize opposition, but I’d proudly help organize an idea to benefit local businesses. Why not make an old logging town with flumes, gold mines, cowboys, railroad yards, teach sustainable forest practices, a museum, gift shop, restaurant, and a Native American Village? Preserve and celebrate the history and good in all our cultures as Jamestown, Va., has done.

That would provide tax revenue and more than 12 jobs. It doesn’t even have to be in this exact location. Many places in the county could suffice, or multiple spots along the way, like the walking and biking paths that both Redding and Shasta County have developed. Tourists driving through to Oregon may want to visit. You could even have field trips and summer camps. The possibilities are endless. All that is needed is imagination, a vision of the legacy we want to leave behind. Get local companies, charities and community members working together to preserve, not destroy, culture. Where in the West can you see our heritage and history displayed like this? If you build that, people will come. Tourism, not turbines, drives Shasta County’s economy.

The movie Field of Dreams is famous for the quote, “if you build it, they will come.” As discussed, studies show that tourists will not go to turbines. In this case, if you build it, no one will come; nothing to see here, move along, please. A ghost town is all that will remain. The land destroyed. A race destroyed. But foreign companies and out-of-state businesses will make billions. The county and your tax dollars will subsidize it. You will subsidize the destruction of forests, increased wildfire risks, and, yes, likely complicity or willingly aid Governor Burnett’s extermination goal. You may even lose your job. But as our anonymous author points out, it is OK because it will benefit the “majority of living people.”

Sadly, those “dead people” took much better care of the land than Californians have since the Gold Rush. The turbines may one day stand like the skeletal remains of Afterthought Mine in Ingot – the extinction of a people merely an afterthought. Genocide for something less efficient than what the forest does for itself. That will create a net loss, not gain, for the county. Is it worth the costs? This isn’t an argument against sustainable or renewable energy. It is about sustaining people and a place.

Click here to read Scorched Earth Part 1.

Click here to read Scorched Earth Part 2.


Many old newspapers and quotes from the Shasta County Land Planning Commission meeting on June 22, 2021 were used. In places I have inserted a link where I can to direct articles. (As for those who have continued to ask about sustainable solutions, I will add some ideas in a comment). Other sources include:

Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr. “We are the land: A history of Native California.” Oakland, CA, University of California Press (2021).

Benjamin Madley. “An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian catastrophe,” New Haven, CT. Yale University Press (2016).

Brenden C. Lindsay. “Murder state: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873” Lincoln, NB, University of Nebraska Press (2012).

Clifford E. Trafzer and Joel R. Hyer. “Exterminate them! Written accounts of the murder, rape and enslavement of Native Americans during the California Gold Rush” East Lansing, MI, Michigan State University Press (1999).

Molly Curtis. “Lela Rhoades: Pit River Woman” Berkley, CA, Heyday, (2013).

Kelly Willett Tanner grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. She spent many weeks in Eastern Shasta County as a child, and returned to live on the family “ranch”  five years ago. She has a M.A. in Disaster and Emergency Management and wrote her thesis on the Fountain Fire. She moved to the North State as soon as she finished her education, and started working on fire clearance around the property. She is presently a stay-at-home mom. She volunteers teaching groups around Shasta County how to be more prepared for wildfires. Kelly can be reached at kwillett2@hotmail.com

Guest Speaker

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments