12 Michael Preston


  • Michael Preston. Winnemem Wintu Tribal Land, Shasta County.

  • Michael Preston is a student at UC Berkeley. He is also a Winnemem Wintu, a native tribe born out of Mount Shasta, whose ancestral lands range across the watershed of the McCloud River.

    When Shasta Dam began holding water in 1944, 4,000 acres of those ancestral lands were flooded. Michael tells the story of his great aunt Flora, whose job it was to dig up the dead from a tribal cemetery in advance of the water; among those she exhumed were her recently deceased parents and a child of her own, who had died less than two years prior.

    Michael is unflinching in denouncing injustices against the Winnemem, past and present. But as he and his tribe continue struggling to maintain a formal title to their homeland, they have no conventional recourse: because they are unrecognized by the federal government, they are given no formal protections. What’s more, they are a tiny tribe—123 members, with a nucleus of just thirty people living in the main village northwest of Redding. And so to fight for the integrity of the land and water that is the heart of their spiritual existence, they have embraced the unconventional tool of multimedia storytelling. The tribe is making documentary films about endangered rites and using GPS mapping tools to digitally reclaim their homelands. They are on YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook; they have an RSS feed.

    At the forefront of this effort is Michael. During the week he studies digital media and environmental justice; on the weekends he crafts ornate regalia from feathers and beads and dances in traditional ceremonies. For him, it is all part of a single pursuit: protecting the tribe’s life and home. He told me, “Without the land, there is no religion.” And without religion, I inferred, there is no life.