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Winnemem Wintu Chief Leads a Movement to Restore Salmon Runs

Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk and a collective of Indigenous women, activists, and allies are organizing the Run 4 Salmon, a 300-mile trek that follows the historical 500 river mile journey of the salmon from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Win

Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk and a collective of Indigenous women, activists, and allies are organizing the Run 4 Salmon, a 300-mile trek that follows the historical 500 river mile journey of the salmon from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Winnemem (McCloud River).

California Department of Water Resources

In the late 1800s, Chinook salmon dominated the waters of the San Francisco Bay and the San Joaquin River Delta region, with conservative estimates of 1 to 2 million spawning fish swimming upstream from ocean to river every year to return to the gravel beds where they once hatched in four seasonal “runs.” It is a journey that has long inspired the Native American people that live near Mt. Shasta in Northern California, even as they have watched fish numbers drastically decline since the Shasta Dam was erected in 1938, walling off some 35 miles of the Sacramento River. Now, as a result of the dam, warming waters and overfishing, only the Chinook salmon’s fall run is considered secure, and it, too, is vastly reduced in number.

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe, a federally unrecognized California tribe that still holds ceremonial practices on their sacred lands near Mt. Shasta, is working to call attention to the plight of the salmon and to restore their numbers. On September 17, Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk will launch Run4Salmon, a 300-mile trek that follows the historic 500-river-mile journey of salmon from the mouth of the Delta to the McCloud River. (Click here to see a map of the route.)

The journey will honor and celebrate the salmon and spread the word about the tribe’s hope of bringing back genetic descendants of their salmon from New Zealand, where the fish were successfully introduced in the early 1900s from McCloud River populations. Joining Sisk will be singer/songwriter Nahko Bear from Medicine for the People; Mauna Kea movement leader Pua Case; Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth; Corrina Gould, Ohlone leader and co-founder of Indian People Organizing for Change; and a coalition of indigenous leaders, artists and organizations, including Earthjustice and Restore the Delta.

Members of the Winnemem Wintu and allies gather for a ceremony near Mt. Shasta, California.
Photo courtesy of Winnemem Wintu
Members of the Winnemem Wintu gather for a ceremony near Mt. Shasta, California.

Run4Salmon will feature a series of events from September 17 to October 1, 2016, allowing participants to “lay down blessings” during a walk, bike, run or boat trip. The aim is to raise awareness about the policies threatening California’s waters, fish and indigenous ways of life. The journey will start in the Bay Delta city of Vallejo and continue through Pittsburgh, Sacramento, Colusa, Woodson Bridge, Cow Creek, Shasta Lake and Redding. It will end in McCloud, the winter-run Chinook’s historic spawning ground, where salmon have been missing since the Shasta Dam was built. Concerts, rallies and community talks will engage participants along the way. (You can register to attend here.)

The original construction of the Shasta Dam flooded more than 90 percent of Winnemem Wintu villages, burial sites and sacred sites. The dam also blocked critical salmon habitat and cut off fish passage, and it prevented the winter-run Chinook from returning to their spawning grounds. But during the time of the dam’s construction, hatchery eggs were sent around the world, and descendants of salmon that once inhabited the McCloud River (known to the tribe as the Winnemem) took hold in the waters of New Zealand, where they continue to thrive today.

Winnemem War Dancers protesting the Baird Hatchery in the 1870s
Photo courtesy of Winnemem Wintu
Winnemem War Dancers protesting the Baird Hatchery in the 1870s

It was during the Winnemem Wintu’s widely publicized War Dance in 2004 that Chief Sisk learned about the salmon’s survival in the rivers of the South Island of New Zealand. The Winnemem Wintu visited New Zealand’s Maori tribe in 2011, and together they sang, prayed and witnessed the salmon “jumping out of the water for us.” Said Chief Sisk: “Our prayers have been answered and the time has come to bring our salmon home.” Thus began a long-term effort to restore the genetically pristine salmon to the McCloud River.

But the salmon’s journey home will not be easy. This reintroduction requires collaboration among countries, governments and scientists, as well as the construction of a fish passage around the Shasta Dam. Yet Chief Sisk is determined. She believes the time has come to act, especially with salmon runs declining exponentially. To that end, Run4Salmon is bringing indigenous leaders together from all over the world to pray for water and to bring the salmon home.

Chief Caleen Sisk invites everyone to participate in the Run4Salmon, a prayer journey from the California Delta to McCloud River, to bring back the salmon and heal the waters.
Winnemem Wintu/YouTube

This event honors the interconnectedness of all living things. When people come together to send their prayers into the sacred springs of Mt. Shasta—flowing down the mountain and into the ocean—that act sends a powerful message about the integral role salmon play in maintaining balance, not only for life in our rivers, but for life in the world’s oceans as well.

Join the tribe in their effort to bring the salmon home by following their latest initiative to raise awareness about the policies impacting California waters, the salmon and indigenous ways of life. Learn more about how you can participate by going to run4salmon.org and by following the hashtags #Run4Salmon, #SalmonWillRun and #NoDamCanHold.

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