Two Native American Tribes Lead Journeys to Save the Salmon
Salmon is sacred to Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California who have long depended on this fish as their main sustenance.
Tragically, the salmon population is on the verge of extinction in the Snake and Columbia rivers and the McCloud River in the Mt. Shasta region due to the proliferation of dams and rising water temperatures resulting from climate change.
For decades, tribes have been working to call attention to the plight of the salmon and restore them to their previous levels of abundance. This effort continues in September with two major events organized by the Nimiipuu and Winnemem Wintu tribes.
Salmon’s significance to the Winnemem Wintu Tribe
The Winnemem Wintu Tribe in Mt. Shasta, Calif., is holding its second annual Run4Salmon, from Sept. 9-22—a 300-mile sacred trek that follows the historic 500-river-mile journey of salmon from the mouth of the Delta River to the McCloud River.
In announcing the first Run4Salmon event last September, Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu explained the significance of salmon to her tribe. “They’re the ones [who will] lead the way to bring strength back to the people,” she said. “We want this journey to touch many hearts and reach the younger generation, so that the generations can live in a good way, have good water.”
Construction of the original Shasta Dam in 1938 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, preventing the winter-run Chinook from returning to their spawning grounds.
During the time of the dam’s construction, hatchery eggs were sent around the world. Descendants of salmon that once inhabited the McCloud River then took hold in the waters of New Zealand, where they continue to thrive today.
Chief Sisk learned about the salmon’s survival in the rivers of the South Island of New Zealand during the War Dance in 2004. Members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe visited New Zealand’s Maori tribe in 2011, and together the tribes sang and prayed. Miraculously, they witnessed salmon “jumping out of the water.” Chief Sisk said, “Our prayers [were] answered and the time came to bring our salmon home.” Thus began their efforts to restore the wild salmon to the McCloud River.
(To learn more about the Winnemen Wintu’s efforts to restore wild salmon, see “Winnemem Wintu Chief Leads a Movement to Restore Salmon Runs.”)
Salmon’s significance to the Nimiipuu Tribe
Every year the salmon of Nez Perce territory are hatched in cold-water streams high up in the mountains of Idaho and then migrate to the Pacific Ocean via the Snake and Columbia rivers. The construction of dams on those rivers has imperiled the fish on which the Nimiipuu depend.
Lucinda Simpson, board member of the organization Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, said of the impact of dwindling salmon numbers: “We’ve thrived in the hunting and gathering rights that we had in the past. It’s changing so much that we had to start this organization to see if we can regain some of the ground that we have lost [with fishing salmon].”
Under a 162-year-old treaty with the federal government, the Nimiipuu are entitled to half the salmon harvest. The Nimiipuu are looking to the federal government to implement solutions, but their history with the government is full of broken promises and violations of treaty rights.
The Nimiipuu’s territory once covered 16 million acres of land in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and parts of Montana. Now their reservation consists of just 770,000 acres in Idaho.
Salmon restoration events
- The “Free the Snake Flotilla" runs from Sept. 8-9 in eastern Washington. Nimiipuu members and a coalition of salmon advocates will float the river calling for the removal of four dams to save the salmon. Register here to join.
- The second Run4Salmon takes place Sept. 9-22 in northern California from the California Delta to the McCloud River. The “prayerful journey,” led by Chief Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, will bring people together to walk, run, bike, boat, dance, sing, ride and pray to restore the salmon. Read here about how to get involved.
Former Earthjustice intern Niria Garcia contributed to this post.