In 2018, when Michael Preston met filmmaker Natasha Giraudie at a conference in Point Reyes National Park, she asked him to reveal one word from his ancestral language that changed his life — a word he wants to share with humanity to influence their consciousness. Preston knew immediately what that word would be. “Sawalmem,” he said.
Sawalmem means sacred water. The Winnemem Wintu tribe believes that adopting the worldview of caring for sacred water can mend people’s relationship with Earth. “Sacred water exists within ourselves and that is our connection to everything else that also has water inside of it,” Preston said. “If you don’t regard water as sacred, you don’t regard yourself as sacred.”
His meeting with Giraudie felt like a “spirit-led” moment, planting the seed for their collaboration on a documentary about water through the eyes of the Winnemem Wintu tribe. Two years later, in March 2020, “One Word Sawalmem” was released and has since won awards at international film festivals, including in the U.S. and U.K.
Our tribal goal is to bring the salmon back, which is stuck in New Zealand. We’re trying to get them back up to the Sacramento River, around the Shasta Dam, up to the McCloud River.Michael Preston
Preston, also known as Pomtahatot Tuiimyali, is an artist, activist and the son of the current Winnemem Wintu Tribal Chief, Caleen Sisk. He has been dancing in the Winnemem way since he was 4 years old and now channels his advocacy through being a singer and war dancer.
“The main way in which I can affect the world, do my job, and help my people, the land, the spirits, the salmon, the laws of creation — is through dancing,” he said. “That’s my main purpose in life. That’s how I can affect the most.”
Preston grew up in the old village site of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, along the McCloud River in Northern California where the Shasta Dam has flooded spiritual and cultural lands. Since the 1940s, the creation of the dam has also blocked the usual migration of winter-run salmon, effectively endangering the species. Now, there are proposals to raise the dam by an additional 18.5 feet, which will cause further destruction.
“Our tribal goal is to bring the salmon back, which is stuck in New Zealand. We’re trying to get them back up to the Sacramento River, around the Shasta Dam, up to the McCloud River,” he said, adding that it’s more than just the fish. With the lack of salmon, which is a keystone species, other animals, such as bears, eagles and mountain lions are being starved.
Currently serving as the Cultural Preservation Officer for his nation, the 37-year-old has also done work to condemn the raising of the dam and to protect sacred sites, attended a Geography of Hope event and visited classrooms throughout the state to talk about healing Northern California’s waters.
While his job mostly entails writing grants and being a spokesperson, Preston said he prefers to use spirituality and prayers as a form of activism.
“There’s a cosmological order of energetic acupuncture points within our system that keeps it together. We say that if you mess up too many sacred places, which [the government] has, and destroy sacred places on Earth, it causes an energetic blockage,” he said.
There are also spiritual repercussions. “Anytime you make money off of the land, it’s always bad. It’s always a bad karmic relationship. They’re not making that to save people,” Preston said about the dam. “They’re not giving that water away for free. People are paying for it. So that creates a certain energy field around it that is negative.”
According to Preston, spirituality exists within governmental agencies. “The job for us is to direct energies into those systems to try to affect the hearts and minds of the people who work inside of there. And then we go into policy, lawyers, and the everyday stuff that everybody thinks advocacy work is.”
These ideas coincide with the annual Run4Salmon event, which is a 300-mile prayer journey organized by Chief Caleen Sisk and allies to raise awareness about policies that threaten water and the Indigenous way of life. Participants follow the salmon’s historical route from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the McCloud River while praying for the return of salmon. Preston has been participating since 2016.
“If you’re there every single day, it solidifies a relationship that you don’t form in this society. You only form it in that kind of context of being on a prayer run for that amount of time and traveling that amount of distance,” Preston said. “We were able to form our own bubble, in a sense, that believes in spirit, in the sacred, in salmon, in song and dance and prayer. It’s a true human heart connection.”
Sacred water exists within ourselves and that is our connection to everything else that also has water inside of it .... If you don’t regard water as sacred, you don’t regard yourself as sacred.Michael Preston
Since last year’s prayer run wrapped up in August, Preston has been continuing the work with his documentary by doing online screenings and hosting speaking engagements at public schools and universities. His current focus is on putting together a physical place to house ceremonial dances and songs, prayers for fire and water, and for change to commence.
He insisted that perceptions and approaches to the environment be reshaped. “We’re talking about seven generations here and getting people to think that far ahead in timeline to make it all survivable,” he said. “Because it’s not going to last seven generations with where it’s going right now.”