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When Salmon Speak: The Winnemem Wintu and the Winter-Run Chinook

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The future. A young Winnemem Wintu tribe member shows his support for salmon restoration. | Photo: Christopher McLeod

“In a time long ago, when the waters flowed free, my ancestors swam home to bring life to me. There were thousands, no hundreds of thousands of my brothers and sisters. We swam in the cold, clear, flowing water rushing down to the sea. There we would grow and thrive. Then winter was coming and it was time to go home, back to the streams where life began, to start the cycle over again. Such peace and harmony, the way things should be, the cycle of life that renews all things.”

“That time is long lost now. The builders came. They took away our streams, our homes, and our nurseries. Now we are few, struggling to survive.  With each passing cycle our numbers grow fewer. One day soon, we will be no more. The cycle of life will have ended.”

We listen when salmon speak. They were here first. For millennia, we shared the middle waters of Mt. Shasta, the Winnemem, now the McCloud River, until Shasta Dam flooded us all out in the 1940s. Now the people and the salmon are struggling to reclaim and restore our home lands and waters.

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The winter-run Chinook salmon of California once numbered in the hundreds of thousands each year. Stories were common of rivers so thick with salmon that you could walk across their backs to the other side. Livingston Stone, a fish culturist and the assistant director of the U.S. Fish Commission in the 1800s wrote that during a 40-day period on our river in 1878, “We caught and examined, one by one, nearly 200,000 salmon. We took and impregnated at least 14,000,000 eggs.”

Today, the winter-run salmon are listed as endangered under both the federal and California Endangered Species Acts (ESA). The spring-run salmon are listed as endangered under the state ESA and threatened under the federal ESA.

More on the winnemem wintu

In 2014, only five percent of the winter-run Chinook juveniles survived to return, and in 2015 less than three percent. These troubling numbers are largely attributed to water temperatures being too high in the river, with not enough cold water released from Shasta reservoir to combat the higher temperatures.

When salmon speak, do you listen? They have been telling us for years that what is happening around us in the name of progress is not progress at all, but the beginning of the end of the cycle of life. They have been telling us that the dams that take away their homes are slowly killing them – driving them to the point of extinction.  They have been telling us that the waters are no longer cold and clear as they die in the summer heat.  They have been telling us that the trees are disappearing and the erosion of the earth is filling our rivers and streams.  They have been telling us!

Watch Tending the Wild's segment on salmon, Keeping the River

“We hear you,” say the Winnemem Wintu. We are a spiritual people. We believe in a Creator who gave life and breath to all things. We believe we were brought forth from a sacred spring on Mt. Shasta, and as newly-created human beings we were helpless, couldn’t speak, and were insignificant and vulnerable. But, you, Salmon, the Landata Nur, took pity on us and gave us your voice. In return we promised to always speak for you and care for you. Side-by-side, the Winnemem and the Nur have depended on each other for thousands of years – the Winnemem speaking, caring for and trying to protect the salmon, and the Nur giving of themselves to the Winnemem to provide nourishment throughout the year. Ceremonies, songs, dances and prayers honoring the relationship between the salmon and the Winnemem Wintu are intricately woven into the fabric of Winnemem Wintu culture and spirituality.

The name Winnemem Wintu is derived from what we call the McCloud River, the Winnemem’s traditional homeland – Winnemem meaning Middle Water and Wintu meaning People. We are the Middle Water People. 

When the builders came, they started with a fish hatchery on the McCloud River. Our Winnemem ancestors held a war dance in response to this threat to their land and life. Eventually, the Winnemem helped with the hatchery; they built it and worked there because they knew the salmon. They could see that in a way they were helping the salmon. Eventually the hatchery faded away. But then, the bulldozers came to tear down the Winnemem houses to make room for the water that would soon come. The dam was on its way.

When Shasta Dam was completed in 1945, the resulting reservoir flooded over 90 percent of the Winnemem’s cultural, spiritual, village and burial sites along the Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit Rivers. No fish bypass was built so the 602-foot dam blocked the salmon from migrating back to their traditional spawning grounds in the Upper Sacramento and McCloud River watersheds. The loss of homeland and salmon has been devastating to the Winnemem Wintu, and the loss of traditional spawning grounds has begun the bell tolling for the salmon.

In efforts to bring attention to the plight of the salmon and the Winnemem Wintu, the tribe has twice held War Dances at Shasta Dam, once in 2004 and again in 2014, to combat the proposed enlargement of the dam and to let the salmon know that they are not forgotten. We are still speaking for them, remembering them, praying for salmon to flourish.

The Winnemem have submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation for a swim-way around Shasta Dam so the salmon can once again return to their ancient spawning grounds. So far, the Bureau of Reclamation has rejected our proposal.

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Heading upstream in canoes to advocate for salmon | Photo: Jessica Abbe

This year, from September 17 to October 1, the Winnemem held a 300-mile prayer journey from the San Francisco Bay-Delta to the McCloud River to bring awareness to the plight of the salmon. It was a 300-mile walk, run, bike, boat, paddle, and horseback ride. Only time will tell if it was effective.

Salmon help clean our water and give life and sustenance to all manner of creatures. Chief Caleen Sisk calls them “the magical creatures.” They are born in fresh water – then travel to the estuary where they begin to transform from fresh water fish to salt water fish. Then they live in the ocean and grow to maturity and then return to the estuary to transform once again from salt water fish to fresh water fish. Then these magical creatures travel as many as 600 miles upstream to the very same waters of their birth where they lay down their lives after sowing the seeds for a new generation.  The cycle of life.

When Salmon Speak do you listen? There is a cry from nature. Can you hear it? Are you listening? What is the price we are willing to pay for what some call progress? Are we willing to destroy the very building blocks of our environment? Are we willing to let a scorched-earth mindset continue for the profit and greed of a few? At what point are we willing to say, enough is enough? 

The builders seem to know no limits: Let’s build more dams and pipelines. Let’s clear cut more forests. Let’s frack and pump waste water into our aquifers. Let’s dump our toxic and nuclear waste into landfills and waters. And let’s continue to drill, pump, pipe, and transport our oil so we can make more oil spills because those are necessary and good, right? When is enough, enough?

As Caleen Sisk told the hundreds of supporters and participants who turned out for the Run For Salmon: “We believe that when the salmon are gone, there will soon be no more people.”

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition.