It was day three of Run4Salmon and Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk was on a motorboat, heading from the salty waters of San Francisco Bay to the fresh water of the Sacramento River. A hundred pilgrims had walked for two days through the Bay Delta—Ohlone territory—following the route of migrating winter-run Chinook salmon, as we proceeded on a two-week ceremonial journey. Now a dozen of us were on the water, speeding toward historic spawning grounds in the cold rivers on the flanks of Mt. Shasta, 300 miles to the north—if only the salmon could get past towering Shasta Dam.
Gazing down into the water, trying to be a prayerful participant, I imagined that I was a salmon. I tried to see their world. It was murky and warm—and getting scarier every day. Hidden among the high-tech windmills by the side of the river were dozens of fracking wells. New natural gas pipes were being laid down across the river as we motored by, accompanied by five state water officials who were listening to Caleen’s insights while seeing the sad state of the river for themselves, some of them for the first time.
“The mountain called for this ceremony and it’s calling the salmon home,” said Caleen. “That’s the importance and power of this run for salmon.”
Caleen pointed out how the straight, channelized river—with cars whizzing by on each side, on top of artificial levees—provides no place for adult salmon swimming upstream to rest in the shade, or for little fish headed to the ocean to feed in what used to be seasonally-flooded tule wetlands.
We reached the Delta Cross Channel, an artificial canal almost as wide as the main river. Engineers and bulldozers built the canal to move Sacramento River water toward giant pumps that push the water into aqueducts leading to farms and cities far to the south. It’s water from Mt. Shasta that feeds the world, and makes a handful of corporate farmers rich—and they wanted more of it.
The captain cut the motor. We drifted down the middle of the main river, and suddenly were pulled toward the eastern side and straight into the Delta Cross Channel. The pumps must have been be on.
“Imagine being a small, young salmon, swimming down the river,” said Caleen. “You feel the current going this way, and you follow that flow—you’re thinking ‘the ocean must be this way!’” She nodded toward the east and shook her head. “They get sucked into the pumps, and that’s the end.”
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Caleen calls salmon “the magical fish.” The juvenile fingerlings that head down from their home river toward the ocean are three-inch-long freshwater fish. When they get to the Delta—if they can avoid the pumps—they begin to transform themselves into saltwater fish and eventually grow to 30–100 pounds. For the next four to seven years they mingle with salmon from other rivers, traveling far and wide, and feeding everyone in the sea— orcas, seals, sea lions—as well as people on land. Then, answering a mysterious call, they head back home, re-adapting to fresh water, starting the long upward migration against the flow of the rivers, seeking their birth streams in the high country, sensing the Earth’s magnetic field, and “smelling” their original waters.
“The fish have to climb the mountain,” says Caleen.
Along the way the adult salmon continue to feed eagles, otters, bears, wolves and people. Once home in the cold, oxygen-rich water where they started, they spawn and die within a few days, giving life to the next generation, and fertilizing rivers and forests.
As Caleen says, “They never stop giving.” And as Run4Salmon participants learn, it’s not just uphill all the way—there are new obstacles every day.
Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon were listed as endangered in 1994. That means they are likely to go extinct without real, substantive changes in their habitat. In waters warmed by climate change, pollution from farms, factories, logging and cities continues unabated. Flood control measures have altered the meandering course of once free-flowing rivers. And when the salmon approach the mountains where Caleen’s people honored and ate them for millennia, they now run into the concrete impasse that is Shasta Dam. There is no bypass, no way around. As we motored up the river, the federal Bureau of Reclamation had revived efforts to make the dam 18.5 feet higher.
The Winnemem Creation Story tells of a time when all of the spirit beings were choosing physical form and determining their role in taking care of Earth. All of the beings—eagle, bear, hummingbird, salmon, fire and water—were coming out of a sacred spring on Mt. Shasta. All had chosen but one being, who seemed lost and without clear purpose—the humans. Creator called fire, water and salmon back to assist the human. “You’re going to need to help this one,” said Creator. Salmon spoke up, and offered to give humans their voice, figuring humans would do better if they could communicate. The Winnemem people agreed at that sacred moment to always speak for salmon.
Along with her small, determined Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Caleen has never stopped fighting for the salmon—and she needs an army of allies. She’s found strong support in the community that has formed over four years of Run4Salmon, a fourteen-day direct action that balances spirituality and politics. Over the course of the two-week pilgrimage, people come and people go. Some participate for a day, some for fourteen. Along the way, these water protectors and prayer warriors make superb use of social media. It is educational storytelling in motion over 300 miles, for distant relatives, in the name of kin. For many, it is a life-changing experience: protecting sacred land and water under the leadership of local indigenous people. By the end everyone is elated, and exhausted. Like the salmon, we all swim in troubled waters.
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When the boat docked in Sacramento, we were met by a dozen Miwok singers who welcomed Caleen and the Winnemem as the sun set. The following day, 50 red-shirted activists stood outside the domed State Capitol chanting and giving media interviews. Six teenage girls from the New Village School in Sausalito held letters spelling “N-O D-A-M R-A-I-S-E.” We sang our way into Governor Gavin Newsom’s office and Caleen delivered a letter demanding that Newsom sign SB1, a bill passed by the California legislature, committing the state to fight Trump administration efforts to weaken the endangered species act, a direct threat to salmon recovery. Newsom had unexpectedly announced he would veto SB1, honoring his ties to corporate water and agribusiness interests that provided him with $637,398 in campaign contributions. A chief from the Amazon happened to be in the Capitol to oppose carbon-trading schemes that threaten indigenous land rights in his homeland. He joined Caleen for a photo op, and then invited her into his meeting with Newsom’s staff. Sacred site guardians look out for one another, and are especially sensitive to the irony of politicians who are willing to meet with foreign indigenous leaders while ignoring those who are their constituents.
Continuing north out of Sacramento on bicycles, we saw almond and walnut monoculture, widespread fracking, and sluggish waters in surreal, straight-as-an- arrow, concrete aqueducts. We paused at a giant oak tree in Tehama County, where gold rush settlers lynched Maidu and Wintu people while stealing their lands. There was a cryptic sign that contained no information but a name: “The Witness Tree.” A prayer ceremony was held there, tobacco and water sprinkled on the roots.
When it was my turn to run, I carried the eagle-feathered salmon staff through an oak grove along the Sacramento River, with Mount Shasta straight ahead on the northern horizon. I felt fully grounded, a link in an unbroken but fragile chain, part of a vibrant community reaching out to ancestors, salmon kin and future generations.
When we reached Shasta Dam, 75 people flooded the visitor center to protest the story told by the Bureau of Reclamation: a glorification of empire and progress and the taming of wild nature. The Winnemem story is entirely absent, no mention of how the dam submerged 82 historic village sites, numerous burials and sacred places, and more than 100 allotments inhabited by Winnemem families, when 26 miles of the McCloud River was turned into a giant reservoir.
The next morning, I climbed into the front of a two-person kayak with a young, strong friend from Chicago, writer Gavin Van Horn, in the back. Amidst a fleet of 20 kayaks and canoes, we began to paddle across Shasta Reservoir (not “Shasta Lake” as the government would have you believe). It was a beautiful blue-sky day as we glided over the drowned Pit River, over submerged copper smelters, toxic waste dumps and towns that all disappeared when Shasta Dam was completed in 1945.
When we turned north up the McCloud River canyon, after 12 days of travel and 1,000 feet in elevation gain, we had finally entered the heart of Winnemem Wintu territory. Making camp that first night beneath a tall mountain known as Gray Rocks, I could only imagine the villages and the history beneath the rippling water. It was right below us that biologist Livingston Stone proposed to build a fish hatchery in the 1870s, only to be confronted by Winnemem men who staged a war dance to defend their river. Under this very water was the village where the renowned Wintu healer Florence Jones grew up and started her initiatory 40-mile solo pilgrimage to Mt. Shasta when she was just ten years old. When the dam was finished and the valley began to flood, Florence helped move 183 burials—including her parents and baby—disinterring them from family cemeteries beneath Gray Rocks and reburying them in a new government-controlled cemetery near the dam.
With no way to get around the massive dam, salmon threw themselves at the concrete wall while homeless Winnemem stood and watched. There would be no salmon in the waters above the dam for many decades. The Winnemem come back year after year after year. The salmon and the Winnemem continue their struggle to give birth back in their traditional home. Caleen will never forget the debt her people owe the salmon. A gift creates an obligation. It’s how it works in a family and how it works with kin.
Paddling up the canyon was sobering and sad as we passed Dekkas Rock, where a stone feature known as “the guardian” will go under if Shasta Dam is raised. Beneath me I imagined the flat bench where elders used to meet in councils, to discuss acorn gathering and village conflicts, and where Big Time ceremonies were held, and the people feasted on salmon. As I looked at two young Winnemem women paddling a wooden dugout canoe, leading us all up their drowned river, it was painful to imagine the feelings their Winnemem ancestors must have had as their homes were bulldozed, allotments lost, and sacred sites drowned.
But the women were smiling, and the people were singing. Our calm liquid pathway was mesmerizing, its velvet smooth surface connected to the waters that bubble up from the sacred spring above us on Mt. Shasta. That life-giving spring is the origin place of the Winnemen people, where they made the commitment to always speak for salmon. Sing to the water, call salmon home.
We saw three bald eagles that day as we collectively prayed that the salmon Livingston Stone exported around the world more than 100 years ago—some of whose descendants are thriving today in New Zealand’s Rakaia River—will soon make their way up a new swimway around the dam and home to what’s left of the McCloud River.
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The roundhouse captain and singer Gary Thomas led three Winnemem dancers down through tan oak trees, their orange flicker feather headbands radiant amidst backlit green leaves, a stunning image, as they walked slowly along a ridge, 20 feet above the crowd that had assembled below in a circle around the fire. Our journey was ending.
The three barefoot dancers swayed like salmon tails, whirled and bobbed like birds. Caleen came over to a couple of Native Californian men I was standing with and asked us to move over and stand behind Gary as he sang. She nodded down toward her moccasined feet, encouraging us to stomp ours in rhythm with the drum.
“This is how we call the salmon,” she said to one of the elders from Hoopa, stepping to the drumbeat and waving a blue scarf that flowed like water in motion.
As we touched the earth for the next half hour, it turned out to be the perfect place to snap some photos of Gary and the dancers, who finished each short song with a cry as they circled a few feet away.
The ceremony drew to a close with the whole group of 100 people moving in a circle around the fire. The dancers exited and walked back up through the forest. In the stillness that followed, Caleen pointed at me and filmmaker Will Doolittle and signaled that we should come over to the fire. She said, “Bring your cameras.”
Caleen blew tobacco smoke over Will, placed her hand on his heart, and talked to him in a soft voice.
She blew smoke over my face and hands. Then she looked down and nodded toward my camera, which I lifted so she could blow smoke on the lens and then over the body. Dance Captain Rick Wilson smudged us from behind with sunflower root. The world seemed silent and still as warm sunlight showered down from overhead. It was a blessing, a perfect moment.
Caleen put her hand on my heart and said, “Thank you for telling our story. We need you to do it with this camera and with your words. Always tell it true.”
She looked into my eyes. “Always share our story in a good way. Even if they don’t want to listen, let’s keep telling the story, and let’s keep speaking for salmon.”