Winnemem Wintu

Winnemem Wintu dancers dance under the arbor at the closing ceremony of the Run4Salmon event, a spiritual journey to pray for the salmon and healing of the water ways.

The Winnemem Wintu’s Cry To Restore Their Salmon

In their language, Winnemem Wintu translates to “Middle Water People”. This Northern California tribe comes from the McCloud River which lies between Sacramento and Pit Rivers. The Winnemem strongly believe that the disappearance of their sacred Chinook salmon is connected to their own future. The tribe’s Chief, Caleen Sisk, describes the fate of her people: “We used to be 20,000 people along the River and we’re dwindling out like the salmon. We only have 126 members of the tribe left and so if the salmon are going extinct, we can only guess that so will we.” During the 1800’s, when fish populations were rapidly declining due to westward expansion, the federal government established the first U.S. fish hatchery along the McCloud River – at the site of the Winnemem Wintu’s ancestral lands. The Winnemem people were not in agreement with the set-up of the hatchery, but soon realized if they wanted to stay on their ancestral lands, they needed to maintain a peaceful relationship and cooperate with the government.

But in 1947, the construction of the Shasta Dam devastated the tribe by flooding them out and leaving most homeless. This caused an even more rapid decline of the salmon by blocking the route of their traditional spawning grounds, leaving the fish unable to reproduce naturally. Since then, the tribe, whose ancestors relied heavily on the Chinook salmon, have been lobbying to protect the waters and bring the fish back to sustainable numbers. In 2004, during a desperate cry to honor their declining salmon, the tribe decided to revive a war dance on the Shasta Dam – a dance that had lay dormant within their tribe for over 117 years. Their cries were heard from across the ocean; the Maori people of New Zealand responded saying “we have your salmon”. What they discovered was that during the early fish hatchery years, the U.S. government set up programs to re-populate rivers around the U.S. and the world by shipping Chinook eggs from the McCloud River to waters around the world, including to New Zealand. Today, the ancestral Chinook salmon from California are thriving in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. The Winnemem Wintu have been re-connected to the genetic descendants of their salmon and have raised over $200,000 to begin the process of returning the eggs home to California. However, it’s not as simple as it may sound. Despite records and genetic testing proving that eggs were shipped from the McCloud River to New Zealand, biologists working with the U.S. government are reluctant to allow “foreign” species of fish into the waters of California.

The fight to re-populate their salmon continues and for the past several years, the Winnemem Wintu have hosted a 2-week journey upstream called Run4Salmon. This 300-mile trek is a combination of running, walking, biking, boating and horseback riding upstream as a way to bring awareness of salmon and water restoration. The Red Road Project humbly took part in this journey to stand in solidarity with the Winnemem Wintu people and  to do our part in sharing their story.