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Running the Salmon Home: Celebrating the Women Leading the Way

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This blog is part of a series on the Winnemem Wintu’s Run4Salmon, a two-week long prayerful event and call to action for public awareness about the need to restore the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon to the McCloud River in Northern California. To learn more about the Run4Salmon, read our first post in this series here and our second post here.

Photo: Toby McLeod

From the historic gathering of Indigenous Nations at the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock last year, to women-led grassroots groups organizing environmentally-centered social movements in South Asia; from the Lenca peoples’ effort to obstruct the Agua Zarca Dam alongside Berta Cáceres in Honduras, to West African women working to solve the water crises in their communities, women are at the forefront of environmental movements around the world. As Mohawk elder Katsi Cook teaches, “Women are the first environment.”  

For Indigenous communities –– particularly Indigenous women –– this connection between land, body, and community is deeply felt; our previous post about the Winnemem Wintu’s sacred responsibility to Salmon shared that the harm caused by environmental destruction and environmental violence affects both the physical and spiritual health of landscapes and the lives that depend on them, both human and non-human alike.

This is why extractive industries and large-scale infrastructure projects like the Shasta Dam that alter –– and often damage –– indigenous territories are so harmful. The same can be said about the proposed construction of a $1.4-billion, thirty meter telescope at the summit of sacred Mauna Kea, which has activated strong resistance from Native Hawaiians and their allies. It is also why the Dakota Access Pipeline, which cuts through sacred territory and burial grounds of the Standing Rock Sioux and poses an insurmountable threat to clean water sources in the region, led to historic inter-tribal gathering of Indigenous Nations and allies standing together in solidarity as water protectors.

A participant in the 2016 Run4Salmon demonstrates outside the California State Capitol. Photo: Toby McLeod

The relationships and networks that exist between these movements for social change, environmental justice, and Indigenous rights are more visible now than ever before with technology and social media networks emerging as powerful tools for global connectivity. But these ties existed long before online platforms provided the accessibility and ease of information exchange we are used to today; this is work that indigenous communities and women leaders have been doing for centuries.

The Women of the Run4Salmon

“In a way I do this work to honor my ancestors and to fulfill my purpose and my duty on this planet to protect Mother Earth and to protect our waters. If you have a belly button, and if you bleed red, these are your causes too.”

–– Niria Alicia (Xicana), Honor the Earth Fellow

Here in Northern California, women leaders like Chief Caleen Sisk (Winnemem Wintu), Corrina Gould (Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone), Niria Alicia (Xicana), and Desirae Harp (Mishewal OnastaTis, Diné) are working with a coalition of native and non-native supporters to organize the Run4Salmon, a prayerful journey that highlights the intersectional nature of Indigenous peoples, women, and our collective sacred connection to the environment. During the Run, for example, security teams will be led by women volunteers, and women activists and organizers have been instrumental in guiding this year’s journey.

Widespread support for the Winnemem’s efforts has come pouring in from allies around the world and is visible on the Run4Salmon Instagram, and the movement has also brought together women from many different places and backgrounds, uniting under a common cause for Indigenous rights and environmental and social justice.

Here are a few of the inspirational women leaders involved in the Run4Salmon and other movements for Indigenous rights and Mother Earth:  

  • Chief Caleen Sisk is the spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu. Guided by the mentorship of her great-aunt Florence Jones, who was the Winnemem spiritual leader for 68 years, Caleen has led the tribe’s resistance against the Shasta Dam, as well as their efforts to return to customary Winnemem ceremonies and bring the sacred Winter-run Chinook salmon home to their traditional spawning waters along the McCloud River.
Chief Caleen Sisk at the 2016 Run4Salmon. Photo: Jessica Abbe
  • Corrina Gould is the Co-Founder and Lead Organizer of Indian People Organizing for Change (IPOC), an organization working on Indigenous issues in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most recently, IPOC has been facilitating the resistance against proposed development of an ancient Ohlone shellmound site in West Berkeley. Led by Corrina’s guidance, activists recently put forth an alternative proposal for the site, which features a museum, a monument to the Ohlone people and their sacred sites, and would re-surface Strawberry Creek, which was diverted underground during the first developments of the land. As the Run4Salmon begins in Ohlone territory, Corrina has been involved in organizing the opening days of the event, which will include a ceremony at the West Berkeley Shellmound to honor the Ohlone people and their lands.
Corrina Gould at the site of the historic Ohlone shellmound in West Berkeley. Photo: Toby McLeod.
  • Pua Case and Hāwane Rios (Kanaka Maoli) are a mother-daughter team whose efforts to protect sacred sites and lifeways in Hawai`i have brought them from Mauna Kea to Mount Shasta, to stand with and sing alongside Indigenous peoples around the world in a collective effort to preserve the mountains and waters that give and support life. Their songs are unforgettable, their message unignorable, as they call for solidarity and strength in the name of aloha ʻāina. They participated in the 2016 Run4Salmon and will be joining the Winnemem again for this year’s run.
Pua Case and Hāwane Rios at Coonrod, an annual Winnemem Ceremony, in 2015. Photo: Toby McLeod.
  • Winona LaDuke is the Executive Director of Honor the Earth, which she co-founded with the Indigo Girls in 1993, and has worked for decades to advocate for the preservation of tribal land claims and traditional Indigenous lifeways. Winona is an environmentalist, activist, and orator, and she has been an active presence in Indigenous movements from Standing Rock to the Run4Salmon.

“It’s the Winnemem Wintu’s right to exist and the right of an ecosystem to live . . . And to stand here with the Wintu is important to my own person, as a spiritual being and a person who is a beneficiary of this ecosystem, and then also because it is this chance to do the right thing.”

–– Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe), Executive Director of Honor the Earth

Winona LaDuke and Caleen Sisk. Photo: Toby McLeod.

In a video called “Salmon Will Run,” which was recently released by Nahko and Medicine for the People, the voices of many of these women leaders help us understand the vital importance of supporting efforts like the Run4Salmon and standing in solidarity with movements for the protection of Indigenous peoples rights and lifeways, and the amplification of Native voices everywhere.

Nahko Bear at the 2016 Run4Salmon. Photo: Jessica Abbe.

For more information on the Run4Salmon, read our previous posts in the Running the Salmon Home series here and here. You can also follow the Run4Salmon journey on Instagram and Facebook.

To learn how you can stand alongside the Winnemem Wintu in their immediate efforts to bring the salmon home, visit here.

The Run4Salmon begins with a Shellmound Ceremony at the West Berkeley Shellmound TOMORROW, September 8th. You can see a full schedule of R4S gatherings and the official itinerary here.

To volunteer for the 2017 Run4Salmon or register to participate in the journey, visit here.

 

Blog post by Fiona McLeod, WEA Program + Operations Intern

Running the Salmon Home: The Winter-Run Chinook Salmon

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This blog is part of a series on the Winnemem Wintu’s Run4Salmon, a two-week long prayerful event and call to action for public awareness about the need to restore the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon to the McCloud River in Northern California. To learn more about the Winnemem Wintu and this sacred relationship with Salmon, read our first post in this series here.

With a capacity of 4.5 million acre-feet, Shasta Lake is California’s largest reservoir, and provides about 17% of the state’s overall capacity for water storage. In the wake of the recent and worst drought in California history –– which lasted for five years, affected 90% of the state, and prompted Governor Jerry Brown to declare a three-year-long drought state of emergency –– large-scale infrastructure projects like the Shasta Dam are often applauded as remedial efforts to respond to water shortages, while the environmental, ecological, and cultural consequences of these projects go underrepresented or unaddressed. In Northern California, this indifference is evidenced by the lack of urgency expressed by both the government and the general public in responding to the threats that the proposed raising of the Shasta Dam poses towards human and non-human life in the area.

Chief Caleen Sisk at the 2016 Run4Salmon. Photo: Toby McLeod
Where have the Salmon gone?

Chinook salmon are anadromous fish, meaning they migrate upstream as adults to lay and fertilize their eggs in cold water and return downstream as juveniles to mature in the ocean. In the early nineteenth century, four distinct populations of Winter-Run Chinook Salmon flourished in the Sacramento River system. The fish spawned in upper tributaries for thousands of years –– in the McCloud, Pit, and Little Sacramento Rivers –– but California’s waterways and wetlands were drastically altered with the influx of Gold Rush settlers and the westward expansion of the American colonial project. In the mid-twentieth century, construction of the Shasta Dam blocked the salmon’s traditional spawning path along the river system and permanently altered the geological and ecological makeup of the region. Furthermore, above the dam, the rapid flood of water into the Shasta reservoir inundated homelands, burial grounds, and sacred sites of the land’s Native peoples –– including the Winnemem Wintu –– while water levels below the dam decreased, substantially reducing the river system’s ability to support the wildlife that depended on it.

In 1871, the Federal Government created the National Fish Hatchery System to manage the rapid population decrease of once-abundant fish populations nationwide. The first national fish hatchery, the Baird Hatchery, was built on the McCloud River. While these hatcheries have certainly been instrumental in preventing the extinction of countless species –– including the Winter-run Chinook –– they also contribute to decreased levels of genetic diversity and prevent the fish from fully developing their natural survival instincts.

Despite these early conservation efforts, Winter-run Chinook Salmon were listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act in 1994. Today, only one of the original four populations that once flourished in the Sacramento River system remains, and as their access to cold-water tributaries like the McCloud River is still obstructed by the Shasta Dam, Winter-Run Chinook are left with one short stretch of the Sacramento River as their only available natural breeding waters. As a result, only 5% returned to the rivers to spawn in 2014, and only 1% returned to spawn in 2015.

Shasta Dam. Photo: Toby McLeod.
The Winnemem’s fight to restore this sacred relationship

In 2005 the Winnemem Wintu tribe, to whom salmon are considered sacred, discovered that Winter-run Chinook eggs that had been sent to New Zealand’s South Island from the Baird Hatchery decades ago have spawned and flourished in the Rakaia River –– the only other place in the world where this has happened. According to the Winnemem’s proposed plan for salmon restoration, genetic diversity and necessary adaptive traits have been preserved in the Rakaia River salmon in ways that were impossible in the McCloud River following construction of the Shasta Dam and alteration of the surrounding waterways. After visiting the local Maori tribe and the salmon in New Zealand, the Winnemem have proposed that salmon from the Rakaia River be used to reintroduce Winter-run Chinook back into the Sacramento River system.

The Winnemem Wintu are advocating for spiritual and cultural awareness to be practiced in the development of this restoration plan. The tribe hopes that repatriation of their sacred salmon back to the McCloud River waters will be recognized as an act of restoring ecological health and spiritual balance to the homelands they have shared with the Winter-run Chinook for thousands of years.

The McCloud River in historical Winnemem homelands, which would be further affected by the proposed raising of Shasta Dam. Photo: Jessica Abbe.
The Run4Salmon

Restoring wild salmon to our waters is crucial to protecting the biological health of river ecosystems, as well as supporting the traditional and spiritual ways of life of the Indigenous peoples who lived on this land, with these same fish, long before western invasion and settlement intruded and put these relationships in jeopardy. The 2017 Run4Salmon, which will begin in Ohlone territory here in the Bay Area on September 8th, is part of the Winnemem Wintu tribe’s ongoing effort to bring the sacred salmon back home.

A traditional Winnemem dugout canoe on the McCloud River during the 2016 Run4Salmon. Photo: Jessica Abbe.

For more information on the Run4Salmon and ways to get involved, stay tuned for the next post in our Running the Salmon Home series. You can also follow the Run4Salmon journey on Instagram.

And to learn how you can stand alongside the Winnemem Wintu in their immediate efforts to bring the salmon home, visit here.

 

Blog post by Fiona McLeod, WEA Program + Operations Intern

Running the Salmon Home: Lifeways and Waters of the Winnemem Wintu

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When we first bubbled out of our sacred spring on Mt. Shasta at the time of creation, we were helpless and unable to speak. It was salmon, the Nur, who took pity on us humans and gave us their voice. In return, we promised to always speak for them.  

― Winnemem Wintu Spiritual and Cultural Belief

Photo Courtesy of Toby McLeod

The Winnemem Wintu are the indigenous peoples whose homelands are found in Northern California along the McCloud River. With the Sacramento River to the west and Pit River to the east, Winnemem Wintu means “Middle Water People,” and for thousands of years, the tribe has protected the sacred waters that give them their name.

As their creation story shares, when the Winnemem emerged from a sacred spring on Mt. Shasta, they were unable to speak. Salmon took pity on them and gave the Winnemem their voice. In exchange, the Winnemem promised that they would forever honor this gift by speaking for and defending Salmon. However, their abilities to uphold this promise and maintain this sacred relationship have been compromised over time by chemical agriculture, extractive industry, and resource development in the region. During the California Gold Rush, the Winnemem population decreased from around 14,000 to 395 in a period of about 50 years, and settlers devastated the tribe’s ability to access and carry out traditional practices such as hunting and fishing. Today, the tribe’s population is approximately 150.

But in strength, resilience and prayer, the Winnemem Wintu have fought to honor their lifeways time and again. In the face of a settler society and the injustices it has imposed upon this land’s indigenous peoples over time, the Winnemem stand up to government officials and disruptful tourists alike in order to continue their traditional customs and ceremonies. WEA is honored to have worked with the Winnemem Wintu and Chief Caleen Sisk –– Spiritual Leader and Tribal Chief –– through our Advocacy Network, which coordinated legal advocacy services for indigenous environmental campaigns in North America. WEA stands alongside them this year for the second annual Run4Salmon event to raise awareness for protecting their waters, lifeways, and sacred relationship with Salmon.

Photo Courtesy of Toby McLeod
The Run4Salmon

In September of 2016, Chief Sisk led the Winnemem in organizing the first Run4Salmon, a 300-mile journey from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta region to the tribe’s historic village site on the McCloud river. The two-week long event marks a call to action for public awareness about the need to restore the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, which were once abundant along the McCloud River but are now severely threatened by climate change and construction of dams in the area, namely the Shasta and Keswick dams, which block the fishes’ access to their spawning waters. A philosophy of respect and reciprocity is central to the Winnemem way of life, and the entire Run4Salmon campaign is informed by this understanding of the importance of honoring and maintaining the ecological and spiritual balance of the lands, waters, and our place within that cycle.

After last year’s Run4Salmon, the Winnemem were able to meet with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to request that their proposed plan for restoration of the winter-run Chinook be considered for funding. Planning for this year’s Run4Salmon –– which will take place from September 9-23 –– is well underway. Rooted in prayer, advocacy, and care, the Run4Salmon invites allies and community members to support the Winnemem in this remarkable effort to lay down blessings and guide the salmon home.

The Run4Salmon honors an ancient bond and facilitates the formation of a widespread alliance of warriors and protectors. This blog series intends to spread awareness about the Run4Salmon and the important work that indigenous women lead in our immediate community as part of a larger movement for indigenous rights and the rights of Mother Earth.

Read Part 2 of the Running the Salmon Home series here.

For more information on the Run4Salmon and ways to get involved, stay tuned for the next post in our Running the Salmon Home series. You can also follow the Run4Salmon journey on Instagram

And to learn how you can immediately support the Winnemem Wintu in their efforts to bring the salmon home, visit here.

 

Blog post by Fiona McLeod, WEA Program + Operations Intern