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