EcoJustice Radio speaks with Chief Caleen Sisk, the Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who is working to save the sacred salmon in her ancestral territory which includes the McCloud River watershed below “Buliyum Puyuk” aka. Mt. Shasta in Northern California.
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The Story of the Winnemem Wintu and Saving the Sacred Salmon
In the 1940s, when the Shasta Dam was installed, the Winnemem Wintu were flooded out of their ancestral homelands and their Sacred Salmon relatives (known as “Nur”) were blocked from returning to their spawning grounds. As a result, the Chinook salmon which once numbered in the hundreds of thousands are now an endangered species.
The waters, the Sacred Salmon, and indigenous life ways for the Winnemem Wintu, have been threatened by an ill-conceived and controversial proposal to raise the Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet and the two (or just one) giant Delta Tunnels which would cut through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as proposed by former Gov. Jerry Brown. Governor Newsom now supports just one tunnel, which is still problematic.
The tunnels would divert fresh water from the Sacramento River for Big Ag and the GMO agricultural industry. Together, these projects pose existential threats for both the Nur and the Winnemem Wintu: potentially killing the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast, inundating future spawning grounds on the McCloud River, and flooding Winnemem Wintu sacred sites. These projects would devastate sacred ceremonial places, poison the soil, and irreparably harm unique habitat essential for salmon and other fauna, flora, and marine life.
The Winnemem Wintu have long honored the salmon for their vital role in keeping their ancestral waters and forests healthy. In response to threats posed to the salmon, their waters and indigenous life ways, the Winnemem Wintu hold an annual prayerful journey, the Run 4 Salmon to raise awareness and funds for Phase 2 of their Salmon Restoration Project which is key to restoring the Chinook Salmon to their waterways. Run 4 Salmon is a ceremonial way of symbolically and prayerfully bringing the Sacred Salmon home, the historical keepers of the water, who maintain healthy waterways for human and riparian life in the area. Run 4 Salmon is the Winnmem Wintu’s response and effort to prayerfully restore balance to the rivers of California and to all the waters of the world.
“When we first bubbled out of our scared spring on Mount 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 people of Northern California have been waiting for 149 years for U.S. government promises to be honored. Since then we have suffered the damming of our Winnemem (McCloud) River and the loss of our salmon runs. The water that gives life to all living things is being stolen and poisoned.
Caleen Sisk is the Spiritual Leader and Tribal Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. Since assuming leadership responsibilities in 2000, Caleen has focused on maintaining the cultural and religious traditions of the Tribe, and has led the revitalization of the Winnemem’s H’up Chonas (or War Dance) and BaLas Chonas (Puberty Ceremony). She advocates for California salmon restoration; healthy, undammed watersheds, and the Human Right to Water. She and her tribe are currently working federal fish biologists to return the now nearly extinct California Chinook salmon to the McCloud River. She has received international honors as a tireless sacred site protector, and leads the tribe’s resistance against the proposal to raise Shasta Dam.
Carry Kim, Co-Host of EcoJustice Radio. An advocate for ecosystem restoration, indigenous lifeways, and a new humanity born of connection and compassion, she is a long-time volunteer for SoCal350, member of Ecosystem Restoration Camps, and a co-founder of the Soil Sponge Collective, a grassroots community organization dedicated to big and small scale regeneration of Mother Earth.
Interview originally recorded in 2017.
Interview by Carry Kim
Hosted by Jessica Aldridge from SoCal 350 and Adventures in Waste
Engineer: JP Morris and Blake Lampkin
Executive Producer: Jack Eidt
Show Created by Mark and JP Morris
Music: Javier Kadry
Updated 27 March 2021