The Shasta Dam Killed Off This Tribe’s Salmon—Or So They Thought

The Winnemem Wintu learned that descendants of their salmon are thriving in a New Zealand river. The tribe has been fighting to return them home.

Chief Caleen Sisk, holding a smoldering smudge root, sings and blesses the Run4Salmon paddlers as they arrived at the closing ceremony site along the McCloud River.

Photo by Marc Dadigan.

With dark late-September clouds roiling above, about 20 Winnemem Wintu tribe members paddled dugout cedar canoes through stiff winds and 3-foot crests on the Shasta reservoir in far northern California. 

Many of the paddlers capsized or drifted to shore. But the hardship served as a meaningful metaphor on this 20-mile leg of the 300-mile Run4Salmon, a two-week event in September. During Run4Salmon, described by the tribe as a “prayerful journey,” participants ran, biked, paddled, and horse rode the path Chinook salmon once traveled from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta up the Sacramento River to the McCloud River, the Winnemem Wintu’s ancestral watershed. 

“The salmon’s fins slap the water while they’re swimming just like our paddles did,” Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk said. “The salmon find their way home no matter what it takes because that’s what they do, and we’re showing we’re also going to do this no matter what.”

“I’ve come to understand how all of our struggles are related.”

In its second year, Run4Salmon is a part of the Winnemem Wintu’s ongoing efforts to bring salmon back to the McCloud River. The event is building a coalition of Native and non-Native allies who are fighting for the protection of the state’s endangered salmon and unhealthy rivers.

In addition to the 300-mile journey, this year’s Run4Salmon event also included ceremonies, concerts, and a direct action in Sacramento. Run4Salmon drew an iridescent cast of supporters, including indigenous musicians and hip-hop artists, endurance athletes, Native and non-Native activists and organizers, and painters and artists.

Chief Sisk and one of the tribe’s youngest activists, Solomon “Net Chi” Chiloquin, sing, sign wave, and chant outside the Sacramento Convention Center for the return of their salmon.

Photo by Marc Dadigan.

“Before Run4Salmon I never knew where my people’s water came from,” said Desirae Harp, a Wappo/Diné Run4Salmon organizer and musician. “I’ve come to understand how all of our struggles are related and that the salmon are a symbol of the health of the waters because they can’t survive any other way.”

Fighting for Survival

McCloud River salmon runs have been blocked since the 600-foot Shasta Dam was built during World War II. The dam, now operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, flooded Winnemem homelands and left many homeless.

Today the tribe numbers only 125, has no land except a 42-acre village, and is struggling, like the salmon, to recover from the impacts of a history of genocide and broken promises from the federal government.

Winnemem Wintu tribal member Arron Sisk arrives at the Run4Salmon closing ceremony on horseback. The horseback riders traveled for three days along isolated canyon trails by the McCloud River past many ancestral village sites. 

Photo by Marc Dadigan.

It’s a dire time for California salmon. Statewide, salmon runs are being increasingly affected by climate change and California’s extensive system of dams that divert water for hydropower, flood control, and the agriculture industry. About 80 percent of the state’s human water use is used for irrigation.

This year, only 1,123 winter run Chinook returned to the Sacramento Valley, and scientists predict nearly three-quarters of the state’s salmon, steelhead, and trout will be extinct within 100 years.

Yet the salmon—alongside the Winnemem people—faced decimation during the Gold Rush.

For millennia, the Winnemem Wintu’s ecological, spiritual, and cultural worlds were entwined with salmon. In the tribe’s origin story, salmon gave humans their voice. 

About 30,000 Winnemem Wintu lived in the McCloud River watershed before colonization, and they harvested salmon runs so thick that early settlers said they could walk across the river upon the fishes’ backs. The tribe would light fires, beat drums, and dance by the river when the salmon returned to spawn, traditions Sisk believes help their sacred fish navigate just as much as the smell of the water and the stars.

In the Winnemem knowledge system, salmon, Sisk said during a benefit concert for Run4Salmon, are “climate changers” because when they turn over rocks on the river floor to dig their nests, they release cold water that alters the waterway’s temperature.

Yet the salmon—alongside the Winnemem people—faced decimation during the Gold Rush. State and federally financed militias, driven by propaganda that painted Native people as subhumans in need of extermination, hunted tribal people. Meanwhile railroad construction and hydraulic gold mining, which sucked up streams and blasted away entire mountain sides, devastated many salmon runs. By 1872, the McCloud River was one of the only salmon spawning river left in the entire valley. 

That was what led late 19th century fish culturist Livingston Stone to establish the country’s first Pacific coast hatchery on the McCloud River. With the goal of augmenting declining Atlantic salmon and establishing new runs abroad, Stone and a group of Winnemem hatchery workers collected millions of salmon eggs and exported them to more than 30 states and 14 different countries. 

The Winnemem Wintu didn’t learn until 2004 that these McCloud salmon eggs established a thriving and healthy run in the Rakaia River in New Zealand. Ever since, the tribe has been fighting to return them home.

Returning the Salmon Home

Before the paddling on Shasta reservoir, Run4Salmon participants ran nearly 40 miles along the Sacramento River to the small town of Palo Cedro, California. There, prayers were held at the confluence of the river and Cow Creek. On the banks, several Winnemem tribal members blew tobacco smoke from pipes, while a Native Hawaiian woman blessed the rivers with an offering of ocean water.

“We’re putting this water down to make sure that our prayers connect this river all the way to the ocean,” Sisk said. “That will clear that path for the salmon to return home.”

Facing three-foot crests, Winnemem Wintu tribal member Pom Tuiimyali struggles to paddle his dugout canoe through the waves of Shasta reservoir during the 2017 Run4Salmon.

Photo by Jesse Sisk, courtesy of Winnemem Wintu tribe.

In early 2016, the tribe submitted a plan to federal and state agencies to return the New Zealand McCloud salmon to the river by developing a spawning route using two natural creeks that flow around Shasta Dam. A passage would have to be built so the salmon could swim to the ocean and back to the McCloud River without human intervention.

However, the Bureau of Reclamation, without consulting the Winnemem Wintu, developed a pilot project in 2015 to return Sacramento hatchery salmon above Shasta Dam using a dual trap-and-haul method. In this practice, juvenile and adult salmon would be captured and moved around the dam in trucks or boats.

The stress fish endure can cause higher mortality rates.

The tribe has objected to this plan, arguing the hatchery fish are far less fit than the wild salmon in New Zealand and that trap and haul would interfere too greatly in the salmon’s unique life cycle. A recent study, which surveyed the results from other dual trap and haul programs around the West, concluded that the stress fish endure can cause higher mortality rates, slower growth rates, and disrupt their ability to find their way home.

In addition to struggling to gain a voice in this federal planning process, the Winnemem Wintu also face a challenge from policymakers. Northern California congressman Doug LaMalfa recently attempted to include an amendment to a funding appropriations bill that would have barred any efforts to return salmon above Shasta Dam. 

His office did not return calls or emails requesting a comment, and the amendment was never considered on the floor.

However, the Run4Salmon movement is building a stronger base of support, which has helped the Winnemem make tangible progress toward returning their salmon.

During last year’s event, Sisk said, a sign-waving action outside the Department of Interior’s Sacramento office helped her land a meeting with Bureau officials, where previously the tribe had not been included in official fish passage planning efforts. Meanwhile, the participation in this year’s Run4Salmon nearly doubled to more than 500 people. And in June, dozens of Run4Salmon supporters attended public scoping meetings to protest the trap-and-haul plan and advocate for the return of the New Zealand salmon.

Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk speaks at the Run4Salmon closing ceremony on the McCloud River in what is now Shasta County, Calif. She holds the salmon staff, which Run4Salmon participants carried along the entire route. 

Photo by Marc Dadigan.

“We’re engaging different kinds of people using diverse tactics,” said Niria Alicia Garcia Torres, Honor the Earth fellow and Run4Salmon organizer. “People are motivated because we’re not just saying ‘Bring the salmon back.’ There’s an actual plan to do it, and a specific thing to advocate for when some of these issues are so overwhelming.”

Now, the BOR is considering the Winnemem Wintu’s plan. This summer, the Bureau allocated $200,000 to collect New Zealand salmon samples for DNA testing. The tribe raised an added $78,000 to support the project through a viral GoFundMe campaign—featuring endorsements from indigenous leaders such as Winona LaDuke and Dallas Goldtooth. 

“Before Run4Salmon, we figured out there hadn’t been a salmon ceremony in our Ohlone territory for over 200 years,” said Corrina Gould, a Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone activist who organized the opening ceremony. “We’re in a time where songs are coming [back], language is coming back, ceremony is coming back, and the return of the salmon is a part of that indigenous restoration we need for the future.”