Since 2010, I have been working on an immersive journalism project with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe in Northern California that focuses on their struggle for cultural survive and to bring the descendants of their long last salmon back home from New Zealand.
“When there are no salmon, there will be no people.”
The Winnemem Wintu’s journey begins at a time when this ancient tribal prophecy has never seemed more chilling. As the oceans warm and water diversions strangle their rivers, the California salmon runs have declined precipitously, and the Winnemem also teeter on the brink of obsolescence.
In 2000, the tiny and poverty-stricken tribe learned of a proposal to raise the 602-foot Shasta Dam to slake the growing state’s thirst for water.
The raise would flood the tribe’s few remaining sacred places, the equivalent of the government razing every church in the country, except the Winnemem can never replace the rock formations, sacred pools and meadows that are inextricably connected to their religious ceremonies.
Heeding the spirits of her ancestors, Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk-Franco led her tribe to the dam where they lit the sacred fire and sang as their warriors performed the first H’up Chonas, or war dance, in more than a century.
In the presence of the spirits, the tribe forged its resistance to the dam, but they also received a message, a voice from the past, longing and resonant.
It came from salmon — undulating from across the ocean, across the decades — wondering where its people had gone.
The Winnemem and salmon’s fates had been intertwined since the beginning of time when the Winnemem emerged from their sacred spring helpless and unable to speak. Salmon gifted them its voice, and the tribe in return promised to always defend their sacred fish.
During World War II, the Shasta Dam’s concrete curtain was first erected on the Sacramento, and the resulting reservoir flooded the Winnemem’s homes and blocked the salmon from ever returning to the McCloud River.
But 70 years later, a salmon lost became a salmon found.
A New Zealand professor, who was researching the origin of his country’s salmon fishery, read a newspaper story about the war dance, and was moved to send an e-mail to the Winnemem: “We have your salmon. If you want them, you should come and get them.”
In the late 19th century, many Winnemem found refuge by working for a federal hatchery on their river, and it was the founder, fish culturist Livingston Stone, who sent salmon eggs all around the world. It was only in New Zealand’s Rakaia River that the salmon miraculously survived.
It was not long thereafter that the Winnemem received another message from the mountain. “Go to New Zealand,” the ancestors said. “Atone to the salmon.”
“Salmon, Come Home” is a forthcoming narrative nonfiction novel that will chronicle the Winnemem’s portentous journey to New Zealand and their subsequent quest to return the Rakaia salmon back to their home in California.
This book will immerse readers in a world unlike any they’ve experienced, a world where the barriers between human and nature, between the spiritual and science and between dreams and knowing are as permeable.
It’s a journey that will take readers across time and to places of unfathomable beauty, from the Winnemem’s alpine genesis place Panther Meadow to the braided turquoise eddies of the Rakaia where the tribe holds their haunting salmon ceremony.
From the bloody terrain of California’s “water wars”, the Winnemem story emerges as one of restoration and hope, a story of unbending will and unlikely courage.
It’s a story about crossing boundaries and fighting against the dams, seen and unseen, that choke our rivers, divide our world, and thrust unnatural borders between us.