Marc Dadigan/California WatchA Bay Area group of Aztec dancers performs at the Coonrod ceremony, an annual ritual that maintains the Winnemem Wintu tribe’s spiritual connection to the Chinook salmon that once swam in the McCloud River.
For nearly 70 years, the McCloud River in Northern California has been bereft of the Chinook salmon spawning runs for which it was once known. But for a few hours this summer, the Winnemem Wintu tribe revived the river’s memory of the lost, sacred fish.
“We Winnemem are a salmon people, but because of the Shasta Dam, the salmon can’t swim this river anymore,” tribal member Rick Wilson told about 100 Winnemem and supporters at the river's falls. “So we have to do it for them.”
Following the path the fish once took up the McCloud’s glacial waters, the ersatz salmon plunged from the rounded cliffs of the river’s Lower Falls, swam under the feathery cascade of the 50-foot Middle Falls, then at the Upper Falls dove into a chilly former spawning pool and fetched a stone from the bottom, just as salmon upturn the gravel to lay their roe.
The spiritual rite, part of the annual Coonrod ceremony, is meant to maintain the Winnemem's connection to their lost salmon. But the traditional, federally unrecognized tribe of 123 plans to one day swim the falls with its salmon by importing them back to the McCloud from an unlikely way station – New Zealand.
“When our people first came into the world, it was salmon who gave us their voice, and we promised to always speak for them in return,” said spiritual leader and traditional chief Caleen Sisk-Franco. “But now, we might have to learn to speak with a Kiwi accent.”
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During World War II, the 602-foot-high Shasta Dam flooded the lower 26 miles of the McCloud and blocked the Chinook salmon from migrating to their birth waters, leaving them to either assimilate with the Sacramento River salmon or die by bashing their heads against the concrete behemoth.
But the Winnemem's salmon, by a twist of fate, have been thriving across the hemisphere after a federal hatchery on the McCloud sent eggs to New Zealand during the early 20th century, according to Fish and Game New Zealand officials.
The Rakaia River is a much shorter run than the McCloud, and its estuary is dinky compared with the sprawling Sacramento Delta, making it harder for young salmon migrating to the ocean to feed and get strong. Even still, the McCloud salmon somehow adapted, and while somewhat smaller than their ancestors, they’ve remained genetically pristine and disease-free, said Dirk Barr, manager of Fish and Game New Zealand’s salmon hatchery on the Rakaia River.
“These are the fish that would have grown up to be McCloud River salmon,” Sisk-Franco said. “You can’t look at Sacramento salmon and know which ones were supposed to be McCloud salmon. Those salmon in New Zealand are the ones we made that promise to.”
When the hatchery was built during the 1870s, the Winnemem eventually came to an uneasy truce with the fish culturists while also making a spiritual covenant with their salmon: The hatchery might take their roe and milt, but the salmon always would be able to come home to the McCloud.
The dam, of course, broke this covenant, and atonement was the tribe’s mission last spring when nearly 30 members maxed out credit cards and raised enough funds to travel to New Zealand to hold their first salmon ceremony in nearly a century.
In the Canterbury province, the Winnemem were hosted by local Maori tribes; visited a hatchery, where they released wiggly salmon fry by hand; and danced and sang for four days on the banks of the Rakaia, asking the salmon for forgiveness.
“During the ceremony, we saw the salmon jumping out of the water for us. I knew they were happy to see us, and they were ready to come home,” Sisk-Franco said.
Marc Dadigan/California WatchMembers of the Winnemem Wintu tribe release salmon fry into a stream that leads to the Rakaia River in New Zealand during a visit in March 2010.
With the spiritual connection restored to the salmon, the tribe now faces the stiff challenge of working with federal agencies to implement its innovative plan to return the salmon.
Already having secured the approval of Fish and Game New Zealand and Maori tribes, the Winnemem would import salmon eggs from the Rakaia and rear them in their own hatchery on the upper McCloud, where the fish could acclimate to the river’s waters.
To get migrating salmon around the dam, the tribe has proposed flushing McCloud water down two natural waterways, Cow and Dry creeks, which would provide a 20-mile detour from the Sacramento River, below the dam, to the southwest corner of Shasta Lake. A manmade channel, about a quarter-mile, would have to be tunneled to connect Dry Creek to the reservoir, Sisk-Franco said.
From there, the salmon would have to travel through the reservoir past Pit River and Squaw Creek before reaching the McCloud Arm of Shasta Lake, where the reservoir and river intermingle.
Federal fish biologists say young salmon traveling downstream probably will need help to navigate the reservoir. But spawning salmon, if they’ve been imprinted as fry with McCloud water, should find their way once they get a whiff of their birth waters, Sisk-Franco said.
Salmon on path to extinction
Central Valley wild salmon, especially winter Chinook, are on a trajectory toward extinction, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said, and federal fish biologists already have targeted the cold, clean McCloud River as a place salmon must be reintroduced if they’re to survive. The Winnemem's plan potentially could be a cost-effective alternative to the agency’s likely method: trapping salmon below and above the dam and hauling them around on trucks or barges.
“If society is serious about having wild salmon in California, we need to invest in getting them above the impoundment dams like Shasta and back to their spawning grounds in the mountains,” said Brian Ellrott, NOAA's Central Valley recovery coordinator.
Marc Dadigan/California WatchWith daughter Marine Sisk-Franco peering over her shoulder, Caleen Sisk-Franco, the tribe's spiritual leader and traditional chief, looks for her first glimpse of her tribe's salmon at a spawning ground near the Rakaia River in New Zealand.
For the Winnemem, preserving the Central Valley salmon, of which only three of 18 historical wild spring runs remain, means nothing less than preserving their culture.
“Maybe we should be put on an endangered species list, too, because we’re still recovering from what the dam did to us,” Sisk-Franco said. “In order for us to recover, we need to have salmon in the McCloud. We need that relationship back again.”
The Winnemem’s territory spans the 77 miles of the McCloud watershed, where the tribe had existed as hunter-gatherers and salmon fishermen for thousands of years.
In addition to losing the salmon, the tribe lost most of its remaining land to the Shasta Dam, which submerged villages, burial grounds and sacred sites beneath the murky depths of Shasta Lake.
The only land the tribe has left in its control is its 42-acre ranch, Tuiimyali, a traditional village site dappled with copses of oaks and manzanita that lies northwest of Redding at the foot of Bear Mountain, a camel-humped peak with a rocky forehead.
Yet despite its natural beauty, infrastructure problems can make the living hard for the 32 residents who live primarily in a dozen trailers and an aging main house.
As an unrecognized tribe, the Winnemem are ineligible for many government funding streams available to recognized American Indians, and the tribe’s revenues from modest rent payments, pensions and the odd dog sale barely pay the electric bills, much less provide for capital improvements.
Governments also lack the legal congruency to help a tribal village like Tuiimyali. The local county has zoned the property as single-family housing, which means all the trailers’ electrical lines are hooked up to the same meter, and only a single 1-inch water line provides water to all of the trailers.
“When everyone has their water going on up the hill, it’s a trickle down the hill,” Sisk-Franco said.
It also limits the village to a single sewer line, and the sewage pump is constantly sputtering and in need of replacement.
The tribe had inquired about applying for a Community Development Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but those are designed for neighborhoods, not tribal villages, Sisk-Franco said.
To use the grant, the tribe members would have to divide up the land so every resident owned a particular lot, something that would be at odds with their culture.
The tribe’s inability to secure adequate water and sewage led to a visit in March by the United Nations' special rapporteur on the right to water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, who later recommended that U.S. policy must be changed to provide an avenue for the Winnemem and other unrecognized tribes to improve their infrastructure.
“It seems like they have an unwinnable situation,” de Albuquerque said during her visit. “There has to be a way for unrecognized tribes to have access to clean water and sanitation without having to navigate a maze.”
Looking for partnerships
Although the village may be in disrepair, it is still a home for the Winnemem, who were essentially without one for decades after the dam, and also is where their salmon may one day swim again.
If the tribe's salmon plan becomes a reality, the salmon would swim up Dry Creek, which runs through the village, on their way around the dam.
It’s a plan that Ellrott and colleague Gary Sprague, a NOAA fish biologist, said they were open to pursuing when they met informally this month at the Coonrod ceremony with the Winnemem, the tribe’s Maori supporters and Barr, the New Zealand hatchery manager.
“We have a common goal: to get wild salmon in the McCloud River,” Ellrott said. “We might not see eye to eye on all of it, but I think we can get to a place where we’re both happy.”
During the nearly three-hour conversation, the group discussed general ideas about how to guide the salmon around the dam and how they can work together to persuade other local stakeholders, from the U.S. Forest Service to private landowners, to support the project.
Less than a week later, the Winnemem met again with NOAA officials at the agency’s Sacramento office, where they discussed how the tribe’s plan could work within the regulatory framework of the federal Endangered Species Act. NOAA officials also said they needed more information to verify that the New Zealand salmon originated from the McCloud River.
Barr and Sisk-Franco are adamant that they have the right fish and that once the two sides exchange all the information, it will be clear they have the right salmon.
Marc Dadigan/California WatchDuring the spiritual salmon trek, the Winnemem Wintu and their supporters swam beneath the cascade of the 50-foot Middle Falls.
“It doesn’t make sense to take Sacramento salmon, that are all diseased and genetically messed up and don’t know where to go, and put them in pristine water,” Sisk-Franco said. “We have a disease-free fish that’s meant to be in that river.”
The Winnemem have begun working on a memorandum of agreement with NOAA officials. In addition to their New Zealand allies, the Winnemem hope to include representatives from the neighboring Hupa tribe, who manage a salmon fishery on the Trinity River and could provide expertise, as well as indigenous supporters from Hawaii.
But even if the Winnemem’s growing salmon cadre joins forces with NOAA, there will be challenges.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation currently is studying a proposal to raise the Shasta Dam, which could flood another seven miles of the McCloud and possibly endanger spawning habitat. A relicensing process is also underway for a PG&E hydroelectric project on the Upper McCloud that strangles the river’s flow, making it too shallow and warm for salmon. If the flows aren’t increased for the next 50-year license, the Kiwi McCloud salmon may never have a chance.
And perhaps the biggest challenge for NOAA and the Winnemem will be partnering with all the local, federal and state agencies whose cooperation is needed to make the plan work but whose interest may be tepid.
“This starts with everyone on board, willing to bring the fish back, but then later they say they’re having trouble, and now they need to restrict logging; then it's fishing and then it's grazing,” said Ric Costales, natural resource policy specialist for Siskiyou County, where the salmon would spawn. “We’re worried it’ll end up being a regulatory nightmare for us.”
Ellrott said it will be his job to create partnerships with leaders like Costales after NOAA finishes its final recovery plan, hopefully by the end of the year. In September, he and Sprague will visit the Winnemem’s village and, for the first time, see the tribe’s proposed path around the dam for themselves.
“This is a new chance that maybe my grandchildren could go to the (McCloud) river and actually see the salmon again,” said David Martinez, a Winnemem tribal member. “We can’t go back on our commitment. As long as the salmon are there, we have to speak for them and try to bring them home.”
California Lost is an occasional series examining challenges facing neglected communities around the state.