Opinion: Local Tribe’s Prayer Journey Creates Community that Cares for Rivers, Salmon, and Each Other 

“When we stop in this place we pray ‘Come this way.’ We pray and we sing, remembering that first time at the confluence, when the runners arrived in the dark, stars sparkling on the river. We could only hear the lapping of the water against the shore. And then in the hushed darkness, up and down the river where we stood lining up on the shore, all the songs started being sung.”
The 2022 Run4Salmon concluded with an ocean ceremony in Coastal Miwok territory. Photo Courtesy of Misa Joo

Editor’s Note: The following is an essay about the Run4Salmon Prayer Journey, written by follower of the Winnemem Wintu way of life and Shasta County resident, Misa Joo. Run4Salmon is a two-to-three-week journey during which Tribal members and allies pray for salmon and advocate for salmon restoration. Participants follow the path of the sacred Nur, or Chinook salmon, who once were born and spawned in the McCloud River but have been blocked from returning since the construction of Shasta Dam during World War II. The Run4Salmon Prayer Journey began in 2016, and for the first four years, participants followed the path of adult migrating salmon, traveling hundreds of miles from the Carquinez Strait in Vallejo to the McCloud River. For the past three years, Run4Salmon has altered its path to follow the migration direction of juvenile salmon, beginning at Mount Shasta and the McCloud River and traveling down the Sacramento River to the Ocean. Participants run, walk, paddle, ride horses and bicycle to complete the Run4Salmon journey. Joo uses this essay to share her powerful experiences with Run4Salmon and to reflect on this year’s event, which was marked by the historic return of Chinook salmon eggs to the McCloud River as part of a collaborative project by the Tribe and federal and state agencies.

The Run4Salmon Prayer Journey held its 7th annual closing ceremony on July 31. The journey is like a whole community traveling down the McCloud and Sacramento Rivers to the estuary and to the ocean. 

It begins at the alpine spring bubbling from Mt. Shasta, the origin place of the Winnemem Wintu and their old time Nur, the Chinook Salmon. Those who travel on this three-week journey carry a prayer for the return of the plentiful runs of Chinook, which had been stopped cold by the construction of Shasta Dam in 1945. In the construction, there was no plan for ladders or a swim way for the fish to return to spawn again.

The dam builders planned for hatchery fish to simply replace the wild Salmon. Only recently, over decades of dwindling salmon numbers, have the scientists realized that hatchery fish are not surviving as a species. After all, how can hatchery fish replace the Winnemem’s Nur, Salmon that was strong enough to return 400 river miles to their spawning grounds into the high mountains past waterfalls in glacial waters?

“These old time Salmon” Winnemem Wintu Hereditary Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk says, “climb mountains!”

Over the decades since the dam was built we have continued to hold our ceremonies, sing our songs and lay down our prayers in support of the Salmon. In 2004, after 100 years, Chief Sisk revived the War Dance ceremony, and as the news of our ceremony traveled around the world it brought back a response from New Zealand. Our original Chinook Salmon, which were carried as eggs to many parts of the world many decades ago, still swim strong there. Today, we continue to try to convince the government officials to build a swimway around the dam and allow us to bring home the descendants of our original Chinook from New Zealand. 

The Run4Salmon Prayer Journey, which was started by Chief Sisk and other allied Indigenous women leaders in 2016, is how we all remain focused on the return of the Chinook runs. For the first four years of the prayer run, we followed the adult Salmon’s spawning path praying that the ancient Nur would return from the ocean by any means possible. We walked in Ohlone Territory. We paddled against the current where we could, bicycled, or ran where we could not.  On that long trip back to the mountainous areas and their wild river, we saw the secret destruction to the Sacramento River, which the Chinook would have to navigate and survive: Fields draining fertilizer straight into the river, grapevines choking trees on the shore which would provide shade for the Salmon, the fracking pumps in almond and walnut fields, pesticides which created dead zones. The prayer run exposed it all.  

Every year during Run4Salmon, we stop at where Cow Creek and the Sacramento River flow together. That is where Chief Sisk envisions building a swimway, connecting Dry Creek, which runs through our village in Jones Valley, with Cow Creek. The swimway would lead baby Salmon to the Sacramento River and bring the spawning Salmon home.  

When we stop in this place we pray “Come this way.”  We pray and we sing, remembering that first time at the confluence, when the runners arrived in the dark, stars sparkling on the river.  We could only hear the lapping of the water against the shore.  That’s when the Winnemem Song Leader began to sing “Hesin Wai Wei Li,”  “Oh, I want to see them when they come back again.”  And then in the hushed darkness, up and down the river where we stood lining up on the shore, all the songs started being sung.  The giant spirit of the Salmon fed itself on our songs and filled all our hearts with its love.  The message was “Keep on going.  We know what you are trying to do. We love you.”  

This year when we returned to the confluence of Cow Creek and the Sacramento River, two eagles flew low and slowly circled wide above our heads.  All of us looked up and started singing that Eagle Song. Eagles like Winnemem, are Salmon beings.  We are one on this prayer journey together.  

Run4Salmon participants watch two eagles fly overhead as they hold ceremony at the confluence of Cow Creek and the Sacramento River, just south of Palo Cedro. Photo courtesy of Run4Salmon

Many good people have become part of the Run4Salmon Prayer Run. Many have a story to share of how their lives have been transformed with the prayer run, this little community which travels on the path of the Winnemem old time Nur, literally following the Fish in prayer, running for the Fish while it cannot be there.  Some found their life work and purpose. 

And then there are the children.   Now the youngest children who have grown up on the prayer run for their whole lives are the ones to run that leg to the confluence, scamper across the field, dropping into the banks and like Fish, dive into the river to cool themselves at the end. The children believe that the Run4Salmon is life.  The next generation is being raised to take care of the river system and the Salmon and follow the Salmon in order to be good people. They know no other way. As adults, we could gain insight from the children’s point of view of how to live as human beings.

During the closing ocean ceremony for Run4Salmon, supporters cooked salmon the traditional California Indian way. Photo Courtesy of Misa Joo

Most importantly, during Run4Salmon, we are met by tribal peoples all along the way.   Like the old days, the tribes greet the prayer run as they enter their territory and add prayers to the journey just as may have happened in the old days as the Salmon followed their fires along the river to guide themselves home. These fires will be lit again for the Nur when they are finally allowed to return to their home rivers and to the mountain spawning grounds.  

During this year’s Run4Salmon we experienced a historic moment. High in the mountains we met with government scientists and returned eyed eggs of hatchery salmon to the McCloud River – a last-ditch effort to save the winter run. These institutions have finally reached out to the tribe as a co-partner.  They asked that the reintroduction of hatchery fish be done in ceremony, and the Winnemem agreed. Chief Sisk said these fish needed all the help they could get.  

As co-partners the Winnemem have been promised that the eyed eggs from New Zealand will be chosen to be restored there three years from now.  In the meantime, we will be advocating and praying for the fishway so that the wild Fish can swim their way home as it was meant to be from the beginning of time. The Run4Salmon prayers have marked the way.

This article is part of our Community Voices series, which illuminate lived experiences, identities, issues or perspectives that are often misunderstood. Community Voices is supported by a grant from the North State Equity Fund. Want to share your thoughts and opinions with our readers? You can submit your writing here.

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