Photo of the 2019 Run4Salmon, provided by Marc Dadigan

In March, the United Nations (U.N.) Convention on Biological Diversity Instagram page devoted a full  week to showcasing a local project, the Run4Salmon prayer journey, to its more than a quarter of a million followers.  Led by Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, the journey is an effort to build public support for the tribe’s work to restore native salmon, protect local waterways, and revitalize Indigenous lifeways.

Chief Caleen Sisk, Photo by Brittany App, provided by Niria Garcia

The tribe has engaged in many years of spiritual and ecological work in their efforts to restore native salmon species to their ancestral lands.  A war dance ceremony held by the Winnemem at  Shasta Dam in 2004, attracted international news coverage, and created important new connections for the tribe. According to the tribe, a New Zealand scientist seeing the news coverage notified them that the descendants of their McCloud River salmon were once shipped to the Rakaia River where they’re now thriving.  The Winnemem continue to work towards the return of native salmon to local waters in cooperation with Ngai Tahu Maori people as well as federal fish biologists in New Zealand.

The U. N. Convention on Biological Diversity is a multilateral treaty with an objective of conserving biological diversity internationally.  In featuring the Run4Salmon project, the U.N. Biodiversity Instagram account highlighted the importance of women-led Indigenous eco-projects to biodiversity internationally, focusing on the salmon restoration work of the local Winnemem Wintu people. They reminded followers that Indigenous people are responsible for stewarding more than 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity even though they comprise less than 5 percent of the world’s population.

The U.N. featured the ecological and spiritual work of the Winnemem Wintu in part due to the work of Niria Garcia, a 28-year-old Xicana graduate student at Columbia University who describes herself as a human rights advocate, climate justice advocate, educator and storyteller.  She recently received the 2020 United Nations Young Champion of the Earth award, which rewards innovative ideas for sustainable environmental change with resources and connections to help amplify the work.

Niria Garcia, screenshot from a YouTube video by the U.N. Environment Programme

Garcia told Shasta Scout that Indigenous people are central to healthy land and water management because they hold traditional ecological knowledge.

“Indigenous people know how to protect and restore endangered salmon runs, not because they read it in a science book, but because for thousands of years their ancestors have taken care and lived on this land.”  In comparison, she says, Western science is new.

Garcia has long been a co-organizer of the Run4Salmon, which has been an important part of the Winnemem’s fight for salmon and their way of life.  The annual journey first began in 2016 and includes both tribal members and interested supporters.  Participants travel all or parts of the 300 miles between the McCloud River and Vallejo, California by bike, canoe and horse as well as on foot, following the journey of the salmon and preparing the way for them to come home through ceremony and activism.

Photo of the 2019 Run4Salmon, provided by Marc Dadigan

“In the past 6 years, we’ve probably engaged thousands of people through ceremonies, walks, runs, biking, boating, and swimming.  It’s beautiful because people see the connection, the importance of what it means to live in California and work for the restoration of salmon,” Garcia said.

Local Chinook salmon populations declined rapidly after the Shasta Dam was built without fish ladders in the 1940s, blocking the salmon from migrating upstream to spawn and flooding 27 miles of the McCloud River, the ancestral watershed of the Winnemem. The National Wildlife Federation describes these salmon as a keystone species, vital to many other species as a food source. It refers to them as the “canaries in the coalmine” of climate change, their declines serving as a warning of greater environmental devastation to come.

Threats to Chinook salmon continue to mount. Last month, state and federal water projects announced plans to drain upstream reservoirs throughout the central valley in order to supply water downstream after a dry winter, a plan that is projected to result in warming water temperatures that could kill 89 percent of the remaining Chinook salmon below Shasta Dam. Previous reservoir drainage in 2014 and 2015 had a deadly effect on local salmon. Environmentalists are threatening court action to prevent the Bureau of Reclamation from giving water to farmers at the cost of harming the salmon.

Just this week, American Rivers, a non-profit river conservation group that has been active in river conservation efforts since 1973, named the McCloud River America's 7th most endangered river. Plans to raise the Shasta Dam, would "flood more than 5,000 acres of forest and riverside habitat, including 39 sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu tribe," the group said.  They advocate for alternative water provisions such as updated reservoir management, improved water conservation in agricultural settings and groundwater banking.  Raising the Dam is currently prohibited under California's Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, passed in 1989.

Garcia will be utilizing both traditional ecological knowledge and Western science in her U.N.-funded virtual reality (VR) filmmaking project.  The project will feature the Run4Salmon journey and highlight the beauty of the McCloud River as well as the need for native salmon species. It’s a creative response to the multiple and ongoing threats to the restoration of Chinook salmon.

The Winnemem Wintu, a tribe of about 120 people, are not federally recognized, limiting their voice in the highly politicized decision of whether to raise the Dam.  The VR film, created in collaboration with the Winemmem, will be used to educate government officials and decision makers who have not had the opportunity to experience the McCloud River in person. Garcia said the film would also share the beauty of the river and the need for biodiversity to school children and the disabled, among others.

Her work with the Winnemem Wintu has allowed her to develop a deep and important connection with their leader, Chief Sisk.  “Caleen has mentored a lot of young people with so much generosity and given so much of her wisdom to me and countless other young people.  Her leadership is unlike any other that I have experienced.”

She added that it has been surprising and disappointing to see so little local recognition for the work of the Winnemem Wintu and Chief Sisk.  “The work that the tribe does is really appreciated and uplifted globally and nationally,” Garcia said.  “Redding and Shasta County should know what an incredible tribe they have and how important it will be for politicians and everyday people to stand by the tribe in their historic efforts to restore endangered salmon runs - which is possible in our lifetime.”

In a short but powerful video by the UN Environmental Programme, Garcia shares about the vital importance of her work.  For more in-depth information about the Winnemem Wintu’s work to restore and protect the McCloud River, please access the Winnemem Wintu Salmon Restoration Plan.  

This year’s Run4Salmon will be held July 10-25th and is open to members of the public who support the Winnemem Wintu’s advocacy. You can find the UN’s Biodiversity Instagram account here.  

Marc Dadigan contributed to this story.

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