“We’re Praying That They Remember These Waters”: Supported By Tribal Ceremony, Salmon Eggs Return To The McCloud River After 80 Year Absence

On July 11 the Winnemem Wintu Tribe danced, sang and prayed for 20,000 endangered salmon eggs as they were returned to the McCloud River. The action is part of new collaboration with government agencies and represented a watershed moment for the Tribe. Hot Sacramento River temperatures threaten winter-run Chinook, but government scientists hope acclimating the eggs to the glacial waters of the McCloud River, their ancestral home, will help them survive.

Thousands of relatives of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe arrived at the McCloud River floating inside a little orange cooler earlier this week. 

A burlap bag inside the cooler contained 20,000 fertilized endangered winter-run Chinook salmon eggs which were about to return to an old home on the McCloud River, the Tribe’s ancestral watershed. Alongside federal and fisheries staff, several Winnemem Wintu children hiked down to the riverbanks, then used blue coffee cups to drop the small, orange eggs into the tank of a special incubation device.

“(The children) are the future generations, and I wanted them to start to have that relationship with the salmon and to be there to greet them when they swim back up one day,” said Winnemem Wintu Spiritual Leader and Hereditary Chief Caleen Sisk.

Caleen Sisk, Winnemem Wintu Hereditary Chief and Spiritual Leader, talks to state and federal fisheries staff after the chinook salmon eggs arrive in an orange cooler July 11 at the village of Way El Xopormos on the upper McCloud River. Photo by Marc Dadigan.

Long marooned in the hot and degraded valley floor of the Sacramento River by the disruptive effects of the Shasta and Keswick dams, the winter-run Chinook salmon have finally returned to the McCloud River after 80 years. The Tribe welcomed the salmon eggs from the Livingston Stone National Hatchery, with dancing, singing and prayer as part of a historic ceremony held July 11 at a remote village site on the McCloud River.

The arrival of the salmon eggs in Winnemem territory was the result of a collaboration between the Winnemem Tribe and state and federal agencies, spurred by fears that a third consecutive year of climate change-enhanced drought could lead to another mass killing of winter-run salmon eggs and infants in the hot water of the Sacramento River. 

The eggs need cold water to survive, and the upper McCloud River, fed by glaciers and underground springs, has water chilly enough to steal the breath of any swimmer. But both the Tribe and fish scientists are unsure how the young salmon will adapt to their new environment once they hatch.

“We are asking the river to receive these eggs, and putting down prayers in the old way so they have a fighting chance,” Sisk told those gathered at the ceremony. “We’re praying that these fish will remember how to swim in the glacial waters they haven’t experienced (for 80 years).” 

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A Historic Ceremony and Partnership 

The July 11 gathering was also the first Winnemem Wintu ceremony at their village, Way El Xopormos (now a U.S. Forest Service campground), in more than a century. One hundred years ago, the village became the private property of railroad companies, and, later, wealthy San Francisco elites, causing the Winnemem Wintu people to become disconnected from the land. 

Like the salmon, they have also long been severed from the McCloud River, their ancestral watershed, by genocidal violence, government policies of dispossession, and flooding from the Shasta Dam. But despite decades of government-funded attempts at erasure, the Winnemem Wintu people have maintained their connection to their land, their sacred fish and their river, known in the Wintu language as the Winnemem Waywacket.

According to the Tribe’s genesis story, salmon gave its voice so human could speak and in return Winnemem Wintu people promised to always speak for them. Such stories in Indigenous communities are not considered “myths”, but original instructions, or guidance, for how to maintain a harmonious relationship with the natural world. The Tribe’s creation story is one reason they have remained fierce advocates for salmon over the many years their sacred fish have been missing from the river.

“I feel really good about the eggs being in the river. The ceremony was strong; the boys danced hard,” said Helene Sisk, the Tribe’s song captain. “We’re always going to stand up for salmon, because they stood up for us.”

Despite their millennia-spanning relationship with the McCloud River and their salmon, the Tribe’s leaders have been barred for years from attending government agencies’ meetings to plan the re-introduction to the McCloud River. Officials say this was largely because they have been labeled a non-federally recognized Tribe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But in the past few months, there has been a significant reversal in how the Tribe is treated by the fish agencies, said Sisk, the Tribe’s spiritual leader. Not only have they been elevated as a collaborative partner on the salmon egg project, but they are also in negotiations with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to establish a co-management agreement. 

The agreement could potentially legally establish them as equal decision-makers in the future efforts to re-introduce salmon to the McCloud River. To be so close to such a deal represents a watershed moment for the Winnemem Wintu, who have tirelessly urged agencies for more than a decade to consider the Tribe’s plan for salmon restoration, one based on ancestral knowledge. 

“We’re on a mission to return our salmon to our river, that’s the end goal; it’s taken a lot of years to get to this point,” Sisk said. “It’s almost like (government officials) finally realized we haven’t vanished, we haven’t forgotten our direction as a tribal people – that we’re always going to speak up for the fish.”

A Fight Against Extinction
Government scientists also celebrated the return of salmon eggs to the McCloud River, a move they say could be essential to saving winter-run Chinook from extinction. Since 2009, federal biologists have concluded winter-run salmon must be returned to the cold waters above Shasta Dam to survive the impacts of climate change and water diversions. But fish scientists have experienced their own obstacles to salmon repatriation, including logistical, financial, and political barriers, they say. 

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“Reintroduction (of salmon into the McCloud River) is often compared to going to the moon. A lot of people say “it can’t be done, you’ll never get fish over Shasta (Dam),’” said Stacie Smith, a NOAA fisheries scientist. 

The endangered winter-run salmon enter the rivers during winter and spawn during the summer. Historically, they would deposit their eggs in the cold mountain rivers above Shasta Dam, including the McCloud. But since the dams were erected, they’ve had to rather miraculously adapt to spawning in the hostile, hot waters of the Sacramento River around the Redding area.

That tremendous adaptability is why many fish scientists are optimistic the fish will be able to successfully return to their historic home river. “I have a lot of hope spots about reuniting these fish with the McCloud River,” said Rachel Johnson, a NOAA Fisheries scientist. “That’s their home field advantage. . .This is where they’re meant to be.”

If all goes according to plan, after about 40 days, the eggs will hatch and leave the tanks via a long tube to enter the larger waters of the chilly McCloud River, their hoped-for haven against extinction. The scientists intend for the cold McCloud water piped into the incubators to imprint the baby salmon with the strong instinct needed to help them return to the river to spawn as adults.

Salmon egg incubation tanks are intended to mimic the early stages of the Chinook salmon’s birth cycle. After the baby salmon hatch, they fall from the egg tray to a layer of gravel. They’ll then hide, feeding from an egg-yolk sac attached to their bodies until their strong enough to swim out of the tanks down the pipe into the McCloud River. Source: NOAA Fisheries.

In August, as the fish grow older and begin to move downstream, the agencies plan to use floating traps to capture them before they enter the Shasta Reservoir, where they’d likely be eaten by a phalanx of invasive predators or crash into the concrete wall of the dam. Fisheries staff will then use customized trucks to transport salmon around the dam to a lower location on the Sacramento River, where they will complete their migration to the ocean. 

After swimming to the ocean, the young salmon will spend several years in the Pacific before attempting the exhausting upriver journey back to their birth waters to spawn before dying and allowing the nutrients from their bodies to be utilized by bears, eagles and other animals who rely on them for food.  

Because salmon live two lives as both freshwater and saltwater fish, they are vitally important to ecosystems, serving as food for ocean, river and forest creatures. As travelers between different fish worlds, they also are vessels for the transfer of nutrients between ocean and river ecosystems. Sisk, the Tribe’s spiritual leader, calls the salmon “climate changers” because she says they reduce the river’s temperature when they move rocks to dig their nests.

Fish biologist Smith also said that salmon represents the history and basis of many cultures, and called them “the foundation of the ecological food web in so many ways.” The transfer of eggs into the McCloud is the first step to maintaining the salmon’s future, Smith said.

Throughout the Chinook’s life cycle, they face tremendous danger from invasive predators, rising ocean temperatures and rivers desiccated by too many diversions. They are at their most vulnerable as eggs and infants, scientists say, which is why ensuring they successfully survive that life stage is an important guard against extinction. 

The Winnemem Wintu Vision for McCloud Salmon Restoration
The Winnemem Wintu say their collaboration with the scientists is a compromise, despite their commitment to providing spiritual support and sharing their traditional expertise. The Tribe have long resisted the use of trap and haul methods for moving salmon because they believe it interferes too greatly with the wild salmon’s life cycle. Instead, they advocate for building a swimway around the Shasta Dam and have worked with an independent fish biologist to design one.

They also argue that hatchery salmon are genetically compromised and less fit for the McCloud River. They’ve long wanted to repopulate the river with another, seemingly magical, Chinook salmon which is said to have originated in the McCloud but now lives across the Pacific. The New Zealand Chinook salmon, which the Winnemem Wintu Tribe say are the true direct descendants of the McCloud River salmon, were exported to New Zealand in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Federal fish culturalists as well as Winnemem Wintu workers reared the eggs that were sent to New Zealand at the Baird Hatchery, which was located on the McCloud River and was later flooded by Shasta Dam.

Since 2010, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe has been collaborating with New Zealand fisheries officials and the Ngāii Tahu Māori people on returning the New Zealand McCloud salmon back to their ancestral watershed. But for more than a decade, U.S. and California agencies have largely ignored the Tribe’s restoration plan involving the swimway and New Zealand Chinook. 

Officials now say they will seriously investigate the return of the New Zealand salmon and the feasibility of the swimway, a commitment they developed while negotiating the co-management agreement with the Tribe. The Winnemem Wintu people say they are heartened by this breakthrough, and ready to stand strong like the salmon to ensure their plans move forward. 

“Our main purpose is to get salmon back to the McCloud River; salmon is what has sustained the Tribe for millennia,” said Gary Mulcahy, the Winnemem Wintu’s Government Liaison. “Today is a good day if it leads to the eggs from New Zealand being put in the river and if it leads to a swimway being built.”

Winnemem Wintu women carry the cooler of salmon eggs around the sacred fire, laying down prayers that the eggs will successfully hatch. Screenshot courtesy, Christopher McLeod.

During the July 11 ceremony, Winnemem Wintu women and girls carried the salmon eggs around the sacred fire to give them their best chance at living. They were called upon to do so because women “weave the web of life,” said Sisk, the Tribe’s spiritual leader.  As the women carried the eggs, the Tribe sang their H’up Chonas song, which means ‘war dance’ or to “dance in the old way,” communicating the Tribe’s spiritual commitment to resist and fight for their salmon.

“We know it’s going to be a long fight to get our salmon back,” Sisk said about the song. “And those little eggs will need to be warriors too.”

Marc Dadigan is Shasta Scout’s Associate Editor and a Community Reporter covering Indigenous Affairs and the Environment. His writing has been published in Reveal, Yes! Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, and Indian Country Today. He welcomes your emails at [email protected] 

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