Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

September 18, 2019

Saving Rivers and Salmon from Trump: Winnemem Chief Sisk Delivers Letter to California Governor

Photo Credit: Christopher McLeod
Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk presented a letter today to the office of California Governor Gavin Newsom, urging Newsom to sign -- and not veto -- SB 1, which was passed by the state legislature last week. Chief Sisk is leading the two-week Run4Salmon, to restore habitat for Chinook salmon and protect water quality. For details:  

1 4 8 4 0 B E A R M O U N T A I N R O A D • R E D D I N G , C A • 96003
September 18, 2019

Governor Gavin Newsom 1303 10th Street, Suite 1173 Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Governor Newsom,
I am the Traditional Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I represent an unbroken line of tribal leadership that has survived the California Indian genocide, the Indian boarding schools, and the construction of Shasta Dam, which flooded our river and left us homeless.
I’m writing to express our tribe’s dismay at your announcement that you plan to veto Senate Bill 1, which ensures the federal Central Valley Project must comply with state environmental law no matter what the Trump administration does to undermine endangered species protection.
Vetoing this bill will in essence greenlight President Trump’s plan to divert even more water from our struggling rivers for industrial agriculture. Many well-respected fish biologists and environmentalists have concluded Trump’s attempt to ignore the best science and rewrite the rules for operating the Central Valley Project and State Water Project will essentially be an “extinction plan” for Chinook salmon and other threatened fish.
Earlier this year, we, like many other tribal people in California, felt gratitude when you apologized for the genocide that was waged against California Indians and issued an executive order to create the Truth and Healing Commission. I am writing to tell you that vetoing S.B. 1 is continuing the history of genocide you’ve pledged to address.
When California’s first governor spoke about a “war of extermination” against California Indians, decimating our fisheries and food supplies was one of the methods settlers employed to destroy us. They burned down our acorn stores. They fenced off our gathering areas. Railroad construction and hydraulic mining devastated the salmon runs on our ancestral watershed, the McCloud River. Several decades later the construction of Shasta Dam and the Bureau of Reclamation’s failure to create a fish passage blocked our salmon from ever returning home.
It’s not a coincidence that as the salmon populations have plummeted, so too have our numbers from an estimated 14,000 on the McCloud River around the time of contact to less than 125 today.
It didn’t have to be this way. When the Winnemem Wintu cared for our river using our traditional ecological knowledge, the salmon runs were so thick you could walk across the river on their backs.
We sang for the salmon. We danced for the salmon. Our sacred fires along the river guided the salmon home. When, after nearly 70 years, we discovered that the genetic descendants of our salmon now swim in the rivers of New Zealand, after being exported there as eggs in the early 20th century, we traveled across the Pacific to sing and dance for them once more.
“If the Sacred Fires are not lit, how will our children learn?”
Honor Your Traditional Lifeways
Our connection to our sacred relatives remains strong, and we’ve worked tirelessly for almost a decade to collaborate with state and federal agencies to return our salmon to the McCloud River. Federal scientists have concluded that Chinook salmon must reach the glacial waters above Shasta Dam, like the McCloud River, in order to avoid extinction as the Sacramento River will continue to warm as climate change intensifies.
A federal court order requires that such a restoration plan be enacted.
However, Trump’s plan for California water would eliminate the requirement that federal agencies explore developing a fish passage around Shasta Dam, in violation of the federal court order.
Trump’s plan would also reduce or eliminate many protections for salmon from the old plan, which was hardly effective to begin with. This was the plan that led to 95 percent of California’s winter-run salmon being killed by low flows during the last drought.
The Bureau of Reclamation also, as you well know, plans to raise the height of Shasta Dam, which would submerge potential spawning grounds and many of our sacred places on the McCloud River, where we still have ceremony. As the agencies pursue policies to destroy the salmon, they also will destroy us.
The Trump water plan is a modern iteration of the “depredation and prejudicial policies” of genocide that you have pledged in your executive order to stand against.
For the sake of the salmon, for the sake of my people and for the sake of the people of California, I’m calling on you to sign S.B. 1. Our state and our world are on the precipice. Our rivers are contaminated and desiccated, the farmlands are teeming with selenium and toxic chemicals, and sustainable food sources are at risk of becoming extinct.
Many of California’s rivers once thronged with salmon like ours. With strong leadership, we can restore California as a salmon state and transition away from industrial agriculture that poisons our lands and destroys sustainable fisheries that are vital to climate change resilience.
We ask you to take bold and strong actions to defend our waters and our salmon for future generations.

Under One Sky,
Caleen Sisk. Winnemem Wintu Traditional Chief and Spiritual Leader

Shared by Christopher (Toby) McLeod Sacred Land Film Project David Brower Center 2150 Allston Way, Suite 440 Berkeley, CA 94704 tel: 510-859-9190 You can get Standing on Sacred Ground from Bullfrog Films.

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