The Story of the New Zealand McCloud Salmon
When we first bubbled out of our sacred spring on Mt. Shasta at the time of creation, we were helpless and unable to speak. It was salmon, the Nur, who took pity on us humans and gave us their voice. In return, we promised to always speak for them.
The McCloud River is now famous for its trout fishing, but for the thousands of years we lived on its banks, the McCloud was one of the most fertile salmon spawning rivers in the West.
When fish culturist Livingston Stone first arrived in our territory, he wrote in his journals that the spawning Chinook salmon were so numerous he could have walked across their backs from one side of the river to the other.
Stone established the Baird Hatchery on the McCloud, originally as an effort to breed Pacific salmon to replenish dwindling Atlantic salmon stocks. Soon the hatchery was exporting eggs around the world, and the Rakaia River in New Zealand was the only foreign location to establish a stable fishery.
The Winnemem of that time were initially unhappy with Livingstone’s presence and his taking of the salmon. However, a deal was eventually struck: Stone could capture the salmon for breeding, but we promised our sacred fish that they would always be able to return home.
This covenant and our relationship with the salmon was broken when the Shasta Dam was constructed during World War II
and blocked the passage of our salmon’s spawning run. The McCloud salmon either interbred with Sacramento River salmon or, quite possibly, died out here in California, but they continued to thrive in New Zealand and persist in relatively pristine waters with little disease.
Returning the McCloud Salmon
This spring we traveled to the Rakaia River where we connected with the Maori tribes now responsible for the lands and waterways where our salmon spawn. With their help and cooperation, we held a four-day ceremony, Nur Chonas Winyupus, on the Rakaia and atoned for our failure to stop the dam. The salmon are now ready to return to their home.
The journey to New Zealand to see the salmon will soon be depicted in the documentary, Dancing Salmon Home. Read more about it here.
In August and September, we held three meetings with biologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency in charge of restoring wild salmon to the Central Valley. Only three of 18 historic Central Valley Chinook Salmon runs still survive. NOAA has man- dated the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to return salmon above Shasta Dam to mountain rivers like the McCloud, which have colder waters that are more resistant to climate change. NOAA has expressed a great interest in collabo- rating with the Winnemem.
We are researching and developing a proposal for a passageway around Shasta Dam for the returning spawning salmon and the outgoing ocean bound salmon fingerlings. This passageway would ideally be designed so that it would be used by migrating Chinook salmon with little or no human intervention. In recent years, there have been many developments with fish passages, and we will be working with BOR and NOAA to develop a state- of-the-art project.
We currently are working on our proposal and need funds to conduct research trips to existing hatcheries, surveys on the creeks and other fieldwork.. We plan to submit our proposal to NOAA in the Spring of 2012.
A spiritual, ecological and cultural mission
Salmon are a vital species to the McCloud River ecosystem; they keep the waters clean by turning over rocks when they spawn. And they provide abundant food for bears, eagles, orcas and people. They also traverse the boundary between salt and freshwater, bringing nutrients to the Earth, trees and fauna they wouldn’t ordinarily receive.
The Nur are also an important relative to us, and to have lost that relationship for so long has left a void in our hearts and in our religious and spiritual beliefs. Returning the salmon to the McCloud is of the upmost important not only for the survival of California salmon but also for our own survival as a people.
It is a chance to not only heal an ecological wound caused by the Shasta Dam but to also provide some justice for a crime against our culture.
Salmon Return Links
- “California Tribe Hopes to Woo Salmon Home“, New York Times, March 20, 2010
- “A Salmon Returns“, Christian Science Monitor, May 25, 2010
- “Atonement”, Tekeraka (Ngai Tahu Maori magazine) Fall 2010
- “A Long Journey Home“, High Country News, Dec. 20, 2010
- “Tribe Travels Across Pacific to Recover Lost Salmon Species,” California Watch, Huffington Post, Redding Record Searchlight. Aug. 31, 2011.
- Maori TV story – Sacred Salmon Prayer Performed by the Winnemem Wintu tribe from America