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Winnemem Wintu Leaders in New Zealand to Call McCloud Salmon Home
by Dan Bacher
Tuesday Mar 23rd, 2010 10:23 AM
Caleen Sisk-Franco, Winnemem Wintu Chief, says the tribe came to New Zealand on a vision quest based on a higher spiritual calling. "The spirits came into the fire area here and they said ‘you’ve got to get it done’."

Photo of Mark Franco and Caleen Sisk-Franco courtesy of Indigenius Media.
Winnemem Wintu Leaders in New Zealand to Call McCloud Salmon Home

by Dan Bacher

Two dozen members of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe are now on a spiritual mission in New Zealand to ask Chinook salmon native to the McCloud River, a tributary of the Sacramento River, to return home to northern California.

Tribal representatives will gather on the banks of the Rakaia River, in Canterbury, on Sunday, March 28 to apologize to the winter run Chinook salmon - a species that was introduced to the river over 100 years ago. The winter Chinook is also known as "quinnat" in New Zealand.

At the culmination of a four-day ceremony, tribal members will perform the "nur chonas winyupus" or middle water salmon dance, according to a news release from Tourism New Zealand.

In California, the winter run is a listed as an endangered species under state and federal law. Only 4,483 adult winter Chinook returned to spawn in the Sacramento River below Shasta Dam in 2009, down from approximately 120,000 fish in 1969.

The decline has been caused by an array of factors, including massive water exports from the California Delta, unscreened diversions, water pollution and the failure of the state and federal governments to provide fish passage to the fish's original spawning grounds in the McCloud River above Shasta Dam.

The tribal group - who are collaborating with New Zealand Māori leaders of the South Island Ngai Tahu tribe to organise the ceremony - was welcomed to New Zealand yesterday, March 23, with a traditional Māori powhiri, according to the release.

Caleen Sisk-Franco, Winnemem Wintu Chief, says the tribe came to New Zealand on a vision quest based on a higher spiritual calling. "The spirits came into the fire area here and they said ‘you’ve got to get it done’."

The construction of Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River stopped the salmon from ascending the McCloud as they did for thousands and thousands of years, breaking a sacred covenant that the tribe had with the fish, according to the Winnemem. The tribe says that New Zealand salmon are descended from eggs taken from the McCloud and they are hoping to reintroduce eggs from this original stock back into their homeland.

The tribe's journey received national and international attention on March 21 when the New York Times published an outstanding article written by Jesse McKinley about the tribe's trip (

"The Francos say they intend to ask local fish and game officials if they can bring back some of New Zealand’s salmon eggs — once of California stock — back to the McCloud. 'We have to do more than pray,' Ms. Callen Sisk-Franco said. "We have to follow through,'" according to McKinley.

Representatives of the Winnemem scraped together the $60,000 needed for the trip by selling trinkets, soliciting help from wealthier tribes, and through Facebook. For the riverside ceremony, the delegation has brought ceremonial regalia including eagle headgear, a container of sacred water, weapons and a ceremonial drum.

Mark Franco, Winnemem Wintu headman, announced the tribe's plans to go to New Zealand during his keynote speech at the Organic Capital Celebration of Sustainability, sponsored by Organic Sacramento and Friends of the River, in Sacramento on December 9 ( He received an award, on behalf of the tribe, for the tribe's many efforts to stop the raising of Shasta Dam, to restore the Delta and bring salmon back to the McCloud River above Shasta Dam.

The tribe's journey comes at crucial time for Central Valley salmon populations. The Sacramento River fall Chinook salmon run, the driver of West Coast salmon fisheries, collapsed from nearly 800,000 fish in 2002, to only 39,500 fish in fall 2009. Endangered winter run and spring run chinook run chinook runs have also crashed, due to massive water exports from the California Delta to corporate agribusiness and southern California, declining water quality and other factors.

Ironically, while salmon populations have declined dramatically in their native California waters, they now thrive in New Zealand rivers and coastal waters. The salmon was introduced into New Zealand waters between 1901 and 1907. The salmon has established spawning runs in the Rangitata, Opihi, Ashburton, Rakaia, Waimakariri, Hurunui and Waiau rivers in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

I strongly urge you to contribute to the tribe's battle to restore McCloud River salmon and their many other efforts on behalf of environmental justice, go to: All recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, conservationists, tribal members and environmental justice advocates should support the Winnemem Wintu in their campaign to bring the salmon home, defend sacred sites and regain federal recognition.

A copy of the Tourism New Zealand news release about the trip is available at:

Comments  (Hide Comments)

by James
Tuesday Mar 23rd, 2010 11:00 AM
This is why religion is whack. instead of spending all the money they raised on practical things that would help themselves and their community, these people use it on some silly religious ceremony.
yet another example of how religion pacifies people and keeps the poor poor.
Tuesday Mar 23rd, 2010 5:41 PM
James: While apparently extreme, your ignorance of our cultures and spiritual practices is unfortunately typical. An analysis or criticism built from a financial perspective is necessarily euro-centric. This, combined with your disrespectful aggression, borders on racist.

You have no idea what their effort means, how it works or even what it is really intended to do. Your comment sounds like old-style colonial paternalism, asserting that the Natives don't know what to do with money.

We should let you tell us what to do with our money shouldn't we?
by james
Tuesday Mar 23rd, 2010 9:18 PM
I will just as gladly criticize the catholic church for building golden cathedrals when some of their followers are starving. my criticism is based on the idea the religion is at best silly and usually harmful.
i realize there is a long history of racism, but that does not justify supporting religion or superstitions or anything like that. supporting the fight against racism, or fight to restore the salmon population does not mean uncritically accepting religion.
it is perfectly valid and fair for people to criticize social movements in an attempt to make them better. pointing out that this was not the best way to spend a huge chunk of money is a valid criticism.

it might be a euro-centric criticism, but we do live in a capitalist world, and money is important. social justice movements attempt to raise money all the time, it is a bummer when that money is spent on things like this.
Tuesday Mar 23rd, 2010 9:37 PM

You *seriously* don't know what you're talking about. You seem incapable of discerning cultural knowledge that is built into ritual vs. the rogue political entities that europeans call "religion". The fact that you framed your original comment in terms of money was only the most blatant aspect of your euro-centric myopia.

I'd suggest learning about more about what you're talking about before you start condemning our cultures by european standards. By our standards, the entire european economic/imperial system is to blame for the current mass extinction taking place on our planet (that will likely take us with it). As such, criticizing our actions within the context of the european terricidal paradigm is ridiculous.

I'm asking you to please try to think outside of the colonial box and leave your paternalism and superiority behind. Its actually in your own interest.
by Salmon eggs transported for restoration
Saturday Apr 3rd, 2010 4:34 PM
The real reason for the Wintu journey appears to be transportation of salmon eggs for possible restoration of local populations. There is an additional spiritual component that is also crucial, though most of the money probably went to travel expenses. The practical component is the transport of salmon eggs from the New Zealand population originally from CA.

We should also remember that different versions of Earth-centered spirituality practiced by the Wintu and other indigenous peoples of the Americas pre-Columbus was shared by Europeans prior to the influx of Christianity following the Holy Roman Empire. There are more similarities between the Celtic druids of Europe and the Wintu shamans of the Americas prior to colonization by the succesive waves of empires than amongst current denominations of Christians (Catholic vs. Protestant) or Muslims (Shia vs. Sunni) or Jews (Orthodox vs. secular) or any of the other major modern religions. Even though the two indigenous cultures mentioned above never met, they were both practicing Earth-centered spirituality!!

The hardline athiesm of statist communism is not only at odds with monotheism, they are also in opposition to animists or Earth-centered pagan peoples who view trees, plants and animals as having spirit that exists outside of their physical dimensions. One of the great strategic failures of the Soviet Union was their foolish attempts to mandate athiesm as the state religion, and to punish the indigenous rural "heathens" for practicing their various pagan superstitions, spiritual and magical practices.

As a European immigrant, am trying to gain understanding of our now lost pagan nature-based spiritual practices prior to Christianity by learning about the indigenous North Americans who remain on of the last few groups of people on Earth who can tell others about their nature-based spirituality, still somewhat intact after centuries of colonialism.

What i understand is core to both our culture's ancestral pagan traditional spirituality is that the Earth is sacred, and all living beings from the simplest plants to the complex humans deserve our love and respect. No political system created by humans, whether communist or capitalist, has yet been worthy of anything besides collapsing into something simpler and much closer to the Earth based lifestyles of indigenous peoples everywhere.

Our Earth-centered spirituality will not allow us to rest until there exists a safe haven for the living beings of the rivers, forests, deserts and other wild places of any continent!!