Fight for Free and Wild Salmon Rivers: Interview with Chief Caleen Sisk

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25 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Chief Caleen Sisk

Welcome to For the Wild podcast. I’m Ayana Young. Today we have the honor of speaking with Chief Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader and tribal chief of the Winnemem Wintu, who practice their traditional culture and ceremonies in their territory along the McCloud River in Northern California. Since assuming leadership responsibilities in 2000, Caleen has focused on maintaining the cultural and religious traditions of the tribe. She advocates for California salmon restoration, healthy, undammed watersheds, and the human right to water. She has received international honors as a sacred site protector and currently leads the tribe’s resistance against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposal to raise Shasta Dam eighteen feet, inundating more than forty sacred sites. She currently leads her tribe’s efforts to work with Maori and federal fish biologists to return wild Chinook salmon from New Zealand to the McCloud River. In doing so, she advocates for the inclusion of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in federal, state, and local environmental research and planning. Caleen is an internationally known speaker on traditional tribal and spiritual issues, having spoken on diverse topics such as spiritual medicine ways, the spirit of water, global warming, sacred site protection, and the responsibility of tribal people to honor their tribal lifeway. Caleen is also a leading voice in raising awareness of the poor human rights conditions suffered by federally unrecognized tribes and unrepresented Indigenous peoples around the world. She is a regular speaker at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where she has campaigned for the United Nations to study the plight of federally unrecognized tribes in the United States. She is also the spiritual and environmental commissioner for ENLACE Continental, an international network of Indigenous women. For more than thirty years, Caleen was mentored and taught in traditional healing and Winnemem culture by her late, great aunt, Florence Jones, who was the tribe’s spiritual leader for sixty-eight years. Caleen’s traditional teachings and training comes from an unbroken line of leadership of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. Strongly rooted in her spirituality and her family, Caleen cares deeply for her Winnemem people and for oppressed people around the world. Caleen received her B.A. from California State University, Chico, in 1975 and her teaching credential from CSU in 1976.

Ayana Young (AY): I would like to start off by imagining the networks of wild water in California and how they looked much different five hundred years ago. When we domesticate water, we lose touch with something essential. Rivers are the lifeblood of entire ecologies and cultures, and as Indigenous cultures have been colonized, so have the waters and landscapes they stem from. I’m wondering if you could start us off by telling us how Wintu life has always centered around the Winnemem (McCloud) River watershed, and how this has been stifled by the colonization of water?

Chief Caleen Sisk (CS): The Sacramento River was a very large, meandering river, cleaning and supplying water across the valley floor so that there would be no place on that system that was left out. The development of California did not take [this] into consideration. Maybe they didn’t know that rivers meandered, or maybe they didn’t know that there was just enough water for everything.

Our creation story begins on Mount Shasta. There’s a sacred spring there that we say was the doorway. We came out of that sacred fire inside, so did all of our spirit beings— trees, fish, birds, deer, bear. All things that were living took form to take care of the land that the creator made for us. Everybody had a job to do.

The name Winnemem means middle river people. We always go back to that spring. We sing at that doorway, put down prayers, and ask for blessings for future generations to come. Our ties have not been broken from the practice and traditions of going to that spring, unlike other folks who have veered away from recognizing the differences that are happening to and around them. Yet the Winnemem—we’ve been pretty lucky in that our leadership is unbroken from the time of civilization coming. Our memory isn’t lost. Our directions are not lost. Our history, our traditions and medicines are still in place. Those are the things that keep guiding us to what to do next, in spite of the changes that have occurred in modern civilization.

AY: Similar to our recognition of ecosystems as porous and interconnected, we must examine industrial projects within the context of their connections to the greater ecological system. California’s management of water is a clear example of how dominant culture denies this holistic reality and instead views the environmental impacts of industry and development with a reductionist lens. Could you elucidate Proposition 1, the proposed raising of the Shasta Dam, and the “California WaterFix”—previously called the “Bay Delta Conservation Plan”—and the fictitious boundaries between these projects?

CS: The Delta Tunnels will sit 150 feet into the Delta, forty feet into the ground, for thirty miles. It’s never been done before. There’s no science available. Yet they’re willing to risk the largest [estuary] on the Pacific coast. The Sites Reservoir, which Prop. 1 is most likely to fund, can only be filled by the waters from the Sacramento River. That in itself is a problem. The Sacramento River doesn’t provide enough water to be putting some in storage along the way.

The raising of Shasta Dam [has] been the keystone of California’s WaterFix from the very beginning. Back in the 1940s, before building that dam, they had to deal with my tribe, the Winnemem Wintu. They passed a 1941 Indian Land Acquisition Act that took our land and made grim promises, which they’ve never fulfilled. Now they want to raise the dam 18.5 feet higher. My tribe is going through a second devastation. Raising the dam will back the water up over forty of our sacred sites that we still access today. The promises that we were made in 1941 have never been accomplished by the Bureau of Reclamation, nor do they intend to. We have tried to talk to Senator [Dianne] Feinstein about these issues with no resolution.

This WaterFix is not the answer to the water needs in California. Governor Brown says [California’s] not in drought because we have a big snowpack. Snowpack is not the determiner of whether we’re in drought. We’re still in drought because the ground water systems have been depleted. There’s no effort to recharge the ground water systems. There are no federal regulations or county laws assisting. There are many problems with this idea of raising the lake. Even now, dams are a pretty archaic way of trying to save water. So it’s not a system that we can support. Nor do we think it’s the most viable way to get water to the people. It would make more sense to put that kind of money into the infrastructures of old towns and replace plumbing that is leaking billions of gallons of water every day.

AY: It’s incredible to hear the extent that this dominant culture will go to in order to move water from the north to the thirsty south. You mentioned that you had spoken to Ms. Feinstein, and I’m wondering what has been the extent of the inclusion of Indigenous communities within discussions regarding these impending projects and their environmental impact assessments. Do you foresee a way in which the California government can be held more accountable for their tireless disregard for Indigenous people’s lands and waters?

CS: It’s a very complicated issue that only gets more complicated if you try to talk to the government about all of their exotic water laws that protect the rights of people who hold those water laws. The majority of the California people have no water rights.

Mega-water districts and water users do not want to change—Resnick Farms, growing almonds in the desert, which takes thirty gallons per nut to produce, is continuing to plant trees through this seven-year drought. They have not lost a profit. While California’s population was supposed to reduce water use by 25 percent, mega-farms were exempt from having to use less water at all. In the desert, they’re growing crops [in] soils that are not built for growing. Selenium is coming up, and the land has become fallow. So now they’re being paid to retire their farmland and they’re keeping their water rights, which is going to be the new blue gold. They’re shifting out of farming into energy. In Westlands Water District, they retired that land and bought solar panel[s].

While solar seems to be one of the answers, anytime you do anything mega it doesn’t turn out to be a good thing. I can see already that the mega-solar farms are causing more imbalance in nature, catching the birds on fire. They call them streamers. You can get a job picking up dead birds caught on fire by flying over the solar panels. This is a big mistake. California is a flyway for many little tiny birds.

We have to be careful in going overboard with something that seems like it’s the answer. To me, the bigger answer would be to get communities off the grid. Solar panels in a community, where there are trees and wind, [is] different than a solar field generating heat so hot that it catches [birds] on fire. If you get communities off the grid, then the same old bankers are not collecting all the money for the same product being shipped everywhere.

AY: It’s really incredible to imagine that these mega-farms that have gone fallow are now being turned into solar farms that are also using their water rights to make more money by commodifying the water and, I’m guessing, moving the water to somewhere else and making money off that. Is that correct?

CS: That’s right, because even those water district farmers, some of them were farmers before Westlands farmer district existed and got absorbed into that big association, but they still pay more for their water.

AY: These mega “renewable” projects [are] not actually forcing people to question using resources at all. It’s just finding a new way to continue these lifestyles that are dense in how much they’re taking.

It also makes me think about this colonial, capitalist culture and how it will stop at nothing to control water because water, in its deepest essence, is life. To control water is to control life itself.

What do you believe are the spiritual consequences of the privatization and the corporate control of water? How do you see us being able to move this dominant culture into a paradigm that once again views water as sacred?

CS: There are a lot of issues that counter-play against making good sense, about making good decisions, a protection for life. Right?

Here in California, we are the seventh largest economy in the world, separate from the United States. Indigenous peoples, minority groups, ethnic groups, small communities, are not the accent of what California is about in its power system. So that’s why you have communities like Seville and Alpha and so many other places not being taken care of.

Also, even now, the population itself does not really know about the water filtration systems. I live up here in northern California where we’re the first recipients of the water off the mountain, and we drink out of the spring. We know what water tastes like. We drink live water. When I go to Sacramento, Davis, San Francisco, or any other place down south, I can smell the chlorine in the water. I can taste that it’s bad water. It’s so bad that in some places I carry my water with me because I don’t want to have to drink that, but I see people living there, their kids are drinking and bathing in it. They don’t really know any other way. That water is told to them to be good water. Overall, I think what’s needed is to wake the people up in California to the fact that the water districts do not have the power to deliver good water, and it’s the mega-water companies that are making these rules. I believe the reluctance to do this is in order to stay the seventh largest economic power in the world.

So, we have the Governor and many representatives of the people who are more swayed by Resnick Farms, Westlands Water District, Metropolitan Water, Kern Valley Water Bank. All of these powers have clout because they’re waiting for these water districts to decide whether they’re going to fund Governor Brown’s WaterFix. If the water districts decide not to, then it’s not going to be done. If they decide to do it, then it probably will be done no matter what the population says. In that sense, they’re going to destroy one of the largest estuaries, and nobody’s going to know this for twenty years down the road.

In order to wake people up, our tribe has been trying to bring young people up to the river so they can actually see what a real river looks like when it comes off the mountain, crystal clear—you can see through to the bottom, you can feel it alive, you can taste it—to let them know that this is how rivers used to run all the way to the Delta. Now they don’t because this society, this modernization, has decided that it’s okay to dump everything and anything into the waterways. Whereas the old way was that this water is precious, this water is life, you take care of this water. You don’t go throwing things in there. You pray to this water.

This day and age, hardly anyone prays to the water. Water is a commodity. Water is taken for granted. It’s just here, you know, and the people are taught that once it’s filtered it’s fine, but what we’re trying to do is wake the people up to the realities of what water is.

Doctor Emoto from Japan did some scientific experiments about whether water reacted to people, voices, or sounds, and he proved that it does. Winnemems have been singing to water as its basis of existence, and we continue to do that. Now we’re in a situation where we need the world to be singing to water.

One of the things that we thought when the drought was here—and I believe we’re still in drought—was that drought is our teacher, too, that makes people recognize what they’re dependent upon. We’re not dependent upon a capitalistic society. Our life is dependent upon water, and the more people who can recognize those kinds of issues, the better off we’ll be. I’m not just talking about saving water, turning the tap off when you’re not brushing your teeth, filling your dishwasher full before you run it. All of those things are helpful, but what I’m talking about is that people recognize the significance of those drops of water and start changing their ideas about what they do.

In our area, I see new people moving in, and pretty soon they have a lawn, and pretty soon I see them out on their little ATVs with their sprayers on. They’re putting Roundup everywhere—along the fence line, along their mailboxes, next to the gutter that goes into the stream. At a water meeting, I asked this one lady, you know, I’m trying to do this campaign against Roundup, and she goes “Oh, I use Roundup, but I only use one gallon.” I was like, well, if thirty thousand people bought one gallon of Roundup, that’s thirty thousand gallons of Roundup going into our water system.

Water is not being discovered every day. It’s not like we’ve got a new glacier of water coming out that’s going to fill all these lakes up. There is a finite amount of water, and there is a finite amount that we share of freshwater sea underneath us that encircles the world. People have to think bigger, and I don’t know if they can.

AY: Thank you so much for taking us through these very complex systems in California to help us understand where the water is moving, who owns it, and why it is controlled the way it is. There are so many ways in which water has been de-sanctified.

I’d like now to turn the conversation to salmon. I’ve learned that the centrality of salmon within cultural narratives, traditions, and cosmologies is widespread throughout the Pacific Northwest of Turtle Island. They are a testament to the interconnectedness of all life. They dissolve boundaries between marine freshwater and forest systems and nourish entire webs of organisms. Yet despite their irreplaceable ecological and cultural significance, they’ve suffered from many angles: industrial logging, dam construction, overfishing, warmer waters due to climate change etc. I know you understand this tale intimately, and I was hoping that you could take us through the story of the Chinook salmon of the Winnemem and tell us how their story is unique compared to other populations and genetic lineages of Pacific salmon.

CS: In our lifeway, we believe that when we came out of the mountain, the creator came and said that he had prepared a world out there that needed to be tended. He hoped that all the spirit forms would take their place and take care of things so that it would always be in balance.

So everything went out. Some declared to be the black oak, white oak, blue oak—all the oaks went out. Then the birds went out—hummingbird, eagle, buzzard. They all had jobs to do. Even the little fly, the mosquito, and the beetles—all the bugs and spiders. Then all of the little nocturnal ones that would take care of the night. They all went out. The possums and the skunk. They all went out. Then the ones that were in the water—the otters, the seals, the sea lions. They all went out, too.

After all of the helper beings went out, there was this one little spirit being still left walking around the fire inside that sacred Bulium Phuyuq. Finally, he says, “I’m going to be human,” and he went out the door of the spring and went running down the river. The creator thought to himself, “That one’s going to need a lot of help.” So he called back the fire spirit, the mountain spirit, and the waters and asked them to take care of this little one, to give him advice, to be there, to help him think clearly and straight. Then, the salmon came back and said that spirit being, that human, is going to need a voice, and so we’re going to give up our voice so that they can be able to communicate.

Since that time, Winnemems believe that we have this blessing from salmon, and because of that we should always speak up for salmon. We should always take care of the salmon.

Salmon are a magical fish to us. They’re a spirit being that is always giving. In every stage of life, giving. As eggs, they’re fish bait. As fry, they’re fish food. As adults, they’re food. They only do things in a sacred manner. They only swim upriver to spawn one time, and when they spawn they move rocks around, they turn rocks over, they clean the river the whole way. All of the debris goes down river, and the temperature of the water changes. But when the eggs finally hatch, all of the adult salmon have already died. They’re feeding the bears, the wolves, the trees, the grasses, the insects. They’re still giving.

When the little eggs hatch and become young fry, they swim with all the fish and trout, the turtles and salamanders, everything that’s in the water. Then all of a sudden, they decide—maybe they’re five or six, maybe eight inches long—that it’s time to go south. Who tells them that? Because the trout aren’t going to go. The suckerfish, they’re not going. Nobody’s going, but they start drifting. They start going downstream, and they come into another river, and they still keep going. They come to another river, but they still keep going. When they finally get to the Delta, they realize that it’s saltwater and that they are not saltwater fish. They’re freshwater fish at the time. But instead of saying, “We made a mistake, we better just shimmy on back to our spawning grounds and stay there,” they stay in that estuary until they change into saltwater fish. And when they change into saltwater fish, they swim out into the ocean, and they’re out there for four to seven years. The way fish have been treated, most people would argue that they’re only out there for three or four years, but traditionally they could be out there for eight years.

At a certain point in time, there comes a message to them that says they have to go back to their spawning grounds. So those salmon find the exact same estuary. It can’t be the Trinity estuary. It can’t be the Columbia estuary. It has to be the Sacramento estuary for McCloud River salmon, and they come into the estuary as adults. A long time ago, [there] would be one-hundred-pound adults, but nowadays, it’s said to be big if they’re forty-five pounds.

[When] they come back in, they have to change back into freshwater fish. So the estuary is very important. The Delta smelt, their long-time partners, have been in the estuary for over six thousand years but are almost extinct now. But they’re buddies. They’re the ones who help the salmon transition to be able to go upstream. Even the jaws of the salmon change during that time.

When they’re ready, they start swimming upstream. They bypass all these other tributaries running into the Sacramento River, until they get all the way up to the many little tributaries coming off the McCloud. Some of them are from Hawkins Creek, some of them go all the way up to Big Springs and spawn there.

Then again, once they spawn, they all die, and it starts all over again. That’s why the Winnemem believe that the creator is talking to them—they’re still connected because they only do things one time, and each generation has to have that connection. When the fish stop doing what they were told by the creator, that connection will have been broken, and there won’t be any hope for our water systems.

Right now, our fish that were taken from our rivers swim in New Zealand. We are working very hard to bring them back because we believe they will help bring back balance to the river systems here in California. Not only that, they will change many things in the ocean as they come back into the system. In New Zealand, our fish are still wild, and when we bring them back the water systems will wake up and so will the people.

Shasta Dam

AY: It’s a pretty incredible story of finding your salmon in New Zealand, would you tell us a little bit more about how the salmon end[ed] up there? How did you find out, and what is the process you’re in right now to bring them back, especially as the Winnemem Wintu are considered an unrecognized tribe in California? How is that affecting this whole process?

CS: When Livingston Stone came to our river, a fish biologist from the east coast, he didn’t really know anything about Pacific salmon and didn’t know that they died after spawning. He thought they were like Atlantic salmon, who don’t. The Winnemem Wintu people were very disappointed in this approach that was being taken.

We have to put it in the frame that since gold was discovered, and the first policy of California was to exterminate all the Indians, there was a holocaust happening against all California Indians up and down the state. They were after gold, but there was no gold found on the McCloud.

Livingston Stone and Spencer Baird from the U.S. fisheries chose the McCloud River, because of the number of fish on that river, to build this hatchery. The Winnemem Wintu people, at that time, did a war dance against that event happening. They also knew they could be shot on site for doing that, but they did anyway. Livingston Stone was smart enough to know that he probably needed those Indians to help him with this fish hatchery. So he made some deals with them.

Before those deals were made, the medicine people got together to pray about what was happening to our salmon, what was going to happen to them. They did a ceremony, and we were told that some of those fish are going to go through the ice waterfall of Mount Shasta, and there they will wait for you. We didn’t really know what that meant because at the time there were hundreds of thousands of fish in the river.

[At] about the end of the 1880s/1890s there was a fish crash in the world, so they sent salmon eggs from Baird hatchery around the world, even to Mississippi, but they didn’t survive. They didn’t survive anywhere except in New Zealand. This is the first salmon they had and it took.

In 2000, we heard that they were going to raise Shasta dam again. In 2004, we waged a war dance against the United States who are trying to build this dam higher and flood more of our sacred sites. One of the purposes of the war dance was to tell the world what’s happening here to the Indigenous peoples. We wanted to make sure that we had a voice. Right after that, we heard from New Zealand, and they said that they had our salmon and did we want them back. From that point on, it’s been this process of getting our salmon back. We went there. We danced for the salmon. We have a documentary called Dancing Salmon Home that tells the history and our connection to salmon, and about our new family and friends of the Maori People, Ngai Tahu people, and the ones who are still willing to help us bring our salmon home.

We have a good stance. We’ve done all of the preparatory work, and we actually brought the Maori people and the fish and game person from New Zealand to meet with the Hoopa Tribal Council because they’re the closest federally recognized Indian fishery. We thought we had a deal back in 2009 and 2010, but since then the Bureau of Reclamation has taken charge on building the dam higher. So we’re still working to convince the Bureau of Reclamation that we need our salmon—the real, wild, winter run Chinook from New Zealand—to come back to our river. They want to use hatchery fish. Hatchery fish fill the Sacramento River at this time. There are very, very, very few wild salmon, if any. I believe that the [genetic] bottlenecking of the hatchery projects over the years have pretty much destroyed the salmon systems.

What we’re proposing is that the salmon biologists make way for Traditional Ecological Knowledge and let us lead, while they document the changes. What if the salmon need more than they think? They look at salmon and think they need cold water, food, spawning beds. But what if they need a drum beat on the river? What if they need a fire on the river? What if they need dancers singing on the river? Because that’s how it was in the old day. Fires would be sat on the river because we believe salmon travel at night. They follow the stars, not just the smell of the water. They have sound systems that science has not discovered yet, or they don’t even know how to ask the question.

When people start recognizing the salmon, thinking about them, learning more about them, they’re going to think that they’re a spiritual fish, that they’re miracle fish. They’re the ones who know about this water system. We need to get them back.

We’re going into our second year of Run4Salmon, and we’re going to do four runs because that’s how many runs there used to be of salmon. Four times a year they would come up the river. From Ohlone land, where the salmon swim into the bay, we put down dances and songs all the way up to where they should return.

In this struggle, I hope the Bureau of Land Reclamation starts thinking, maybe, there are other ways of doing things. Maybe the fish biologists only know about hatchery salmon. Maybe they don’t really know about wild salmon. But we still have the stories of wild salmon. We still have the songs of wild salmon. We are still the salmon culture, even though they’ve taken our salmon and our land away by building Shasta Dam. We believe whatever happens to the salmon happens to us. The salmon lost their home on the McCloud River and so did we. When the salmon come home to the McCloud River, then maybe we can come home, too. For right now, our only hope is to do the right thing for the salmon; even if we don’t benefit, we will have fulfilled our obligations for a voice.

Indian rhubarb (Darmera peltata), on the edge of the McCloud River

AY: Thank you so much, Chief Sisk, for going through that deeply moving story with us and explaining how salmon are a life force, in this region especially.

I really resonated with what you’re saying—what if the salmon need our prayers, our songs, our dance, our drumming? There’s a reciprocal relationship, and it’s not just so cut and dry.

I have one more question. I think it’s important to bring up further ways in which colonialization persists in the modern day, not only directly through oppressive relations with government and industry, but also through more insidious matters such as the commodification of spirituality. Mount Shasta is known internationally as a place of tremendous spiritual power, drawing thousands of visitors each year. [There is] an abundance of new age retreats with tours of sacred sites, guided vision quests and meditations, absent of any recognition that the original caretakers of this sacred land are still present, the Winnemem Wintu. It seems that often central to this culturally appropriative spirituality is an emphasis on personal gratification, rather than a living relationship with the land. The way I see it, if you uphold the land as sacred, then you also have a duty to protect and care for it. I’d love to hear your thoughts regarding the consequences of cultural appropriative spirituality, especially in this mecca, this Mount Shasta area.

CS: Toward the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s was this sacred place seeking. The hippies formed and the big search, for whatever they were missing inside their own churches, began. In the 1970s, we entered a lawsuit to defend Mount Shasta against a ski lodge that was proposed to happen very close to, maybe even on top of, our sacred spring. During that lawsuit, we were challenged to prove that was our sacred spring because one of the things that worked against us was that there were no village sites there, there were not any arrowheads there, there was nothing there. We said that there is nothing there because it is such a sacred place that you don’t leave anything there. We stopped them from building that ski lodge right on top of our spring, but the other thing that happened is that we exposed our spring to being sacred. Once that happened in the 1970s, it continued to roll over. People were seeking out the sacred places of the world and people started showing up.

In the 1980s, the government decided that we were no longer a federally recognized Indian tribe, so we are struggling, too. We were once fourteen thousand people along the McCloud River, maybe even more, as our salmon were in the hundreds of thousands along the McCloud River, but are no more. At the turn of the century, there were only 395 Winnemem Wintu people left. My grandparents being those people that came out of the holocaust and outran the bullets or outsmarted those “feasts”—they call them “peace-making feasts”—and we survived. But we were very low in number, and we’re still very low in number. The government doesn’t recognize us as being Indian people, but that doesn’t stop us. They have never been on our side, ever, so we don’t expect them to be doing good things for us now.

Mount Shasta, that we call Bulium Phuyuq—we take care of that mountain. We have the songs. We had languages already here for thousands of years that were the vibration system throughout the trees and the land and the rocks. That was the harmony that kept the hummingbirds and bats and all the living things there in place, too.

Now, because it’s a public recreation area, they say that they’re managing it, but we say, you guys have messed it up severely. There’s not as many bats. There’s not as many birds. No deer hardly ever come to the meadow anymore. No rabbits. You let so many people onto that place that it can’t live. It’s dying. But they don’t see that. Every summer on Mount Shasta they allow at least thirty thousand people to visit, and those people like to bring things with them—like crystals, or rose petals, or coconuts, or tiki dolls, and put it in that sacred spring. This is an artesian spring that is so sensitive, it bubbles up from the ground. It’s not a source that runs off of the mountain. You shouldn’t even get in it, it’s so fragile. But these people don’t know any better I guess, and you can’t tell them. They don’t believe you—“it’s their right,” “it’s their spring, too,” “it’s their religion, too.” They don’t know how to take care of it. They only want it for themselves, not for any other generations coming up. For us, our children can’t even go to this place until they’re at least fifteen or sixteen years old, when their spirit beings are well enough to be there and do the right thing when they’re there.

They think they’re blessing this place by leaving these crystals, or whatever it is. It’s like, you cannot bless the blesser. It doesn’t work that way. This is such a pristine and sacred place. This is not where you stack rocks. This is not where you make medicine wheels. This is not where you tie all colors of tobacco ties in the trees. You don’t leave anything here, but that’s so hard for them to get without getting upset.

Right now, I’m overjoyed that there’s so much snow on the mountain that there’s going to be very few people getting in on the meadow earlier than years in the past. This is a blessing, but I feel that they shouldn’t even open the meadow when it’s like this because the ground is so pristine, so sensitive, so soft. Let the elements take care of themselves. Let it have its time on its own. Let the bees and the birds and the bats and the hummingbirds come in freely without the people right there. But that’s so hard to get across to anybody. They have a right, but they have no responsibility to take care of this in the good way. Every person says, “I’ve only been there once,” but there’s thirty thousand people every year that have been there once.

We’re talking like sixty days that thirty thousand people have tromped over that land and smashed it down. There’s a plight of the recreator, and then people who think it’s religious but spend no time to understand what does that mean. It would be like us going into the Catholic church and saying, “Yeah, I have a sense that this is a religious place, maybe I need to build a fire right here on the floor. I want to smoke it up with my herbs and then I want to mark it out on these walls, you know, in my sacred way, that would be alright, wouldn’t it?” That’s what we’re up against in these places that are so sacred.

I don’t know how people can be taught. It’s a struggle every day, every way you can think of—stopping the busloads. We are fighting against Crystal Geyser right now, that wants to take an unlimited amount of water off the mountain. We’re saying that’s a cultural resource. You can’t do that because if we allow Crystal Geyser to take one hundred thousand acre-feet of water, or one hundred acre-feet of water, everything downstream is going to do without one hundred acre-feet of water that’s needed. There’s not extra water on top of Mount Shasta that the state of California doesn’t need. There’s not extra water to draft it off, contaminate half of it, bottle up the other half, and ship it out of California. This is not the wisest way to deal with a sacred place or the water systems.

We do believe that the water is a sacred being and can come and go as it pleases. It’s one of the most powerful beings there is, and it chooses where to be. They do things on Mount Shasta, maybe it won’t come up anymore, maybe it won’t be there no more, then what are they going do?

AY: Wow, thank you so much, Chief, for this incredible conversation, and I would like to just ask if there’s anything else you’d like to end on as we’re closing this conversation?

CS: Yeah, only the unrecognized issues that exist for tribes in the United States. It’s a discriminatory process meant to keep tribes like mine from being able to protect our sacred places.

People need to remember that we’re from here. We’ve got nowhere else in the world to go to learn to be Winnemems. We have to have our river. We have to have our salmon. It really is not too much to ask to be allowed to do these things and keep these things. It’s a good thing. These things are valuable, in that there is knowledge in what we do and how we do it. When we dance on the river, there are certain things that happen to the river, and to the mountains that hear that drum beat going up and down that river.

The recognition status would be comparable to having a slavery status—where you are invisible, you have no rights, you can’t protect anything. The American Indian Religious Freedoms Act does not help us protect our sacred ceremonies, and neither does the First Amendment. We cannot use either of those. So every time that we do a dance on the river, we are breaking the law because we’re not considered a tribe. Just like we don’t have the right to bring our fish back or sit on the committee to bring our fish back because we’re not a tribe. We don’t have a right to protect our children from being adopted out because we’re not a tribe. None of the laws that protect an Indian tribe’s language, art—you name it, we cannot use them.

So I think that if people recognize the wrongdoing here on the part of the government in the 1980s, maybe things will change. That’s why I work at the United Nations for the unrecognized and unrepresented peoples, because really, we are the unrepresented people in the United States. Nobody represents our issues and our problems in the U.S. government. There’s no place where we have a seat in Congress that represents the issues that we are dealing with. We have to deal directly with prosperity offices, like the Department of the Interior. It’s an unfair situation that we find ourselves in and that the court of law is not with us.

We’re fighting for standing to say we’re the right people on the McCloud River to have the right to protect our sacred places, and that’s just wrong. We need relief. We need to be allowed to be the tribe that we were all this time. We need to be allowed to go back to the river, to have our salmon again and sing our songs. Our songs need to continue. I think that’s probably the bottom line. I say that for my future generations. I have a young Chief that’s coming up, and I would like to leave her in a situation that’s better than what I had to pick up, even though we have way more than many tribes in California have, as far as our traditions, our culture, our medicines, our songs, our dances. In that light, I am thankful that my tribal leaders ahead of me preserved for us.

AY: Thank you again so much, and I just want to lead the audience to your Go Fund Me page for salmon restoration, which is, and also, if you would like to more information, go to to learn about this powerful journey led by Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu tribe. So again, thank you so much for all of your time, your wisdom, and explaining to us these complex dilemmas facing California, Mount Shasta, the salmon, and the Winnemem Wintu people, and our support is with you, Chief. Thank you.

CS: Thank you very much.

Madison Magalski, research director of For The Wild, contributed to the writing and editing of the questions for this interview. 

This transcript was edited down from its original format; the full episode can be found at 

Image credits

Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, standing on her ancestral lands on the shores of the McCloud River where she hopes to restore the tribes endangered Chinook Salmon runs. Image taken in 2012 for Nina Sisk’s Balas Chonas (Coming of Age Ceremony) by Rebecca Greenfield, courtesy of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. Used with permission. 

Shasta Dam, courtesy of Will Doolittle

Indian rhubarb (Darmera peltata), on the edge of the McCloud River” by Schmiebel 

  • Ayana Young

    Ayana Young (she/they) is a lover and protector of wild nature and a podcast/radio host specializing in intersectional environmental and social justice, deep ecology, and land-based restoration. As a Founder and the Executive Director of For The Wild, Young is learning deeply from the critical dialogue shared with over 200 guests on the For The Wild podcast,...
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