Introduction, by Gavin Van Horn
In September 2018, I participated in the Run4Salmon, a prayer journey that follows the winter-run Chinook salmon’s former migration route to their ancestral spawning grounds, from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (near the San Francisco Bay), through the Sacramento River valley, to what is now Lake Shasta.
I first learned about the Run4Salmon earlier that year, when I heard the chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, Caleen Sisk, speak at an event. (You can watch a video of Sisk’s talk here.) The Winnemem Wintu are a tribe in northern California with a culture deeply tied to salmon and the waters of the Winnemem Waywacket (McCloud River). When the Shasta Dam was built in the 1930s and 40s, the Winnemem Wintu’s sacred lands were covered by water, and the salmon, whom they know as relatives, have been unable to return to their home waters. The only living genetic descendants of these salmon are now in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Sisk’s powerful message about the daunting obstacles that salmon and her people face grabbed me and would not let go. At the time, proposals for further raising Shasta Dam were being bandied about by the Trump administration, a move that would have submerged additional sacred sites and created yet another setback for the salmon and all who depend upon them. Sisk proposed “singing the salmon home” by organizing a prayerful journey that mirrored the salmon’s traditional migration route. By following the migration route of the salmon on this annual pilgrimage, Sisk and other Indigenous women leaders are raising awareness about the health of the watershed and reaffirming Indigenous lifeways, ultimately seeking the means to return the salmon to their ancestral river.
I felt compelled to participate in the walking portion of this prayer journey, trekking the first 28 miles of the route over the course of two days. The experience was both educational and soulful, a chance to focus upon the way that healthy people and healthy waters go hand-in-hand. On the walk, two young Indigenous women, Niria Alicia and Desirae Harp, were a notable presence, leading the organizing, offering encouraging reflections, and beautifully singing songs that reminded us that this journey was a ceremony—and is ceremony. I caught up with Niria, a dynamic and articulate Xicana Indígena activist, during one of the early pauses in the walk. While other people milled about, refilled water bottles, played with children, and socialized, I was able to record the moment and ask what this journey meant to her.
You’ll hear in Niria’s words what became evident to me during the walk: Run4Salmon is about the cultural, spiritual, and political importance of salmon to the Winnemem Wintu—but it is also so much more. In a follow-up conversation to this interview,* Niria emphasized that we are all connected to the waters of the Sacramento River valley through the food system, since so much of the world’s produce is grown on these lands. As many of the group’s banners and bumper stickers put it: Water Is Life. How water is or isn’t honored determines whether or not we persist. Turning toward the river and recognizing its beating heart draws attention to the health of the long-abused and colonized waters of central and northern California, as well as waters everywhere. Honoring the migratory route of the salmon also symbolically honors human migration and the experience of those migrating for health, safety, and life.
Issues about the Sacramento River watershed are fraught and complex—and the healing that needs to occur is magnificently difficult—yet I drew encouragement and inspiration from those with whom I travelled, who sang songs and “laid down prayers” with their feet. As Chief Sisk would frequently say, it’s a journey done “in a good way.” We can keep putting one foot in front of the other. We can keep singing. Until the salmon come home. With committed leaders such as Niria, the song grows stronger.
Interview with Niria Alicia
[The following transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.]
Gavin: So how did you first find out about the Run4Salmon?
Niria Alicia: I first came to find out about the Run4Salmon when Chief Caleen Sisk reached out to me, as soon as this prayer had come in through the smokehouse. I met Caleen when I was an undergraduate student organizer on campus, and I had organized this conference—
Gavin: Which campus?
Niria Alicia: University of Oregon. Some of the elders [were people] I grew up with while I was in college. And so they reached out to me, and Caleen invited me to come be a part of this and to support with the organizing of the first prayer run. We didn't really know what it was. We just knew that there was this really strong prayer that had come in and needed to be set down at this time. And so we began in 2016—that winter, January, February—that whole year, we began organizing and just spreading the word about this prayer and the importance of coming together to make it happen. It was no small undertaking. I mean, this is 300 miles. It takes us two weeks to do it. But a lot of good people said yes, and they showed up. We didn't have funding. We don't have any of that. Now we have a little more financial support, but it was just people coming together, putting together whatever they can.
Gavin: This is your third year doing it. What has it come to mean to you over this time? I mean, has it changed over the course of that time and doing this?
Niria Alicia: I think this prayer is simple. The intention of this prayer is to bring people together around what's truly important. I think in this time, us as a species, as a human species, we're forgetting what it means to be human. A lot of us have forgotten. So this prayer is set down to call in those people to remember our sacred responsibility to Mother Earth. For these 300 miles, we pray for the waters. We pray for the restoration of salmon runs that are endangered, and we pray for the revitalization of Indigenous lifeways because with everything that we're facing—with ecological collapse, climate chaos, and all of the bad things that are happening to our communities right now—it's important for us to remember what's important and what's sacred. That's what this run does. This run brings a lot of good people together from different organizations, different tribes, different nationalities, everything. All that aside, we're here to pray for the same thing that keeps us and gives us life, which is these waters and these waterways.
Gavin: A lot of people think of prayer as something a person does on their knees inside. How is this a different form of prayer? I think that’s a powerful way of framing this journey.
Niria Alicia: This is an invitation for us to pray with our life and to pray with the way, with every decision that we make, with every step that we make—you know? It's time for us to bring that medicine back to the world. I think that a lot of times, we do have these ideas that prayer can only happen in the temple. That prayer can only happen when you're on your knees or on Sundays. And we can't do that anymore. We have to pray every single day. I mean, what's happening right now to Mother Earth and to our communities is really scary. We're looking at, in 50 years, in 20 years, about 200 million people being displaced as a result of climate change. So this is an invitation for us to reconnect with our spirits, to pray, and to come and receive that strength, that spiritual nourishment that we need to go back out into the world and push for those changes out there as well. And bring this medicine, this prayer, out to the people who are making the decisions, out to the politicians, out to all the different folks who have political power and grassroots power. We can all come together and protect what gives us life.