Editor’s note: I’d like to express deep gratitude to Niria Alicia, Xicana Indígena activist, for granting Ofrenda permission to share the following interview with you. The interview was recorded in 2018 by Gavin Van Horn—my partner, who is a writer, scholar of earth-centered spiritual traditions, and, recently, a co-editor of books with Indigenous writer and botanist Robin Kimmerer. He is a person who holds deep respect for Indigenous lifeways and ceremony. The interview is about and was recorded during the Run4Salmon, a prayer journey initiated by Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu, whose ancestral lands are around and currently covered by Lake Shasta in northern California. As you’ll hear Niria Alicia describe, Caleen tapped her to help organize this important ceremony that calls attention to the sacredness of water, salmon, and Indigenous lifeways.
While the interview took place a few years ago, the words and wisdom Niria Alicia shares with Gavin—about water, salmon, Indigenous lifeways, sacred matriarchy and patriarchy—are as relevant as ever, and the Run4Salmon continues as an annual prayer journey. The first section of this piece is Gavin’s introduction to the context of the interview and the Run4Salmon. The second section is a transcript of the recorded interview.
I encourage you to listen, if possible, to at least some of the recording so that you may hear in the background noise the beautiful energy of all of the people involved in this prayer journey. I also invite you to listen to Niria Alicia’s other contribution to this issue, “Enraizada,” her offerings of ceremony through song.
—Marcy Carbajal, Ed.
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.
[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.
Gavin: Last night in the ceremony, Caleen kind of hinted, I'm getting older and I need the next generation to step up. I look at you and obviously see the next generation. I wonder if you could speak to that? Being a younger person, leading now at the front of this line as we walk—what does that mean to you? What has that meant to you as you think about the trajectory of your own path?
Niria Alicia: I'm in my twenties, you know, and I really have no other option but to do this work at this time, because I'm looking at not having a future. I'm looking at my nieces and nephews not having a future. Our life is at stake. The existence of the human race is at stake. There's nothing else I should be doing right now or could be doing right now with my life. Then, following Indigenous women leaders who have been doing this work already and who have so much experience and wisdom—the work that my generation will need to continue once they transition into spirit world. So it means a lot to me to have the honor and privilege of being in service to these incredible women, and I'm just an elder-in-training, just learning how to be strong from some of the strongest women that I know, because it's going to require a lot of strength with what our generation is going to experience in the next decades. You know, Creator's will be done before mine, if I'm granted a longer life. I'm just in preparation, listening, following orders, and learning what it takes—the spiritual strength, the physical, mental, emotional strength that it takes—to gather so many people together around a prayer.
Gavin: You mentioned women, and this has been a women-led walk. What's the significance of that?
Niria Alicia: I mean, we've seen toxic patriarchy, and I want to say toxic patriarchy and toxic masculinity, because I also understand and know in my heart that there is such a thing as sacred patriarchy and sacred masculinity. Right now, this toxic patriarchal system that has built this colonial capitalistic world, where folks have forgotten what it means to care for one another; they've forgotten what it means to gather around sacred things. It’s important for young Indigenous women to rise up and reclaim our rightful place on this planet and help guide our communities, our children. Help guide some of our men to also step back into their role as our sacred protectors and warriors. It's time for the sacred feminine to rise up now and heal Mother Earth. And it's important because, as women, we have a different connection to this world. We are connected through our wombs to the waters. We are connected to the land. I mean, we are the portals of creation through which men come, through which women come. So we are that portal. Right now, there's so much desecration that it's the creatrixes that need to come forward and recreate and heal and support that process in a good way, because we've seen toxic masculinity and patriarchy lead us down a really scary path. We're trying to steer towards the right direction.
Gavin: So you're holding a salmon in your hands [referring to the carved wooden salmon that is carried on the entire Run4Salmon journey].
Niria Alicia: This salmon staff has been with us since year one. It's helped lead us and remind us of why we're doing this. The salmon has also gone to Aotearoa New Zealand where Chief Caleen and the Winnemem Wintu tribe went this summer to collect DNA samples of their ancestral salmon. We can bring those salmon back to these rivers. It's a really sacred, special staff. It knows the waters of the Rakaia River. It knows the salmon that are on that side of the world that we're trying to bring back here because, as you know, those salmon weren't native there, they were taken there. And now that they were taken from our rivers here, from these watersheds to the Rakaia River, they put the dam up and now there's no salmon runs that go up all the way to the Winnemem Wintu's river. So it's really powerful. It's a big honor to hold it. Everybody hopefully is going to get a chance to hold it. We're really hoping that the children will get a chance to hold it and just be with it and feel that prayer. You know, this has been held for three years, and it's kept a lot of us strong during this two-week journey.
Gavin: What would you say to those who aren't indigenous to this continent? How can they—
Niria Alicia: We all have a sacred responsibility to Mother Earth, whether you're native, whether you're—everything, you know, it doesn't matter who you are, what you are, or whatever racial category. I mean, that's a social construct that has caused a lot of pain for other folks who aren't—who don't have white skin. We need to remember what it means to be human, what it means to protect that which gives us life. So anyone who isn't tribal or native: know your ancestors, know your story, know your positionality and your position in this world. Some folks have a position through systems that have been put in our society—[they] have been positioned to have greater access to power. So know that and be aware of that, and be mindful that it's time to dissolve those systems so that we can all come together as a human family. Not knowing your indigenous roots is not an excuse to not stand up for others right in this moment. It's going to take everybody. It's not just an Indigenous problem, it's everyone's problem.
*Follow-up interview between Niria Alicia and Marcy Carbajal, conducted by phone in May 2021.
Photo credits: Gavin Van Horn
*Follow-up interview between Niria Alicia and Marcy Carbajal, conducted by phone in May 2021.
Photo credits: Gavin Van Horn
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Thank you. Gracias. Tlazocamati.