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Reintroduction of McCloud River salmon inspires film, tribe

The Winnemem Wintu tribe long survived on salmon runs up the McCloud River in Northern California. But the salmon — and the tribe's original home — were wiped out with the building in 1945 of Shasta Dam.

Now tribal descendents want to bring their salmon home — and it just might be possible, because in the late 1800s, fry of these strong and tasty salmon were shipped to enrich streams all over the world. Somehow, in an ironic twist of history, tribal members were able to find direct descendants of the original McCloud River salmon surviving in only one stream — in New Zealand.

An award-winning documentary recorded the historic flight of 28 members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe who went to dance, sing and do sacred ceremonies with the indigenous Maori tribe as they took salmon fry out of the river, flew them back to California and tearfully released them into the McCloud River.

The hour-long film, “Dancing Salmon Home,” was named best documentary feature film at the American Film Festival in San Francisco, and it was shown Saturday at Ashland’s Community Center, with a talk by Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk and the filmmaker, Will Doolittle of Eugene. They held a fundraising feast to support the tribe’s fight against raising the level of the Shasta Dam.

“The film is about the fish they thought they had lost when the dam was built — and now there’s a push to raise the dam higher. At the same time, they find there’s only one place their fish have successfully propagated, so they flew to New Zealand to be reunited with with it — and made a strong connection with the Maori,” said Doolittle, whose wife is a Winnemem Wintu tribe member.

The film explains native lore, which says that the salmon could speak but humans could not, so the salmon gave their voice, if people would promise to speak for salmon.

The movie shows the two tribes celebrating their ties through the fish, donning elaborate native dress, dancing by a riverside in New Zealand and speaking to the salmon in a language they have shared with the creatures for centuries. They call to the fish, which seem to dance about in the shallow stream then are caught in reed baskets.

Tribe member Marc Franco asked permission of the salmon to talk to them in the way they understand, a wish that was granted, he said in the film.

“We did our little dance and the fish gathered right here,” says Chief Sisk, in the film. “It was a good sign, the right time, everything started happening. Even the U.S. Fisheries understand they have to change to bring salmon back to acceptable numbers.”

The visibly moved Indians spoke of being transported to magical states while dancing. Winnemem Wintu tribe member Jesse Sisk says, “I could really feel it. Everyone was hollering war cries. I felt powerful and light and put my hand to the mountain, praying for salmon: ‘Let them make their way back home.’ My hands were tingling. and they were helping me.”

A weeping Marine Sisk said the salmon had become family and it was hard to release them in the river. “I thought about my mom, brothers, cousins, people who never got to see them come up the river.”

Chief Sisk called for Mother Earth to be put back in balance and for all tribal peoples around the world to join in “bringing back the heart of the warrior.”

She said the Winnemem Wintu people have a new family they love and care for in the Ngai Tahu, Waitaha and Ngati Mamoe tribes of the Maori. The New Zealanders, she adds, have helped us complete the foundation by dancing for our family and reconnecting the young people with that relative (salmon) that’s in our blood.”

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Correction: The spelling of the Northern California tribe's name has been corrected throughout this story.

Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk speaks in a promotional short for Will Doolittle's upcoming feature documentary 'Dancing Salmon Home.' Image Courtesy of 'Dancing Salmon Home'
'Dancing Salmon Home' was the winner of the Best Documentary Feature award at the 2012 American Indian Film Festival. Image courtesy of 'Dancing Salmon Home'