A long journey home

California tribe wants to bring back salmon from New Zealand

  • The hongi, a traditional Maori greeting.

    Marc Dadigan
  • Volunteers gather sand from the banks of the Rakaia River Gorge for use in the dancing area.

    Marc Dadigan
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    Dancing at the "middle water salmon ceremony."

    Marc Dadigan
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    Winnemem Wintu's spiritual leader and chief, Caleen Sisk-Franco, blows tobacco smoke into the air during the salmon ceremony, while a dancer looks on.

    Marc Dadigan
  • Winnemem Wintu dancer Jamie Ward during the tribe's H'up Chonas, or war dance.

    Marc Dadigan
  • The Winnemem dancers wear deer toes that click and clack as they move.

    Marc Dadigan
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    The carved figure of a Maori ancestor at the meetinghouse.

    Marc Dadigan
  • Winnemem visit the Rakaia River to see their salmon, gone for more than 70 years.

    Marc Dadigan
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    A salmon statue near the Rakaia River.

    Marc Dadigan


On a sun-splattered March afternoon, a drumbeat thundered through New Zealand's Rakaia Gorge. Layers of beads and abalone shells shook around Rick Wilson's neck as he wove his way through a row of dancers representing spawning salmon. As the salmon spirit, Wilson -- the dance captain for the Winnemem Wintu -- an unrecognized tribe of 123 from Redding, Calif., moved to a group of warriors stomping by the fire. He touched their shoulders as he passed, a sign of an apology accepted.

The ceremony, performed this spring for the first time in 70 years, was part of an effort to restore the California tribe's spiritual connection to salmon, severed when Shasta Dam was completed during World War II. In the Winnemem's creation story, salmon gave the people its voice. In return, they promised to protect the fish. But when the dam flooded the tribe's village and cut off salmon runs in the nearby McCloud River, the covenant was broken.

But not necessarily for good. In 2005, the Winnemem made a surprising discovery: Salmon eggs and milt exported from a McCloud hatchery about a century ago had spawned a stable sport and commercial fishery on New Zealand's Rakaia River. The tribe began hatching an unorthodox plan to bring their salmon home.

"We felt if we didn't do it now we might run out of time," says the tribe's spiritual leader and chief, Caleen Sisk-Franco.

Salmon runs are genetically distinct from one another and thoroughly adapted to their spawning grounds. No one knows whether California's  McCloud salmon died out or bred with other runs after the dam went up. So simply repopulating the river with salmon from nearby rivers wasn't an ideal option for the Winnemem.

New Zealand biologists and the tribe are convinced, however, that Rakaia salmon are direct descendents of the McCloud run, and the Winnemem plan to build a hatchery on the river to rear fry hatched from that stock. To move salmon around the dam, the tribe has proposed extending natural creeks to connect the Sacramento River, which runs to the ocean, to the dam's reservoir. Spawning salmon swimming up the creeks from the Sacramento would spill out near the mouth of the McCloud and likely find their way home, following scents they knew as fry.

Some hoops remain to be swum through, though: State and federal officials want to verify the fish's genetic origins and do a thorough study of the genetic and behavioral changes it's undergone adapting to the Rakaia's short run and small estuary. Biologists are also concerned that hatchery fish could compete or interbreed with fragile wild populations.

Whether Rakaia salmon -- which are smaller and spawn earlier than their ancestors -- will even be able to survive in the McCloud is also uncertain. It isn't the same river they left behind. In some seasons, its flow is a fifth of what it once was, owing to hydroelectric-plant diversions -- too low to support spawning salmon. The plant is now up for relicensing, and the tribe is among many groups jockeying over the terms of the new permit.

Despite the challenges, Sisk-Franco dreams of the day when the salmon will come home.

"When that dam went up, it left a hole in our lives," she says. "It would mean a whole lot to us to see salmon spawning in our river again."