As the traditional chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, I represent an unbroken line of tribal leadership that has survived the California Indian genocide, the Indian boarding schools and the construction of Shasta Dam, which flooded our river and left us homeless.
I’m writing to express our tribe’s dismay at Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement that he plans to veto Senate Bill 1. The bill would ensure that the federal Central Valley Project complies with state environmental law no matter what the Trump administration does to undermine endangered species protection.
Vetoing this bill will green-light President Trump’s plan to divert even more water from our struggling rivers for industrial agriculture. Many well-respected fish biologists and environmentalists have concluded Trump’s attempt to ignore the best science and rewrite the rules will essentially be an “extinction plan” for Chinook salmon and other threatened fish.
Earlier this year, we, like many other tribal people in California, felt gratitude when Gov. Newsom apologized for the genocide that California waged against Indians. He issued an executive order to create the Truth and Healing Commission.
But if the governor vetoes SB 1, he will continue that history of genocide.
When California’s first governor spoke about a “war of extermination” against California Indians, decimating our fisheries and food supplies was one of the methods settlers employed to destroy us.
They burned down our acorn stores. They fenced off our gathering areas. Railroad construction and hydraulic mining devastated the salmon runs on our ancestral watershed, the McCloud River. Several decades later the construction of Shasta Dam and the Bureau of Reclamation’s failure to create a fish passage blocked our salmon from ever returning home.
It’s not a coincidence that as the salmon populations have plummeted, so too have our numbers from an estimated 14,000 on the McCloud River around the time of contact to less than 125 today.
It didn’t have to be this way. When the Winnemem Wintu cared for our river using our traditional ecological knowledge, the salmon runs were so thick you could walk across the river on their backs.
We sang for the salmon. We danced for the salmon. Our sacred fires along the river guided the salmon home. When, after nearly 70 years, we discovered that the genetic descendants of our salmon now swim in the rivers of New Zealand, after being exported there as eggs in the early 20th century, we traveled across the Pacific to sing and dance for them once more.
Our connection to our sacred relatives remains strong, and we’ve worked tirelessly for almost a decade to collaborate with state and federal agencies to return our salmon to the McCloud River. Federal scientists have concluded that Chinook salmon must reach the glacial waters above Shasta Dam, like the McCloud River, in order to avoid extinction as the Sacramento River will continue to warm as climate change intensifies. A federal court order requires that such a restoration plan be enacted.
However, Trump’s plan for California water would eliminate the requirement that federal agencies explore developing a fish passage around Shasta Dam, in violation of the federal court order. It would also reduce or eliminate many protections for salmon from the old plan, which was hardly effective to begin with.
Trump’s policies to destroy the salmon will also destroy us. They are a modern iteration of the “depredation and prejudicial policies” of genocide that Gov. Newsom pledged to remedy. For the sake of the salmon, for the sake of my people and for the sake of the people of California, Gov. Newsom must sign SB 1.