What Happens to the Salmon


"What happens to the salmon happens to us."

Winnemem Wintu Chief Calleen Sisk's words have been ringing in my heart for months. The beauty of that - to be so inextricably tied to a being, and to honor and celebrate that connection. Even just hearing her say it.

"What happens to the salmon happens to us."

The motto washes through my body as water breaking down a dam – powerful, exhilarating, momentous. Bringing fierce hope and sonorous grief at once. The phrase resonates with the truth I hold in my soul – that the relationships we maintain with Earth through our bodies are the root of duty, justice, love, joy, and belonging.

Photo by  Drew Farwell  on  Unsplash

Photo by Drew Farwell on Unsplash

Of course we are all inextricably bound with Earth. But as an approach to life, the mindset is hard to come by today, and nearly impossible to fully embody. Our economy, our culture, is built upon the certainty that someone suffers for you to gain. It is no surprise that life and justice fall away when we do not bow to our benefactors, and worse yet when we forget their names.

Remembering their names, their true names, doesn’t happen by reading, or memorizing Latin binomials. It may not even include reaching their geographical location. The map that charts how to build life-honoring relationship with Earth courses through our tissues and is drawn with imaginative power.

Photo by  Louis Maniquet  on  Unsplash

At a workshop recently the instructor invited the participants to share our names and what watershed we lived within. Many, myself included, had no idea. The same goes for most folks when it comes to the original people of the land they inhabit, the names or growth patterns of food plants, and the lifecycles of the animals they consume. This bewilderment is even more pronounced when it comes to the beings who do not bear our direct dependence or engage our sense of entertainment.

As we disengage from what sustains us and build buildings over ecosystems, we enfeeble our capacities of sensing. At one time people could, and exceptional contemporary trackers still do, detect the faintest sign of an animal passing - a bent blade of grass, a far off musk, a feeling, in the body, of the truth.  Cultures could see characters in the constellations so vividly as to dream entire mythologies from their outlines. Some people could even hear the stars singing. Today most don’t even notice the moon rise and set.  This is an abandonment of our humanness, an unplugging from our unparalleled gift – that of awareness.

Photo by  Nathan Anderson  on  Unsplash

Another of our uniquely human capacities is the ability to imaginatively inhabit the lives of others. Our development relied on this skill. To learn to hunt, we imagined ourselves as wolf, coyote, mountain lion. We entered the mind and fear of duck, dear, rabbit. We honored those beings with our deep and focused attention, and this attention engendered cultural inventions that revered the more-than-human world, and humbled us before it. Those cultural inventions have been raped, assimilated, or wrenched out of land-based people over the course of history, with most folks having no memory of those life-sustaining ways. As Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it

For many, any sense of emotional or spiritual connection with a landscape has been lost, without even knowing what is missing. We feel ourselves on the outside looking in, at a vibrant web of reciprocal exchanges from which we have excluded ourselves and called it progress.
— Robin Wall Kimmerer

Indeed, the position of separation from, and the disregard of other beings, is necessary for the development of an industrial growth society. If we can imagine what it might be like to smell water, asking the unmistakable aroma of home to diffuse in our blood. If we can imagine turning instinctively toward that knowing, heading upstream. If we can feel our determined body navigating to our distinctive place, swimming through waves of nausea as our scales slough off on the rocks. If we can rejoice in spawning and the gift of our death. If we can know in our bones what it is to be salmon, if we can experience the epic and arduous journey, it is not so easy to enslave them, alter their life ways, or fish them to near extinction. Indeed it is hard to withhold elaborate celebrations on their behalf.

Photo by  Diana Simumpande  on  Unsplash

I’m in disbelief even as I write this. Embodying a fish?!

I was as surprised as any of you would be when I felt salmon swimming in my blood. My ancestors weren’t salmon people, at least not of my knowing. And when it happened I was in the desert for goodness sake! But there was a river.

I hoisted myself between two boulders, drew a deep breath, and plunged headfirst upstream. The river was only knee deep, but the force incredible!  Lacking gills, I broke the surface to breathe, then plunged again. And again. And again. My arms ached from holding me in place. Just from holding me in place! And my belly ached, from the deep, soulful laughter.

Two nights before I had danced as the salmon, but possessed rather than pretending. Racing heart, determined, I swam round and round the circle, running, countering the force of the ocean. Drums beating, rattles rattling, the hooting of humans inhabited by who knows who – the trance dance, an ancient invitation to Mystery. I imagine there were other dancers but I felt alone, one thought only – home. By the time I made it, my throat tingling warning of vomit, I collapsed, ragged, empty, dead, returned at last to my spawning ground.

These experiences lead me to believe that it may be more than a simple allegiance between the Winnemem and the salmon, rather a visceral inseparability. They say, “We are born from the water, we are of the water.”

Photo by  Jon Flobrant  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Our capacity to experience life as others and to witness the wonder of others is the basis of our moral development and our integrity as a member of the democracy of species. When we forget the true nature, the splendor, and the generosity of other beings, when we forget how that feels in our own bodies, sea lice infestation among farmed salmon is unavoidable and annoying, rather than a symptom of our betrayal of the world.

Unspeakable things become commonplace – pipelines through water, malls built on burial grounds. We forget that Earth is our larger body, not our servant or trash pile. With the state of global ecosystems at the hands of people, it is not hard to see that also, what happens to humans happens to salmon. As of now the trend is toward domestication, destruction, and insularity. We’ve strayed from our wild sensory humanness and hold other beings captive, isolating them from their true nature. Together we suffer.

Photo by  Ramin Khatibi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ramin Khatibi on Unsplash

The rites and dances performed for the salmon, for the rain, used to be widespread, and it was believed those ceremonies were instrumental in the bringing of water, of abundant harvest. Earth-based ceremony and ritual kept us tied to the cycle of life, to the witnessing and celebrating of other beings on whom we rely. Colonialism dismissed those notions as pagan fantasy.

As California winters go by dry, plastic grows faster than fish in the ocean, and land falls into the sea, it is becoming increasingly clear that those rituals were not just wishful thinking. A deep relationship with the beings on whom our lives are built is crucial to the survival and health of people and planet. The more-than-human world needs us to show up in our whole humanness. We must remember the pathways to connection and reciprocity; we must reignite our capacity for sensing and imagining. We must remember how to smell the water.

That we’ve forgotten, with most having forgotten that we’ve forgotten, is a great wound of colonialism. It has created a world in which we feel alone, in which we are stranded from the animal, from the landscape, that makes up our identity and needs us to survive. Which humans needed the passenger pigeon and now languish, dead inside, soul journey extinct? How are the chaparral people living, while the wild bushes breathe without their human hearts?

Colonialism’s wounds are still fresh in (and continue to be inflicted upon) the lives of native peoples, whose stories and ways of being survive, no matter how tarnished. I am so grateful that they remember, and for their fearless defense of Earth throughout time.

Most settlers have totally forgotten that somewhere on this planet there is a being that needs them, on whom they depend, that swims through their blood, or slinks under their skin. In a time when a single life may traverse continents, when ties to a specific plot of land is so rare and so privileged, I’m imagining, perhaps, a metaphorical being, a relationship with whom this wound of separation between our creative sensual selves and Earth can be healed. Or maybe it is the songbird in your backyard, or the wheat plant. May the relationships build a future where our bones speak, saying, “what happens to the salmon happens to us.”

Photo by  Bruno Perrin  on  Unsplash

Photo by Bruno Perrin on Unsplash

There is a wild river somewhere smelling of home for each of us. We won’t remember the scent unless we look deep within ourselves and out through our imaginative animal senses, until we listen to the salmon and welcome them back to our bodies.

To join the movement to welcome the salmon home, contribute to Run 4 Salmon, the campaign organized by Chief Sisk and the Winnemem Wintu tribe of the McCloud River watershed.