Calling the Salmon Home
Under clear blue skys and balmy weather Greg and I set out on a drive from the Bay Area this Saturday, October 8th, to visit and support the traditional “Calling Home the Salmon” ceremony of the Tsi Akim Maidu, the people indigenous to that area. After a three hour drive we arrived at Sycamore Ranch Park on Highway 20, roughly twelve miles east of Marysville, California, at about eleven to join the folks awaiting the return of the fishermen carrying the symbolic first salmon of the season.
The opening ceremony was actually at sunrise when those participating in the fishing were blessed and sent on their way. Preparation by the participants actually started well before this however, as a call went out early in the year for spirit runners to apply. These applicants followed a strict preparation schedule. They fasted for 48 hours prior to the day of the ceremony and were blessed and prepared for this journey in a special, closed ritual. While both men and women were eligible to apply, and such specially prepared people were allowed to touch the salmon and help carry it back to the camp, women in their moon were not allowed to touch the salmon.
The Spirit Runners 2011
There were also support runners who accompanied the spirit runners though they did not carry or touch the fish. The fish itself was carried in a fish weir especially constructed in the traditional manner.
They went down the Yuba River where the salmon were be running, obtained their fish and then ran back to the camp site. We entered the ritual and festival site as they were running up the path and checked in for the opening words from elders, city councilmen and other dignitaries. Then the hunters arrived and visiting Maori gave the welcome song and prayer. Yuba river wet lands near ceremony site
The salmon that had offered itself up in continuation of the covenant between the Salmon People and the Maidu, was smudged and shown the directions then carried with all respect to a table where it was ritually butchered. It was then laid out on a plank and carried, along with the ceremonial sacred space, to the river where the fins, skin and other inedible parts were offered up to the river in thanks and the steaks were spitted among the coals of a fire set on the shore. As that was being done the circle was opened to any who wished to sacrifice to the fire and be smudged. The ceremonial leader reminded us that once again this year we were fortunate and the runners blessed in that the runners had arrived safely with the salmon and that it had not been taken by bears…or cars or trucks.
I spoke with the Maori elder from New Zeland who had led the welcoming prayer, I asked him what his blessing had said. He told me that it was a blessing of the sun, without which none of us could exist and under which we were all equal. He went on to say that all blessings came from the Sun and that all we had to do to receive them was open ourselves to the wonderment that it offered.
Many other tribes where represented there among whom where Navajo, Hopi, Sioux, Cheyenne, and Polynesian people all offering support on this very important day, In a press release on this event the event coordinators offered this press release:
...long time Native American political activists John Trudell and Russell Means will join local Tsi Akim Maidu tribal members and native leaders at the 12th annual Indigenous Peoples Days. They and Q’ero healers from Peru, Maori of New Zealand, and Hopi of Arizona will gather with native and non native people to focus on ‘healing soul wounds’, learn about local native history, and honor native language and culture through ceremony, discussion circles, traditional music and dance…
This event is held every year in conjunction with Indigenous People’s Day (which is the renaming of Columbus Day) on the nearest week end.
This ceremony and others like it point out a major problem with California and its profound lack of long term planing, in ecological issues such as the damming of its rivers. A few years ago Greg and I stood on the banks of the Feather River below a control damn and watched as literally thousands of salmon bashed uselessly against the foot of the damn until they died of exhaustion. I called the Department of Fish and Game and asked what they were doing about it. They assured me that, while they had not prepared for it, there would be no long term ill effects and they were gathering as many as possible to milk for reproduction. I was told that I was being alarmist and that this happened about every seven years or so. Today they don’t come up the river at all. I was sick then and I cry now to think of such waste. Last year there was a total moratorium on all salmon fishing off the coast of California. The entire salmon population of all California rivers had crashed to near extinction levels. Calling the salmon home for me is more than support for an indigenous people’s tradition, its personal.
she welcomes any danger as delight—
a mystery, a pleasure in her strength
that carries through exhilarating length—
a journey unimaginably bright.
the salmon hatches in a limpid stream,
remembers every smell en route to sea.
she plumbs the starry ocean deep & free.
the archetype of following a dream,
she overcomes all obstacles to swim
her river’s bends & rapids to the place
where she began. she brings the ocean night
to teach the inland day. the needled limbs
of conifers grow strong in her embrace.
she feeds the people her abundant light.
Rachael Watcher & Greg Harder reporting – PNC Bay Area