Globally, Indigenous peoples protect 80 percent of the earth’s biodiversity on the lands they’ve maintained for centuries, despite being only 5 percent of the world’s population. And when Indigenous peoples have sovereignty over their lands — that is, the ability to own and care for land in accordance with their traditions and desires — everyone benefits.
No one understands that dynamic more than the Winnemem Wintu tribe.
The tribe, which is located in the Shasta Cascade region of Northern California, has been fighting for almost a decade to reintroduce their sacred salmon, the winter-run Chinook, to the McCloud River. For millennia, the tribe ensured the safe travel of the Chinook upstream to colder waters, so the fish could reproduce. They’d light fires at night along the river, as well as physically carry fish in baskets on foot if there were obstacles along the way.
Then came the Shasta Dam. Up until the 1930s, many Winnemem Wintu lived on the lands surrounding the McCloud River without legally owning it. Congress passed the Central Valley Project Indian Lands Acquisition Act to take whatever allotment lands tribal members owned in advance of the dam’s construction. The plan was to flood the immediate area to create a reservoir with the waters of the upper Sacramento, Pit, and McCloud Rivers. Tribal members were displaced, and hundreds of ancestral Winnemem Wintu villages, sacred sites, and burial grounds now sit underwater at the bottom of the reservoir.
The dam also blocked the salmon from being able to return to their spawning grounds, leading their population to decline. Climate change, the dam, and proposed changes to nearby estuaries now pose further threats to the endangered fish.
The tribe’s lack of federal recognition prevents it from having the same protections other nations do. As such, the Winnemem Wintu’s opportunities to return to unaffected portions of their land — now considered public lands or private property held by non-Indigenous peoples — are limited.
But today, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day no less, the tribe purchased 1,080 acres of their ancestral lands. More than $2 million in private donations were used to fund the sale. What was left over, as well as separate grant funding, will support the construction of an eco-village, which will marry Indigenous living traditions with future-forward land management practices.
It’s a win not only for the tribe, but for the Indigenous-led land back movement as a whole. (Colonization dispossessed millions of Indigenous peoples from their lands globally, leading to stark disparities in income and health. The movement aims to get ancestral lands back in Indigenous hands.)
“Having the land back is really what is needed for tribes to reestablish their ways and to bring them back into their collective tribalism,” said Chief Caleen Sisk. “A lot of prayer and good-hearted people helped us to get there. But I wouldn’t have imagined that we could have ever done that.”
How the Winnemem Wintu plan to use their newly returned lands
Prior to today’s sale, the Winnemem Wintu tribe had only 42 remaining acres of private property in Redding, California. That land was previously purchased by Chief Sisk’s great-aunt, who was chief at the time. Six miles away from the river, it was spared from the floods from the creation of the dam. It stayed with the family and now houses approximately 30 of the tribe’s 126 members in trailer homes.
In the US, land typically is divided into different types of property, with what can legally be done to a property depending on its classification. These restrictions — in addition to the high price of acreage — pose roadblocks for many Indigenous communities. More often than not, some traditional practices, such as burning a ceremonial fire within a small enclosed space, are considered illegal on standard residential properties.
“There’s zoning laws that we don’t fit into,” said biologist Marine Sisk, daughter of Chief Caleen Sisk. “If we want to live as a community without dividing the land into separate parcels — where it’s all one property with multiple houses on it — just getting the permits, the zoning, everything has been a stop in the road ever since we started looking into getting land back.”
But land back hasn’t always been the tribe’s main initiative. The tribe dedicated themselves in 2016 to restoring the winter-run Chinook salmon population through a 300-mile prayer journey, working on new passage plans for the fish that avoid the dam, and collaborating with the Maori peoples and biologists of New Zealand, home to the genetic descendants of the Chinook salmon. In May 2022, the Winnemem Wintu signed a co-stewardship agreement with NOAA Fisheries to scale up their efforts. The tribe also deposited 40,000 eggs in the McCloud River from California state hatcheries last year.
The Winnemem Wintu also started Sawalmem, a nonprofit with church status, to accept the land purchase so that they can have more flexibility with their land use. (The tribe, since it’s not federally recognized, can’t buy land in a trust — hence the use of an entity, such as a corporation or church, to make purchases on its behalf.) The hope is to protect the region’s flora and fauna, as well as their sacred sites.
“Our purpose is to restore the land the way it’s supposed to be, which means control burns, native plants, all the waterways totally restored,” said Michael Preston, the executive director of Sawalmem and son of Chief Caleen Sisk. “And just make it an example of what the land is supposed to look like.”
With Sawalmem’s church status, the tribe can also now move forward on building sustainable, affordable housing and infrastructure for its members. Solar power and water runoff systems are key features to help reduce living costs for the tribe, said Marine Sisk.
“We don’t want to make it to where it’s impossible for people to live,” she added. “A lot of Indigenous communities don’t really have access to clean water or good foods, or are very poor. Health care is in decline. Just being able to live in a sustainable home can help with all the things we struggle with now. You’re not living paycheck to paycheck. You’re living to actually live.”
The hope for land back
As my colleague Benji Jones reported back in 2021, the environmental and biodiversity contributions Indigenous peoples make often go overlooked. The historic beginnings of the modern conservation movement in the 19th century touted that nature starts out untouched by humans, which put early efforts such as national parks in contention with Indigenous land practices. But traditional ecological knowledge indicates that Indigenous peoples intervened and managed forests, jungles, and other forms of wilderness.
It’s apt that the tribe now will have parts of their ancestral lands, just as the Chinook salmon return. Ecologically, as the salmon return with the management from the Winnemem Wintu, black bears, deer, and black spiders will return in greater numbers to the river.
“We’re working so hard to bring them back here, to their original waters and home, to give them their land back,” Marine Sisk said. “It’s going to bring all of these animals that’ve been struggling to survive in a world without salmon. Salmon don’t just feed — they clean the rivers. We’ll be bringing a whole ecosystem back to health.”
The Winnemem Wintu’s land back success is just one of many across the globe. In Southern California, the Esselen tribe purchased 1,200 acres back from a ranch in 2020. The United Methodist Church gave back tribal lands to the Wyandotte Nation in Ohio back in 2019. And Brazil’s Supreme Court blocked agribusiness efforts to strip back Indigenous land rights in September.
The benefits of Indigenous land ownership extend far beyond the environment. Indigenous peoples suffer from higher mortality rates, chronic diseases, and poverty. Indigenous sovereignty gives tribes and nations the choice to ensure their own ways of life survive, while also prioritizing better outcomes for community members. Cleaner air and water, for one, can help fight climate change, sure. It can also help fight against the health disparities Indigenous people suffer from due to the long-lasting consequences of colonialism.
The Winnemem Wintu’s recent land acquisition gives the tribe a brighter future, Chief Caleen Sisk argued. Because “not everybody can be an expert in everything,” she said, “the more people you have in a village structure, the better you’re able to hang on to your culture and traditions: You have your fishermen, the hunters, the basket weavers, herbal people. You need people to have that kind of knowledge.”
With more financial security and the freedom to pursue their traditional beliefs, the Winnemem Wintu’s numbers — and thus the salmon’s — will only grow.
“What do you think that we should do? Give up? Just put down all of our traditions and our culture?” Chief Caleen Sisk asked. “No.”
Correction, October 9, 2 pm ET: A previous version of this story misidentified Chief Caleen Sisk’s great-aunt as her grandmother.