color photograph of the Shasta Dam in California from a distance
REDDING, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 5: In this aerial view the Shasta Lake, California's largest water reservoir feeding the Sacramento River, is at 30% capacity and at historically low levels, impacting hydroelectric power, tourism, and agriculture as viewed under slightly smoky conditions on Aug. 5, 2021, near Redding, California. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

California continues to experience the most severe drought on record—less snowpack in the Sierras, longer wildfire seasons, and increased days of extreme heat. How to manage the state’s water, long dubbed a resource for commercial and public use, is a deeply political discussion shaped in service of agribusiness interests, as most water is directed toward the Central Valley: agriculture consumes four times as much water as California residents living in urban areas. Industrial agriculture accounts for the vast majority of that water consumption. 

A longstanding, on-again-off-again proposal to store water for dry years would raise the Shasta Dam, which sits along the Sacramento River in Northern California, by 18.5 feet. Already the eighth tallest dam in the U.S. at over 600 feet, the existing structure and its proposed addition are responsible for the endangerment of the Winnemem Wintu people and the decimation of California’s once naturally operating and self-sustaining complex ecosystem. Though the state of California has put the plan on hold for now, the governor supports dam projects and artificial water storage, and politicians friendly to the agribusiness industry continue to tout their desire for the project.

But arguments for industrialized water containment, which contributes to drought and other consequences of colonialism, ignore the need for a healthy water system honored by the land’s original stewards. The McCloud River and the salmon that run through it are integral to the Winnemem Wintu people. According to oral history and the tribe’s creation story, the Winnemem Wintu people emerged from the base of Mount Shasta. For centuries, salmon have spawned in the Sacramento River and its tributaries, providing a life force and sustenance. Winnemem Wintu prophecy says, “When there are no salmon, there will be no people.” Before contact with settler-colonizers, and long before the construction of the Shasta Dam, Winnemem Wintu population numbered 14,000. Now, there are 150.

The struggle of the Winnemem Wintu people—for survival, respect, humanity—is the subject of a new podcast series produced by KALW’s “The Spiritual Edge.” “A Prayer for Salmon,” a documentary series hosted by the podcast, allows listeners to hear directly from Winnemem Wintu peoples, to understand what has already been lost, and potentially, what can be gained if the dam project is halted altogether. Prism spoke with Indigenous writer, scholar, and musician Lyla June Johnston, who co-hosts “A Prayer for Salmon,” by phone in early February. 

Prism reached out to the California Bureau of Reclamation for comment about the Shasta Dam project but received no response.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ray Levy Uyeda: You wrote your undergraduate thesis at Stanford University in 2012. When did your relationship with the Winnemem Wintu people begin, and how did you build the trust needed to work so closely and within the tribal nation?

Johnston: At Stanford, there was a community-based research fellowship that prioritized the needs and research agendas of the communities themselves. I joined that fellowship, and I approached the Winnemem Wintu nation with the proposal to perform research that could clarify and document their relationship with the McCloud River Basin. And they said yes. I think you can still do unbiased research and also honor the needs of the community at the same time. And that’s what I set out to do.

I think that being a Native researcher who has had to protect my own sacred sites as a Diné woman definitely helped them understand that they could trust me. All of the data was returned to the tribe. All of the raw interviews were given to the tribe, and all of the quotes that they provided were given to the tribe for review before publication to honor their agency within the research process.

Levy Uyeda: Your research helped document over 30 spiritual, cultural, and significant sites of the Winnemem Wintu people. These sites are what is left visible or observable after the 1945 Shasta Dam completion, which decimated 90% of Winnemem Wintu ancestral lands. Could you talk about what has been lost, if it’s possible to put words to that, and what kind of pressure is then put on these remaining sites to hold the history that has been lost?

Johnston: When we think of an endangered species, we don’t think to ourselves, “Oh, there’s only a few left. They don’t matter. Let’s just destroy the last bit of their habitat.” On the contrary, we say, “Wow, this species is hanging on by a thread. Let’s augment all the support we can for them and ensure that their habitat is expanded, if anything.”

America has repeatedly made the mistake of devaluing these extraordinarily important cultures and languages that have the power to save us from the failing of our own systems today. So protecting what little Winnemem people have left is absolutely critical work because it protects the very worldviews that can bring us out of this hole. Indigenous peoples are estimated to protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. They have innovative governance structures that could inform our failing political systems. They have important linguistic codes that can restore social harmony within an extremely polarized world. And perhaps most of all, they have refined the science of abundance through sophisticated land management techniques that could rescue us from the current collapse of our food systems. It’s absolutely critical that we protect what little they have left.

Levy Uyeda: Patrick Wolfe wrote that “settler [colonial] … invasion is a structure not an event.” You’ve written about the cycles and structure of violence—could you explain how a dam or the abuse of water can be a kind of violence, and how violence is not only done at a single time?

Johnston: We know through epigenetics that the previous traumas of our ancestors can influence our behavior today. European Americans have an extraordinarily vast amount of trauma that they are carrying from Europe, where they endured about 2,000 years of open warfare. They endured the burning of countless women as witches. They endured Roman colonization. They endured the Inquisition, and they endured the dehumanization of any Indigenous European cultures that were close to the land as “savage,” or “primitive.” So the scarcity and hoarding and profit maximization mentality that colonial society brought to this land is that structure of fear that in turn generates structures of violence.

The Lakota word for European American means “he who takes the fat”; they found it strange that any human would want to take the very best for themselves because in our cultures, that was considered to be a form of mental illness. It was more normal in our cultures to want to give the best away and to put others before yourself. 

The dam raise is a symptom of a deeper issue, which is the “he who takes the fat” mentality, driven by entities like Westlands Water District, which are all about profit and all about the commodification of water to feed agricultural systems that are also all about profit and taking the fat. It’s true that colonization is not an event, it’s a structure, and it’s true that this structure was brought over here by a very traumatized people who didn’t know if they would have what they needed the next day. The goal was to amass as much wealth as possible and to hoard because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow, because you live in a constant state of war. We have to have compassion and understanding for these European American cultures because they’re coming from extreme trauma. We have to help them understand that this is a world of abundance and that this can be a world of peace if we all just calm down and stop acting out of fear.

Levy Uyeda: Even though there is a documented history and an oral history of Winnemem Wintu people living on and stewarding the land colonized by the Shasta Dam, their legal claim to the land is hampered in part because the tribe was not afforded tribal recognition by the U.S. federal government. Could you talk about some of the methods of land defense and water protection that are available to the Winnemem Wintu people?

Johnston: They actually were afforded federal recognition status, and then it was revoked during what we call the termination era, where many nations were taken off the rosters. One could argue that the reason for this was precisely to limit Native nations’ ability to protect their homelands legally and to limit the sphere of influence they had in their homelands; there was no other good explanation for why these nations were taken off the rosters. 

One explanation for the Winnemem Wintu is that there was a clerical error on behalf of the U.S. when they were being registered as a nation. Because of that error, they had to revoke their tribal status. But as Chief Caleen Sisk has said, “OK, that’s your problem, not ours. That’s your mistake, not ours. Why are we suffering the consequences?” One could argue that there was more of a power play to revoke. Another tribe, the Klamath, when their tribal status was revoked, lost 1.8 million acres to the federal government. (Editorial note: this land loss compounded the loss of about 20 million acres that went to the federal government in a 1864 treaty.) One could argue it was a thinly veiled land grab—once the Klamath nation was reinstated and received recognition, the federal government never gave them the land back. 

This is the kind of bullying that the U.S. has done for centuries that we want to reverse because we no longer want to be a part of this legacy. It’s a very exciting time. The Winnemem Wintu have been trying to protect Panther Meadows and Genesis Spring at the base of Mount Shasta and have more ability to say who can go there and when because it’s the ancient Winnemem church. That would be like taking St. Peter’s Basilica away from Roman Catholics and turning it into a park and never consulting the Pope. I know that they’ve been working on protecting the delta where their river meets the ocean in the San Francisco Bay area because they understand that it’s a holistic system, and if they want to have salmon in the headwaters of the McCloud, they have to have a clean entryway in the Bay Area.

This network of sacred sites, of course, is something they’ve been trying to protect for a long time, which spans all the way from Mount Shasta down south of Redding, California. They’ve also engaged in supporting other tribes, such as the Ohlone, to protect the shellmounds. I’ve heard Chief Sisk say that in the old days, the Winnemem would have responsibility from the McCloud all the way to the Bay and had political obligations to protect that whole area and to be in alliance with the nations up and down the Sacramento River. So, they’re just continuing their ancient obligations.

Levy Uyeda: You have said that the most important question of our time is, “how do we return to self, and how do we return home to who we are?” I’m wondering if this struggle that the Winnemem Wintu people is engaged in—the survival of a people and of a culture, as well as the survival of the land, of California, and of an ancient water system—is related and if the returning to self helps you understand these struggles?

Johnston: What my PhD dissertation was trying to elucidate is that humanity has an ecological role, and the earth actually needs us to step into that role, which I believe is our true self. That role is manifested, for example, by expanding clam habitat in the Pacific Northwest by building 6,000-year-old intertidal rock walls. That role is expressed through the grass burning moon of the Midwest nations’ lunar calendars that taught them to burn the grasses every September to open seed pods and open up meadows for grazing animals. That ecological role is expressed by the Native nations in Amazonia who create these vast fertile soil systems called terra preta, enabling so much of the Amazon rainforest to exist as it as we know it. 

There are different levels of returning to self. One is returning to our fundamental human role as gardeners of the land and supporters of life; the other is returning to our more unique self within our particular cultures, to remember our own unique indigeneity whether we are Welsh or Karen from Thailand or Gunditjmara from southern Australia or San from Africa or Mapuche from South America or Diné from the Southwest. We all have our unique thread of indigeneity that we need to connect to and bring out and protect. 

Then there’s the most specific form of returning yourself, which is simply self-love and honoring your very specific journey, what you have been through in this life and the traumas that you uniquely, individually have experienced that have disconnected you from yourself or created self-hatred or self-loathing or self-guilt, [in order] to heal. I think there’s at least three big levels: personal return to self, cultural return to self, and a fundamental return to our own humanity as a species. I think the Winnemem Wintu struggle to just be who they are and fulfill their ecological role is connected to all three of those levels.

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.