Indigenous Peoples Days on the Yuba River

Jason Rainey

International Rivers has a presence throughout the world, yet we were founded in Berkeley, California, which remains the address of our main office. Berkeley has quite a reputation: hosting the preeminent public university in the US, serving as the flashpoint for a wide array of social, economic and ecological movements in the US, and for going to great lengths to situate itself as an “international” city. As one story goes, the Berkeley City Council sent a representative to a conference in Ecuador attended by indigenous groups who were meeting to prepare a counter-point for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the Americas. As a result, in 1992 the Berkeley City Council became the first municipality in the United States to declare October 12 as “A Day of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples.” As a college student in California at that time, I recall that news shaking loose some notions I held about the ownership of history. Here’s one personal story of how that’s come full-circle 20 years later.

On the cusp of the new Millennium, some 120 miles upstream from the San Francisco Bay in the Yuba River Watershed, a band of native Californians know as the Tsi-Akim Maidu Tribe – "delisted" and "unrecognized" by the State and Federal governments – seized the Columbus Day date to organize a gathering in commemoration of a localized Indigenous Peoples Day. As I’ve come to understand from the Tribal Chairman Don Ryberg, the gatherings began as an open-hearted way to assert that Maidu people are indeed still here on this land, still speaking the language of this place, and still – despite the trauma of their history – inviting people of all backgrounds to come together in healing work for each other, for the water, and for all the relatives that share this place on the planet.

This past weekend I participated in the 14th Annual Indigenous Peoples Days weekend hosted by the Tsi-Akim Maidu – a four-day event that I’m sure is now among the largest gatherings of its kind in California (if not the Western US), and which consistently draws Indigenous leaders from throughout North America and from as far as Hawai’i, Aotearoa and the Andes.  While I wasn’t directly involved in the earliest years, I've participated in the last half of this string of gatherings – a seven-year run.

It was the River, and more specifically Salmon, that first brought me together with the Maidu and Indigenous Peoples Days. In 2006, I had recently returned to my home watershed to lead SYRCL (pronounced “circle”), a community organization with a long history of successfully stopping new dam proposals for the Yuba River, which had evolved to advocate for salmon restoration, dam decommissioning, and a citizen-driven and scientific approach to river monitoring and restoration. Devoting myself to place-based work on behalf of my home river, it quickly became apparent that a precondition for any meaningful, long-view approach to watershed restoration required authentic engagement with the first peoples of the river, the land, and the resource base. It requires people to get rooted to place, and oriented to their life-giving rivers. And sometimes looking to the past can help us position ourselves for the future.

In the experience of the Yuba River – ground zero of California's Goldrush that kicked off in 1849 – we can look back 163 years and recognize that Salmon – and the river-to-ocean ecosystem that supported their bounty – were the prominent fuel source and organizing element for societies residing on this part of Planet Earth for millennia. And the people recognized that they had a partnership – an agreement with the Salmon People – to take care of the river for the finned ones and for their own sustenance. So taking this cue, I sought out indigenous leadership in hopes of learning more about how to define a healthy watershed and to advance a holistic approach to restore the salmon of the Yuba. (Note: Chinook salmon runs once numbered 100,000 to 200,000 adult fish returning annually to the Yuba River watershed before Statehood in 1850; dams, diversions and other impacts have reduced this remnant population to several thousand returning adult salmon, now trapped below Englebright Dam. This structure is owned by the People of the United States under the management of the US Army Corps of Engineers, which was recently mandated to develop a solution for passing salmon upstream and downstream of the dam site by 2020).

I was honored to be part of the story of the founding of the Maidu Calling Back the Salmon ceremony, which is chronicled elsewhere, and to integrate indigenous perspectives into a 21st Century Assessment of the Yuba River Watershed. 

And this past weekend, it was a delight to return to the Yuba for Indigenous Peoples Days and to once again play a role as a "spirit runner" of the ceremonial and sacrificial “first salmon.” Once again, the ceremony and weekend brought together several hundred people of all backgrounds and served as a potent reminder of the insights to be gained from waking in ceremony and song as the sun rises on the river, acknowledging ancestors and their wisdom, and making intentional sacrifices – however small or large – to be living at least for a moment in reciprocity with river-dwellers. And, to recognize that working together in ACTION is the balm that truly brings diverse people together toward defining our common future.

This experience and these insights are among the many gifts offered by the Tsi-Akim Maidu in hosting such an annual gathering. When I first met members of the Maidu, their language was down to three remaining fluent speakers. Several years ago, one of those native speakers, Ferrell Cunningham, began teaching the language to anyone interested. His Maidu Language Class has expanded to include a Maidu Theater Group, and it was a profound experience to hear the Grass Valley Veteran’s Hall filled with the chorus of about 30 people singing in the language of the place – an original Maidu song “Solim Wene Bisim” (roughly translated as “Medicine Dwelling Place”) which opened up the weekend this past Friday night. I’ll close these Field Notes with the English translation of some of the (salmon inspired?) lyrics, and an invitation to River People throughout the world to take actions wherever and whenever you can to deepen and broaden our movement for rivers and all those who depend upon them:

Self-created fear is now bringing forth wisdom
This land I am leaving (in order to) return
Stone is my bones
The river is my blood

Dance, dance, dance – Circle to the top of the mountain
Remembering our relatives

There are many pathways, let us dance
We are the land’s children
If we make the world better
The world will be better.

* translation from the song Solim "Wene Bisim", 2012 by Bodhi Busick and Ferrell Cunningham.