Did you read the article in the Times this weekend about the Winneman Wintu, the native American tribe from northern California who are traveling to New Zealand to apologize to salmon? If not, do. Here’s this:
“As the Winnemem see it, the tribe’s troubles began in early 1940s, with the completion of the Shasta Dam, which blocked the Sacramento River and cut off the lower McCloud River, obstructing seasonal salmon runs, and according to the tribe, breaking a covenant with the fish.
‘We’re going to atone for allowing them to build that dam,’ said Mark Franco, the tribe’s headman. ‘We should have fought harder.'”
So a batch of eggs from the McCloud were shipped to New Zealand years ago, and the fish have thrived there. So Franco, his wife, Caleen Sisk-Franco, who is the chief, and the rest of the Winneman Wintu are hoping to meet up with indigenous Maoris on the banks of South Island’s Rakaai River later this week and perform a ceremonial dance-the “nur chonas winyupus,” or “middle water salmon dance”-that has not been performed in 60 years. They also hope to get permission to take some chinook eggs home with them to restock the lower McCloud.
Now, while I won’t win any awards for ceremonial dancing, I do have some experience with public displays of atonement, and so can offer the Winneman Wintu a few suggestions.
1) Get right to the point. Say what you’re apologizing for right off the bat: “Dear chinook salmon, we’re sorry for allowing the construction of the Shasta Dam. We know how much that sucked for you.”
2) Take responsibility: “Sure, we’re a small, and dwindling tribe. And far from wealthy-we would have shipped this huge-ass drum we’re carrying, but FedEx wanted $600 bucks for it. And the U.S. government’s been screwing us over since 1852, when they refused to give us a measly 35-acre reservation along the McCloud. But, really, it’s our fault the dam was built. We should have fought as hard as we did in 2004, when we stopped the expansion of the dam with a four-day war dance.”
3) Admit to maybe drinking and drugging too much back at the time of the infraction. It doesn’t have to be some heavy, ninth-step type deal. But, you know, everyone’s worn a lampshade on their head at some point. I know how you guys do in California.
4) Employ a wistful, gauzy tone and lean heavily on easy-to-relate-to nostalgia. And be open with your emotions to the point of sappiness. Cheap tricks, sure. But everybody goes for that Wonder Years crap, even salmon.
5) Work in as many cultural references as you can. Rock songs, sitcoms, era-specific fashion trends. For the same reason.
6) Don’t be too proud to beg: “Please come home, our darling chinook. We miss you. We need you.” Also-and don’t get me wrong, the traditional garb is fine, with the beads and the tassels and the eagle feathers-but remember, you’re putting on a show! Don’t be too proud to wear a shiny pink tuxedo jacket and a polka-dot scarf. And a little eye-shadow never hurt.