My Year as the AICAD-NOAA National Artist Fellow

Steph Littlebird
11 min readMay 20, 2021

My name is Steph Littlebird Fogel, I am a member of the Grand Ronde Confederated Tribes of Oregon and a descendant of the Kalapuyan and Chinook people. In my professional life, I wear many hats including artist, writer, public speaker, and curator. Much of my work centers around contemporary Indigenous culture and the unique issues that our communities face, including impacts from climate change and social justice.

Last year, amid the onset of the pandemic I also started a year-long collaborative fellowship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and scientists in their California Central Valley Office located in Sacramento, California. The goal of my work as a national fellow would be to create public art that raised awareness about salmon and their presence on the northern California landscape. The fellowship provided me the opportunity to collaborate with scientists in order to produce images that encapsulated their concerns while also educating citizens about the looming extinction of California’s winter-run Chinook Salmon and ongoing declines of spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead.

Sacramento River in Redding, CA (Photo: S. Littlebird)

Initially, my fellowship was supposed to be in-person, spent in the field with NOAA scientists, learning about the rivers and streams in California's Central Valley and the unique challenges that Chinook salmon face here. Many Californians aren’t even aware that salmon and steelhead (scientists collectively call them salmonids) occur in their state, let alone used to occupy high elevation streams in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains where huge dams now block their migration. These high mountain streams and rivers offer the last best refuge for salmon and steelhead in the Central Valley in the advent of ever-warming conditions impacted by drought and accelerated by climate change. Salmonids should be above the Shasta dam and should be freely swimming upstream towards places like the McCloud waterfalls. Even more are not aware that the winter-run Chinook are listed as “endangered” and are rapidly approaching the edge of extinction.

In March of 2020, I began meeting with NOAA scientists Stacie Smith and Jon Ambrose remotely each week to get up to speed on the specific problems that the vast network of dams in California poses for thriving fish populations. I also learned a lot about various private and corporate interest groups that are opposed to specific measures that scientists believe are critical to ensure the conservation and recovery of these species which are listed under both the Federal and California Endangered Species Acts.

In the summer of 2020, I set out on a “self-guided” tour of the upper Sacramento and Yuba River watersheds, so that I could begin to understand the landscape better and see the problems that dams were causing to fish populations with my own eyes. Over the course of about four weeks, I visited many rivers above and below the dams to get a sense of ecological differences. The ultimate goal of this trip was to familiarize myself with the landscape so I could make authentic artwork in response to these specific issues.

McCloud River, Near Middle Falls. (Photo: S. Littlebird)
image of McCloud Lake, near McCloud, California
McCloud Lake, Near McCloud, CA. (Photo: S. Littlebird)

Dams are a historically contentious topic in California, with nearly 1,500 dams across the state, the landscape has been forever changed. One of the most troubling changes caused by dams is higher water temperatures which can kill cold water species such as salmon and steelhead. For example, the water flowing into the largest dam in the state, Shasta dam, is cold due to its proximity to the mountain snow and cold water springs that flow into Shasta reservoir. Once the water is in the reservoir it heats up and below Shasta Dam, river water is much warmer than it should be. Warmer water means Salmon are less likely to successfully spawn, and warmer waters lead to dwindling salmon populations. “While salmon eggs can develop at lower temperatures, warmer water impedes growth. If water temperature exceeds the range by a few degrees or more, it can kill the eggs even before they have a chance to hatch.” (PBS). During the drought of 2014 and 2015, the water from Shasta Dam was so warm that it killed between 95–98 percent of all the salmon eggs.

Shasta Dam, Redding, CA. (Photo: S. Littlebird)

Farming in the desert

California’s agriculture industry uses 80% of all water in the state, and most farmers are opposed to letting more water through the dams because it means less water for their crops. In fact, many of them are arguing to raise dams, as water temperatures continue to rise and destroy Salmon habitat. Winter-run Chinook need very cold waters to spawn, that is why they swim all the way from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, north to places like the McCloud river which is fed directly by Mt. Shasta’s melting snow.

Coming from Oregon, things are quite different. Our farmers do not rely on dam water the same way California farmers do. Oregon has enough rainfall that massive reserves of dam water are not needed to feed our crops. For comparison, Oregon farmers use only a few inches of dam water a year to maintain their fields because there’s so much rain, whereas California farmers need hundreds of inches of water each year because there isn’t enough rain to cover their consumption.

While I explored Northern California’s waterways, I was simultaneously reading a book recommended by one of the scientists. Jon suggested that I get a copy of Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by author Marc Reisner. The book gives a history of California’s first water barons, the faulty science, and outright greed that went into justifying the construction of a thousand-plus dams across the state. The book was written in 1993, yet it seems even more relevant now as you drive across the Golden State and see dry river beds and historically low water levels, not to mention all the wildfires which are made worse by the fact that California’s water tables have been drained to supply vast networks of monoculture farms and cities like Los Angeles. The science was clear in 1993, but the evidence of this ecological catastrophe is far more evident as you look upon the land today.

Wildfire-burned trees in Redding, CA (Photo: S. Littlebird)

What is Salmon Culture?

I am a descendant of the Clatsop Chinook people of Oregon, the Chinook consider themselves relatives of the Salmon, and therefore we are their protectors or stewards. Living in Oregon my entire life, I was surrounded by Salmon culture. Oregon has a lengthy history of eco-activism, and the state’s approach to saving Salmon populations has been wide-ranging and far more aggressive than California. Oregon has a Salmon culture, citizens are generally aware of their significance in the landscape. I would describe it as a certain reverence that people in the state have for them that is very different from California. This includes what approach each state government has taken to save them from extinction.

Part of my work during my fellowship was to design a logo for the “Reintroduction Network” which consists of a group of Tribal groups, non-profit organizations, and private interests that are working to restore the Chinook salmon populations above Shasta dam. Through this specific project, I learned that there are many approaches to restoring Salmon populations, one of them is dam removal. Dam removal is obviously something that invites a lot of debate, and many folks are opposed to their removal outright. To work around this, there is also something called “trap and haul” where fish are captured below the dam and moved via truck to waters above the dam, so they can get to their ancestral spawning grounds.

Reintroduction Network Logo

In Oregon, we’ve taken multiple approaches to save wild Salmon populations, including “trap and haul” but in California, there was a push by non-profit organizations to stop this approach, including the public campaign “Fish Don’t Drive.” Sadly, this campaign cast doubts on the efficacy of a common fish passage technique simply because some people are opposed to the notion of salmon being transported to their historical habitats through human intervention. Nearly a decade later, Chinook populations continue to decline, due to the debate over what approach is “right.”

What’s interesting about the argument against trap and haul is that it’s not a new concept. The Winnemem Wintu tribe, whose traditional homelands include the McCloud river at the base of Mt. Shasta, have stories about their ancestors carrying the Chinook in baskets up the McCloud waterfalls, so they could reach their ancestral spawning grounds at higher elevations, the Winnemem Wintu tribe even refers to the winter-Run Chinook as “mountain climbers”.

In California, many people don’t realize that Salmon are native to those mountain environments, or that Salmon are a keystone species. Salmon are a bellwether for the overall health of an ecosystem. In simpler terms — if the Salmon are sick, so is everything else. Salmon are an integral part of multiple food chains and their bodies contribute essential nutrients to the water and surrounding earth and trees as they move from the ocean to the river each year.

After identifying this key difference between Oregon’s salmon culture and California; Jon, Stacie, and I decided to create a series of watershed-specific “Salmon County” signs. Each sign features the body of a salmon with the landscape of their ancestral spawning waters. We created signs for the Yuba River, the Sacramento, Merced, and McCloud, each showing the unique physical characteristics of that specific river.

Welcome to Salmon Country, McCloud River Signage

The idea behind these signs was to create an emotional connection between the viewer, the land, and the Salmon. Ultimately, if we want people to care about their environment, we have to make them understand that their personal health and wellbeing is tied to the land and its non-human inhabitants. We are in fact, inextricably linked.

I believe that making a “heart connection” while talking about ecological conservation is imperative when engaging with the broader public. It is not a scientific journal or an unintelligible graph that will make people care, it’s the personal connections we make to our own lives which engage us directly and is more likely to have a lasting impact on our collective thoughts and behaviors.

Salmon Sticker design featuring Mt. Shasta and Sacramento River Landscape

A big part of my work while collaborating with NOAA was making those who aren’t familiar with art, understand the value of visual communication and emotional connection through that framework. As I explained to a group of NOAA employees during a lecture recently: science has a reputation problem, and if you want people to care about your work, it needs to connect with their lives directly, they need to see how an issue impacts their own lives. This is where art comes in.

How Art Can Help Science Make More Impact

As I mentioned, science has a reputation problem right now. When almost half of the country doesn’t trust the information that science is telling them, it’s an indication that a change in approach is needed. What I discovered while working with folks at NOAA was that they see science as “logic” and art as something else. However, science tells us that humans actually prefer to take in visual information, not written. Our brains are actually more likely to process and retain written information when it is paired with an image.

Now, when I say “art” it doesn’t have to be high-concept or abstract, it can literally be a diagram. What I learned while working with Jon and Stacie was, scientists rely on programs like PowerPoint to create visual aids for their work quite often. As an artist, PowerPoint is not the first program I’d recommend to anyone trying to communicate visually (and in fact, it may be the last tool I would ever suggest), but I understand that some things are born from necessity.

Below you can see an example of another one of our collaborations. During this project, I was given a preexisting diagram that scientists were using to talk about the Salmon and their struggles to spawn. Together, Jon, Stacie, and I worked to create a more visually appealing representation of this problem and to include landmarks that are California-specific, so readers would know exactly what landscape they were looking at.

Original Powerpoint-created Diagram
Updated Diagram, Collaboratively Designed

Updating diagrams to be more visually appealing is what I call “low hanging fruit.” Because diagrams are a common way that scientists encapsulate complex ideas, making them more visually appealing is the fastest way to get readers to understand.

As my Fellowship officially comes to an end, I asked my NOAA collaborators Jon and Stacie to reflect on their time with me. Jon explained how “our collaboration helped in a variety of ways — and one that’s critically important and that’s to distill our message and help make it accessible to the general public. Working with Steph challenged me to think in different ways by trying to minimize the science side and emphasize the emotional connection to our highly endangered species. This is the only way to connect with the public whose support is so critical to give these species a chance.”

Stacie reflected on her experience and said “working with Steph provided me with the opportunity to distill complicated scientific information into beautiful works of art that hopefully will allow people to more tangibly engage with California Central Valley salmon recovery needs. NOAA regulatory authorities under the Endangered Species Act don’t empower or inspire the public in the same way that her art does. Steph’s art will be a critical part in future communication for Central Valley recovery efforts to the public and even within the scientific community. “

The last year has been life-changing for many of us, some of those changes have been more difficult than others. But, in the chaos of the pandemic, three very different people from three different backgrounds came together in collaboration and taught each other truly tangible skills and new pathways for thinking. The AICAD-NOAA Fellowship has taught me just what I am capable of, and helped me to further develop myself as an interdisciplinary collaborator. I believe that the best ideas come from a dynamic approach, being adaptable and a team player can lead to outcomes one couldn’t necessarily achieve on their own.

If you want to learn more about the AICAD-NOAA Fellowship click here to read more.



Steph Littlebird

Indigenous writer and artist-curator from Portland living in Las Vegas. Check out my my visual work on Instagram @artnerdforever