Fire is a necessary part of California ecosystems; we should follow Indigenous cultural fire practices for healthier, abundant forests and to reverse more than a century of damage.
It was a California Summer. I was working in a plant nursery tucked into the Cascade Mountain Range—blue mountains in the distance and rivers and creeks to splash in.
Diana Almendariz checking on the deergrass during our workshop at the Tending and Gathering Garden. (Photo courtesy of Diana Almendariz)
How homelands become wilderness<p>The general public mourns for the "wilderness" burnt in large wildfires, but wilderness is a social construct.</p><p>Wilderness is actually a stolen, once carefully tended, homeland. The beautiful, and conveniently bountiful landscapes that colonizers encountered on their first journeys to California were not a coincidence. The concept of wilderness was created by settlers who made themselves innocent of murder and theft by claiming the land was empty, wild, unused or improperly used by Native people. </p><p>As a descendent of Tutunaku and Mexica people, I know too well that our homelands were innovatively crafted to support our communities and were places that nourished us and our cultures in every sense of the word. However, the abundance that we created using science, sustainable economic practices, culture, and labor became the stolen wealth of settler nations across the Americas. When settlers stole the land, the wealth they stole included our relatives: the land, water, and wildlife.</p><h3><em><a href="https://www.ehn.org/agents-of-change-in-environmental-health-justice-2641248263.html" target="_self">This essay is part of "Agents of Change" — see the full series</a></em></h3><p>Now, as I live as a guest on California Native lands, it is even more clear to me that Native people are brilliant land stewards. <a href="https://ecologicalprocesses.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/2192-1709-2-17" target="_blank">California Native people work</a> meticulously to manage forests, shrublands, fisheries and other wildlife. The land that colonizers encountered was abundant because Native people looked to the future and built an environment that was sustaining and life giving.<br></p><p>Fire is a prime example of this ingenuity. While the diverse California Native cultures use fire for different purposes, cultural fire practitioners around the state have used low intensity, controlled fire to reduce pests in acorns (a key traditional food staple), stimulate regeneration of native plants, reduce invasive species, increase water use efficiency, create habitat for wildlife, and improve the quality of basketry material. </p><p>These benefits of cultural fire stewardship have been documented by Native people as well as researchers. In the midst of catastrophic uncontrolled fires, climate change, and traditional food shortages, cultural fire has the potential to increase the health of Native communities by protecting healthy traditional foods such as acorn, salmon, and huckleberries. Access to <a href="https://pages.uoregon.edu/norgaard/pdf/Effects-Altered-Diet-Karuk-Norgaard-2005.pdf" target="_blank">traditional foods</a> is crucial in communities that are food deserts and where rates of diabetes and heart disease can be three times the national average. </p><p>Many people still depend on the land to provide their daily meals. Fire is considered a spiritual obligation and a responsibility to retain culture in the form of foods, ceremony, and environment. Fire stewardship is a gift of health to future generations. </p>
Ron Goode (Chairman, North Fork Mono Tribe) and author Deniss Martinez laugh about a good joke on a cultural burn of redbud and sourberry. (Credit: Zack Emerson)
A century of warnings<p>It is increasingly urgent that Native people should have a voice in California fire stewardship as large catastrophic fires are already wreaking havoc on our lives. <a href="https://calmatters.org/explainers/californias-worsening-wildfires-explained/" target="_blank">The climate crisis</a> will worsen an already difficult situation by extending hot and dry seasons and increasing tree mortality via extended drought. </p><p>The challenge that wildfire and climate change pose collectively seems insurmountable at times. However, another benefit of Native people's constant caretaking is a reduction of fuel. In this case fuel means the dead and dry material that litters our forest floors. </p><p>This material coupled with overcrowded forests increases wildfire hazard. The federal and state government's fire suppression policies instituted a command and control mentality that outlawed the necessary low intensity fires required to reduce the amounts of dead plant material that could become fuel for the large wildfires of today.</p><p>Native people in California knew this and were outspoken about it from the beginning. Klamath River Jack, a Native man living in the Klamath basin, tried to educate settlers as early as 1916 in a letter written to the California Fish and Game Commission and published in the local paper in Requa, California, which is a part of traditional Yurok homelands. In it he implores them to recognize that Native fire management practices reduced fuels for large wildfires, reduced pests on acorns, and increased the food available for deer and elk by increasing new sprouts and keeping grasslands desirable. </p><p>His plea was ignored and mocked by a local forest ranger. Since Klamath River Jack's letter, many Native people in the Klamath basin have been arrested for arson for continuing this and other necessary practices. </p><p>Native people all over California have kept telling decision makers, scientists, and the public that cultural burning has many more benefits including increasing water use efficiency in forests, helping salmon survive hot water temperatures, and keeping food and fiber abundant for Native communities. </p><p>Now, as our environment is in crisis, people are finally beginning to listen. </p>
Author Deniss Martinez and Dr. Beth Rose Middleton and a student help Diana Almendariz (elder; Maidu/Wintun/Hupa/Yurok heritage) plant Native plants after the cultural burn workshop at the Tending and Gathering Garden. (Credit: Melinda Adams)
Redefining fire<p>In order to return fire to California landscapes, Native communities have had to collaborate with state and federal agencies. A large part of my research looks at how effective these collaborations are at creating more just futures for Native people.</p><p>I am fortunate to spend time with Indigenous activists, scientists, and policymakers redefining what the response to climate change and environmental destruction should be. Native people all over California are mounting a cultural fire revolution and, in talking to them, I have learned how important it is to understand power and decision-making over public lands. </p><p>They have built large collaboratives that bring former foes together, successfully lobbied for consulting power, and are changing the way that California's non-Native residents understand fire by building broad outreach and education efforts. All this in an effort to bring Indigenous leadership and cultural fire back to landscapes that sorely need it. </p><p> These Native change-makers are reminding all of us of our responsibilities to the land and teaching us how to have a better relationship with fire. They remind us to ask ourselves: how am I nourishing the landscapes that nourish me? What are my responsibilities to this place? </p><p>For Indigenous communities there is no hand wringing about what to do in the face of climate change; there is action, love, and hope. Native nations know their responsibilities to place. Do you?</p>
Deergrass burning (Credit: Melinda Adams)