LISTEN: Deniss Martinez on Indigenous science and cultural fire practices

LISTEN: Deniss Martinez on Indigenous science and cultural fire practices

"Fire is not just a destructive force it's a creative force."

Deniss Martinez joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss the importance of incorporating Indigenous knowledge into wildfire management.


Martinez, a PhD candidate at UC Davis in the Graduate Group in Ecology and an alum of the Agents of Change program, talks about working with the Karuk Tribe, learning about the value and depth of forests from knowledge keepers, and how fire is crucial to many Western landscapes but has been mismanaged for decades.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Martinez, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript 

Brian Bienkowski

Today I'm talking to Deniss Martinez, a PhD candidate at UC Davis in the graduate group in ecology and an alum of the Agents of Change program. Deniss talks about incorporating Indigenous knowledge into natural resource decision-making and the ecological importance of wildfires, what a timely conversation. Enjoy.

Alright, I am now joined by Deniss Martinez. Deniss, how are you doing today?

Deniss Martinez

I'm doing good, it's been a good day, how are you doing?

Brian Bienkowski

Good, and we can be honest this is try number two. I already knew you were having a good day, and I'm once again going to tell you that I took a bike ride in the middle of the day, but you already knew that, so I'm doing very well and where are you talking to us from?.

Deniss Martinez

I'm talking to you from Davis, California. And yeah, it's really hot here. But it's been pretty cool inside the house, so I'm thankful for that today.

Brian Bienkowski

Yes, yes, that is something to be thankful for. To be able to escape the, the oppressive, climate-fueled heat that has descended upon us. So Deniss you were in our first cohort, and I just had a really great time editing your piece and working with you. So I know a little bit about your work, but I want to start way back at the beginning and that's about, kind of, how and when you became interested in ecology and environmental health.

Deniss Martinez

Yeah. So, really, I think most of my interest came from growing up in rural northern California. I am the descendant of Indigenous communities but we were living there as you know, kind of in a diaspora, far away from our homelands. And I, you know, I grew up, there was a lot of wildfire in the summers, every summer there was a wildfire, there was evacuations, and that was just such a normal part of our lives, that it actually, it's funny, it didn't occur to me as something to study in college until I really started taking my kind of intro to biology classes, and just seeing how the wildfire problem is kind of fueled by climate and all of these different management factors. And then, my sophomore year of college, I got to do this really awesome research summer experience where I got to work for the Karuk tribe as a food crew member. So I was on their food security crew and we were basically doing these plots of forest, kind of monitoring and seeing how the plants were doing, and what kind of management the leaders of the crew would recommend. And just this experience was really life changing for me. I think that I realized like, wow, ecology is where I want to be at. And I think part of that is this experience of being part of an environmental justice project and getting to see the connections between the environment, food sovereignty, social justice, tribal justice and all of these interests that were really important to me came together and it was just a really awesome experience. And then it also was just so important for our health. And so having all of that together made me commit, and be interested in ecology.

Brian Bienkowski

That's awesome, and I know you've carried through working, continue to work with Indigenous communities and incorporating knowledge and practices into research and recommendations and things like that. And I'm wondering, you know, in working with tribes are there, have there been challenges. Because it's not, you know, it doesn't always jive with western thinking and western science and also I'd love to hear about some of the opportunities that you've had and maybe some of the benefits that, and value, you found working with tribes.

Deniss Martinez

Yeah definitely. You know, I think some, some of the challenges are, you know, kind of having that, that opposing worldview that sometimes comes up between western and Indigenous science. And that can be challenging when, you know, working with professors or with other researchers that don't really understand. But the challenges I found as a graduate student have actually been more structural in that, you know, working with a tribe, it's a lot of kind of advocacy driven work it's a lot of work on the ground, and sometimes the timelines for that kind of work doesn't completely line up with a really long timeline like a dissertation. And sometimes that requires me to play like a really good balancing act between my academic responsibilities and my responsibilities to community. And there's definitely some, you know, methods that you can do with, to work with communities in a good way. But just, I think that institutional university expectations are meant for something with like western research that's not as community engaged. So kind of being a community engaged scholar, you have to find ways to make yourself fit to meet expectations, and to balance it all in a good way where you're still holding responsibility to community. But I think the opportunities are worth it. I think that I found a lot of really amazing mentors in my Indigenous collaborators, a lot of elders that have taught me a lot about, not just my research topic but also, you know what it means to be an Indigenous person in the Americas, what it means to learn my culture. They all encourage me to learn my language to speak to my elders, and I think that just having those relationships has been really awesome and has been, has made my academic experience more nurturing, holistic and relational instead of so individual. And so I think that there's a lot of really great opportunities there. And then on the research side, I think that working with tribes is the best way to learn about a place. It's, you know, this thousands and thousands of years knowledge about a specific area. And when you walk with a tribal person on their land, on their homeland, you really understand the depth and the breadth of that knowledge, and how important it is for adaptation, for understanding, this is how things have changed over time, and this is how we use that knowledge to adapt to change now. And so, that I just think is an invaluable part of ecological research that's often overlooked.

Brian Bienkowski

Boy, you are speaking my language here. I live in Sault Ste. Marie, and my, my wife is a tribal member with the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians. And where I live, there's this, there's this very strong focus on, we're a port town on the French traders coming here and that's where a lot of people start the history. But when you talk to the tribe, it goes so much deeper, right, I mean it, it goes so much deeper and to drill down to them living in that climate, it's a very cold climate here, and thinking about just, you know how they manage those, the elements and, yeah, the history is so much deeper, having had a chance to talk to the tribe. And it brings something to mind, and I'm curious if you found this too, such a sense of humor. I don't know if it's maybe just the tribes here in the northern Great Lakes, maybe it's a northern thing, but I wonder if you found, like a real commitment to humor in your work with tribes.

Deniss Martinez

Oh, definitely. I think that humor and stories is just such a huge part of it. And it's kind of funny because that, that summer I was telling you about where I went out as a research intern, it was my very first time being part of a research project and kind of being in charge of data. And oh man, the tribal members gave me such a hard time, in like a good way, they were kind of bringing that humor in, and it put me at so much ease, and then just their jokes, helped me think, which is kind of funny. And then, just the humor is such a huge aspect of just Indigenous ways of being, Indigenous survivance, you know, thinking of, you know, people often when they think about Indigenous people, they think of all the hard things that our communities have had to go through. But our communities have really committed to joy and humor and being together, and I think that, that might be unexpected for some people, but it's, it's true, we're funny.

Brian Bienkowski

It was unexpected for me. I shouldn't say it was unexpected, it just wasn't something I thought about. And I, I viewed it, everything you just said, and I've also viewed it as like a tool of resiliency. There's something to be said, to laugh in the face of hardship. And at least a lot of the folks I've had the really great opportunity to learn from, that's what I found. So you mentioned your early work with the tribe kind of being this lightbulb moment, so I don't know if this is the answer to the question, but what is the defining moment or event that shaped your identity.

Deniss Martinez

Yeah, you know, I think it, it was that moment. And, and part of it was that, that summer, I got to for the first time, learn kind of Indigenous knowledge on Indigenous homelands. My parents and, you know, my grandparents would instill values in me and would, you know, teach me recipes, but we, you know, we've always been far away from our homelands and we haven't had the privilege to go back. And so, to see, it was like seeing the forest for the first time and I think I've, ever since then, have never felt alone in a forest. I've always felt like it was a home of someone. It's just, I think like, learning about the forest from the, from these Karuk knowledge keepers, it was about going out and not just learning the name of the plant, but also the oral history, the creation story, where it happens, who uses it, who takes care of this place. And knowing that for, you know the whole forest. And so it's just like every place is, has such a depth of knowledge. And I think that, realizing that really changed my worldview in general and then just really changed how I viewed myself as a scholar. I think before I kind of saw myself in science, kind of on the outskirts of it because of my race, because I couldn't really see the issues that were important to my family, my community, in the classes I was taking, you know, chemistry, biology, whatever. And then all of a sudden in this experience I started to see myself as a scientist, and see how these culture bearers were also scientists and how my parents, a lot of what they taught me was scientific and healing and such. It just improved my, my self worth, to do a whole summer learning from Indigenous people and I think it changed my whole life, so.

Brian Bienkowski

That's, that's really awesome. I don't know if I've told this on the podcast before, but when you were talking about the forest, every forest that you know, you feel comfortable and in hearing people about who's taking care of the forest and the depth of it. My first, one of my big investigative series I did when I was still reporting, I went out to the Crow tribe in Montana, and was driving around, they have a massive reservation there, and I said, "wow, there's, there's nothing out there," you know, because it's kind of plains. And his name was, his name was Emory Three Irons, and he looked at me and he said, "there's everything out there," and I felt like such a dummy. Because, of course, I went on the rest of that week to hear about the chief Plenty Coups Spring and the meaning there, and you know that, of course there was all their stories for every tree and nook and cranny on the reservation and I learned my lesson. So.

Deniss Martinez

It's a good lesson. I felt like before I was also, you know, growing up, not hearing from tribal members, I had seen the forest as just a mass of trees. And then I realized, wow like each tree has a story, each section of the forest has its history. And that just, it changes how you, how you see everything.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, it's changed how I've seen things. Not, not just that moment but, but somewhat from that moment and, and learning from others on, you're so right. There's, every little chunk, even if it's just an acre, there's a whole world, right there, and it's all relatives relying on one another for survival. So, so your work on wildfires, you know this is a real, it's a it's a topic that every summer pops up in the west. And, you know, wildfires have become feared in the west and for, in some cases for good reason, you know, people lose homes and stuff. But when you wrote for the Agents of Change essay, you wrote about fire as a living entity, as a relative. And I thought about where I live, a lot of people, it connected with me because a lot of people are afraid of wolves here. Different, you know, different threat obviously, because the wolves in my mind really aren't a threat, but the tribes here revere them as a relative, it's the same thing that you mentioned as fire, it's a relative, it's not something we try to eradicate. So I'm wondering if you can kind of talk about this thinking when it comes to wildfire, and what, what we can learn from it when we try to manage or coexist with natural resources.

Deniss Martinez

Yeah, I mean I think that the first lesson there is that humans aren't really separate from everything else, and not separate, and not better than. And I think that that's a huge lesson in general, you know our comfort and our well being isn't the only well being and comfort that matters. And, you know, part of that is starting to see, like you said, relationality. We're starting to see other species as relatives, as a part of the community that we're sharing space with. And the second piece of that is responsibility. And I think that responsibility to that broader collective, but also to ourselves, to the land, to the future. And I think that that's why having Indigenous people stewarding Indigenous land is critical because that responsibility is a part of our cultures. And it's, it's a responsibility to the place where we call home that I think we could all learn from. It, you know, like when we think about, what am, what am I giving back to the place that's giving you life, and for most people that's a lot of places that's, you know, our whole food system is everywhere, our you know our water comes from really different places in California, it's, you know, a lot of different places depending on where you live. And so I try to encourage people to really think about, you know, if I have a responsibility to place, what am I doing to meet that responsibility. And really try to internalize that. And I, you know, I don't want to say that it's just an individual responsibility. It really, like I think sometimes when we think of climate change solutions we tend to put a lot on the individual. And so I do think that things like activism, like movement building, like relationship building, is a part of that work, because you can't really do it all alone, you can't just buy carbon credits and call that meeting your responsibility. It, you know, it's part of that movement work is, is part of meeting that responsibility.

Brian Bienkowski

So, extend this to fires, because when I think of animals, I think, I think, at least most people's mind, is a little easier, right. Let's protect our habitat, they need to eat and drink like we do. But if we're thinking of wildfire, which most people think of like a hurricane or a tornado, right, they think of it as a natural disaster. So to think about that as almost like a relative or something that we need to nurture, extend that thinking to that.

Deniss Martinez

Yeah, well, fire is a necessary part of California landscapes. Fire is not just a destructive force, it's a creative force. And, for example, certain, you know, certain trees and plants can't seed without fire. Without fire, you know, we get these, without consistent caretaking fire, we get huge destructive wildfires, because of we're not lowering our fuel loads. Fire creates food for a lot of different species that, you know prefer brows, like for example, elk prefers brows after fire, it's new, it's springy, it's soft. It creates habitat, it creates pest, like, it gets rid of pests, in acorn, it helps animals get rid of pests by, you know, some animals will roll in ash to get rid of pests on their bodies. Um, fire, you know helps people a lot in getting to eat, you know, eat the foods, also helps make basketry material. It's just a fire is just such a creative force, if we're in right relationship with it. I think it's where we've tried to suppress fire tried to get rid of fire that we've created the situation where these huge destructive wildfires can occur. But in reality, fire is just a part of California's landscape. And so, getting rid of it also gets rid of those food plants, it gets rid of those basketry plants, it gets rid of habitat for for lots of species. And that's also destructive. Does that make sense?

Brian Bienkowski

No, it does, so just like anything else in, when we think about ecosystems, if you pluck one thing out of that circular ecosystem, it has cascading effects and then a fire is no different.

Deniss Martinez

Yeah, definitely. And, I mean there's just so, there's so many ways that fire is a creative and good force in California. And even just like, like North Fork Mono Chairman, Ron Good, he talks about fire bringing water. And so, if you think about, for example, you know, a section of forest with a ton of little plants and trees that are crowded and not very healthy, and then you put fire through there, all of a sudden all those little plants that weren't healthy anyway aren't sucking up water, and it and that can literally bring up the water table. And so there's, there's a lot of ecological systems that just really need fire in California, and it's just about doing it in the right way.

Brian Bienkowski

So what are you working on for your dissertation, is it, is it, is this the work, what do you, what are you pushing towards here?

Deniss Martinez

Yeah, so the purpose of my dissertation is really about finding strategies for California Native communities and their collaborators to share governance, and decision-making mechanisms that support tribal self-determination and governance. So I work a lot on environmental decision-making. And part of the reason that I decided to work on that is because, working with the Karuk tribe, again that summer was really transformative, and then working with them for several years after, I realized that tribes really have a lot of the knowledge and the ideas about how they would like to steward landscapes. But there's a lot that needs to go into sharing governance because a lot of forests are on private, I mean public lands. And so there's just a lot of shared decision-making that needs to happen, and sometimes it doesn't happen in the best way. And sometimes it does. And so my goal with my dissertation is to figure out the strategies that work best, and to kind of inform both governments on how to share that responsibility, how to best steward environments in a way that also supports tribal wellbeing and self-determination.

Brian Bienkowski

Is this called structured decision making analysis or something like that?

Deniss Martinez

Yeah, so I am talking about structured decision making, I'm talking, I'm doing interviews. So I'm doing a lot of qualitative work with cultural practitioners who really get their on-the-ground experience. Because I think that there's also, there's a lot of collaborations happening. And in theory that would be great, but sometimes in practice, what it looks like on the ground isn't as empowering or as supportive as you would want them to be. So that's where the qualitative work is, sharing people's stories and hearing people's experiences of being in those collaborations and seeing how, you know, how could they could be better. And also, you know, hearing about the projects that have really worked. And that's been awesome too, just hearing about, you know, collaborations that have been, have been going on for decades that are, you know, building power and capacity. And I think that's really inspiring for me, so it's been a good experience to talk to folks.

Brian Bienkowski

So I don't know how much you've worked with state officials or any kind of folks like that, but when you talk about doing interviews with tribal members and gathering knowledge, do you find there is a receptiveness, because I'm just imagining that most government agencies are looking at data, rainfall per year, you know, very hard numbers, and I don't know if they have the structures in place to take in something qualitative like that. What, what's your experience been so far?

Deniss Martinez

Yeah, so I recently helped the science advisory panel of the Forest Management Taskforce, come out with a report and in talking about that exact thing. Because a lot of the way that we prioritize for what we call forest health treatments, basically forest health projects, is, um, I feel like the state leans heavily on quantitative measurements. And, don't get me wrong, quantitative measurements are really powerful. They help us take in a lot of data and make decisions at a large scale. But what I realized is that, the way that, the way that they were kind of excluding or maybe not, not being as thoughtful about the measurements of how we measure things like environmental justice. How do we measure the proper inclusion of traditional ecological knowledge, capacity building, all of these kind of more social, economic, prioritizations that weren't being included in a, in a way that had maybe the best methodologies. And so, you know, we suggested a rubric that the state could use to, that's like a little more qualitative but still a rubric, and also just, you know suggested, you know, made clear to the state that the quantitative measures they were using to measure these things had some blind spots. And I think that that was, that was helpful for me to see, it was really eye opening to see how, you know these quantitative measures were being used when they weren't the most powerful methods to really measure something like environmental justice, like the inclusion of traditional ecological knowledge. And so we, you know, we suggested new metrics, we also, we also just suggested that in general, they take a social ecological approach to prioritization. So, what that means is basically really being explicit about the ways that the social system, so governments, decision making, collaborators, and you know, citizens, tribes, all of that, how that is directly impacting the environment, and how the environment is directly impacting those other, the social systems. And by creating an approach that includes both, you can actually include, increase the capacity of communities to adapt to climate change. Because they don't have to, you know, argue every time there's a huge environmental change because they have a structured decision making process, and they have relationships and collaborations and they have the capacity to be able to make changes. And so I think, just stressing to the state that that's really important. But yeah, I mean that's a challenge and it's a challenge because it's a lot of land and it's a lot of money and decisions that need to be made and it's hard, but that was my suggestion anyway.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, and you're dealing with, you know you're dealing with sovereign entities right, butting up against, you know, state governments and municipalities. And you know I've seen it here on probably a much smaller scale, but I just, as a kid, even growing up in a state with 12 I think 12 or 13 tribes here in Michigan, I didn't, I didn't know what they were. I didn't know that they had natural resource departments, which, where my wife works now. And, you know, law enforcement and these sovereign governments that are supposed to be working in tandem with the state and it's, it blows my mind that it took me so long to learn that, but I don't think I'm alone.

Deniss Martinez

Yeah, I wouldn't say that you are alone, and I think that part of what's frustrating, also to tribes is that they often get, you know, lumped in with like, special interest groups or EJ communities. And I think that's frustrating because they're sovereign entities, they're sovereign nations, and they have a government to government relationship with the U.S. government, and so just being lumped into groups like that when it comes to natural resource decision making can be super frustrating and disrespectful. So, it's a, that's another challenge.

Brian Bienkowski

Yes, totally. And I want to talk about your essay when you were, when you were a current fellow here working with Agents of Change which touched on many aspects of your research and work that we talked about today. What was it like to have your ideas kind of thrust out into the public like that, and any tips for other researchers who want to engage in more of this type of science communication and writing for the broader public.

Deniss Martinez

Yeah, you know, it was super nerve wracking at first. I was really nervous because I had put myself forward in, in such a personal way. Because I was telling the story of my research, not necessarily just, this is my research, here the results. But I was telling the story of my research which includes me. And so, I was nervous, but it ended up being a really wonderful experience, I got really great feedback. I got to show it to community members who were really proud of me. And that, that it was just all overall, it was a really good experience. I think the biggest challenge was actually, I didn't realize how much, I mean and this is a good thing, I didn't realize how, how much I hadn't owned my expertise in the past, and then trying to kind of write my research in a way that was public facing that, but was for people who maybe don't spend 40 hours a week just reading about this one thing. I think I realized, wow, there's so much skill building that I need to do around knowing, you know, what are the pieces that are important for other people to know. Because to me. it all seemed important. But I think that it's, you know, being strategic about what do I want to share, what's the most important. And I think that was, that was the biggest challenge. And I appreciated your help with that Brian, but it was, I mean, we figured it out and it ended up being a really beautiful piece that I'm proud of.

Brian Bienkowski

You know I'm really proud of it too. I'm proud that we had it, and I'm also proud that we, so we track these things at EHN, kind of where the conversation is online. And I can say, after after your piece, there was this rash of similar opinions, op-eds, journalism, and of course you can't always draw, draw a direct line to the first piece right. But we saw this conversation online happening, that, that really yours was the first to kind of say, hey we should be listening to Indigenous people about how to manage fire on the western half of the U.S. So I was really proud of that too, I mean, it's proud to start shaping the conversation because that's the first step in, in change, in trying to, trying to make a positive change. So, do you feel like this kind of science communication and writing for the public would fit into your broader work moving forward? Did you enjoy it enough to keep doing it?

Deniss Martinez

Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think generally, I was super glad to be a part of the program because I think that science communication is critical for doing any sort of community engaged research. You need to be able to tell the community you're working with, what your results were in an interesting way, and in an engaging way. And I think it was really great to be able to share with just a broader public. And I definitely want to keep doing that in the future, you know, maybe at a future job. And, yeah, we'll see. I definitely want to keep writing.

Brian Bienkowski

Good, and I don't want to get ahead of ourselves here, I know you're working on your PhD. But you mentioned, you know, kind of a future job. Where do you, are you interested in staying in academia, or is it all kind of up in the air right now. It seems like you've forged a really strong connection with with tribes and where you're at, and I know how PhDs work, you pretty much go where the, where the job is in academia. So, have you thought about that at all?

Deniss Martinez

You know, I, that that is like the question of, that I've been grappling with for a while now. And I think what I really want to do is, I want to build a future where Indigenous science is central to the way we make decisions around the environment, around climate. And I think that wherever I'm able to do that well, I will go. And part of that has been, you know, a really, a really great experience of me realizing this is what I want to do. And instead of just looking at academia I've kind of opened my view out and seen, you know, met a lot of awesome Indigenous professionals in all kinds of places, and so I'm, I'm still really thinking about that, you know, where I want to end up. But I know that, you know, this is where this is, this is where I want my career to work towards. And then, where that ends up being, we'll see.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I have two more questions, one just came to mind. I, you've been doing this long enough now where I'm curious to hear your answer, if you've seen, in your time doing this research, a shift for the positive in kind of really broad based, the U.S. kind of being more accepting of Indigenous science, Indigenous worldviews, teachings. Or if not, or if you've seen, you know, a move backward. I'm wondering what your sense is, on how progress is moving on this front.

Deniss Martinez

I think we're progressing. And I think that that's really due to a lot of awesome work by Indigenous cultural fire practitioners that have been doing science communication, that have been working with agencies for decades now. And I think that we're really starting to see some big wins, some recognition from the state and just more broadly a recognition by the public that this knowledge is important, that we need to find ways to incorporate it into the way we steward our landscapes. So yeah, I have seen an improvement and I think it's it's due to all of this great activism that's happening in Indigenous communities.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, that was the word that came to mind to me too, especially being in the Great Lakes, we have two lines, right now. Enbridge is trying to run lines through some, some pretty important waterways here, and the tribes are leading the opposition. And it's coming from a place of, you know kind of historical sovereignty and water resources and water protectors are here. And if nothing else, I think it's put on the radar in this region that tribes are a force to be reckoned with, and they're going to be listened to. So, at least regionally, I think I've seen, seen that change. And you know this is on the heels of Standing Rock, and a lot of other really high profile activism that I think put tribal issues on people's radars, so.

Well, Deniss. This has been, this has been such a great time. I've really enjoyed talking to you because I feel like there's a lot of overlap with your work and some of my interests here in my community. My last question is what is the last book you read for fun.

Deniss Martinez

Oh, that's a good one. Um, honestly, I just recently, reread Harry Potter for fun. It was just one of those, you know, it's a classic, and I hadn't read it since childhood. So that was pretty fun. I used to be really into Harry Potter as a kid, I was one of those nerdy kids, but I love it.

Brian Bienkowski

I read the entire series last year over COVID, finished in the winter, and it was perfect because we had the fireplace going, it was snowy outside, and I, you know, finally got to the end and realized all of the secrets, and yes, Harry Potter is fantastic, it is always a good recommendation.

Deniss Martinez

Yeah, definitely a cozy recommendation that sounds awesome.

Brian Bienkowski

Well great, Deniss. Thank you so much for taking time today, I really appreciate it.

Deniss Martinez

Yeah, thank you so much, Brian. This was really fun.

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