Credit: Colleen Rossier, University of California — Davis

Cultural Burning and TEK: How Can FAC Practitioners Leverage Indigenous Connections to Fire Without Exploiting Them?

By: Allison Jolley

Topic: Collaboration Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire Traditional Ecological Knowledge Watershed protection / management Wildfire

Type: Research Synthesis

“This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff.”

-Tommy Orange, There, There

If you’re working on fire adaptation, you should be pursuing respectful ways to learn about cultural burning. It’s part of this country’s history and ecology. The effectiveness of it as a stewardship tool has stood the test of time (Taylor et al., 2016 and Roos et al., 2018), and so have the horrendous implications of banning it.

A huge part of our wildfire problem has to do with denying indigenous communities of their right to burn their lands. It’s our duty as FAC practitioners to learn everything that indigenous communities want to teach us (without prying or taking advantage of the knowledge they do share) about cultural burning so that we can be better allies in their re-empowerment to steward their lands. I recently met Chook-Chook Hillman of the Karuk Tribe, and he put it this way: “Instead of asking, ‘How do you do X?’ start with, ‘Is it OK for me to know about X?’”

If you haven’t read it already, check out the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which can be accessed online within a website dedicated to the declaration, or as a PDF — 150KB). Over a third of the articles within it discuss protecting and preserving indigenous culture. Like many UN declarations, it’s not legally binding, but it does establish impactful expectations and frameworks, and it has helped some countries better observe the rights of indigenous peoples.  Here’s a helpful FAQ on it as well (PDF, 220KB).

More Must-Reads

Below are excellent resources, stories and articles regarding cultural burning.

 Indigenous woman holding a branch loaded with acorns

Click on the link above to read Dr. Frank Kanawha Lake’s blog, Fire as Medicine: Fire Dependent Cultures and Re-Empowering American Indian Tribes. Photo: Lois Conner Bohna with acorns on a tree tended by her grandmother, Lilly Harris, at a ranch near North Fork, California. Credit: Frank Kanawha Lake, USDA Forest Service

“The catastrophic blazes that thrive in eastern Arizona’s thickly forested yet arid landscape have a way of fizzling once they jump from the dense national forests to the Apache reservations, and that’s not by chance.”

In Wildfire Prevention in Indian Country: Saving Lives While Respecting Tribal Lands, published by Indian Country Today, Jonathan Brooks, tribal forest manager with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Fort Apache Agency elaborates further:

“We have embraced a history, a culture, and a need for forest management to create a sustainable forest landscape adapted to the needs, demands and objectives of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and the forest itself that provides food, water, medicine and materials for survival as well as employment and economic gains for our people.”

  • Another tribe restoring their homelands and increasing their neighbors’ resilience, as a result, is the Santa Clara Pueblo. About 80 percent of their land has been impacted by recent wildfires (all of which started off their land), and they are now investing heavily in wildfire recovery and restoration. Check out their Story Map, A Tribe’s Collaborative Journey Toward Establishing Forest Resiliency to learn more about the resilience work that they’re leading.
  • Given the recent history of banning cultural burning, centuries’ worth of distrust have to be addressed when trying to advance collaborative restoration. Read about how the Karuk Tribe and Klamath National Forest went from protest to partnership in another blog by Bill Tripp, Fantastic Failure: Shared Vision, Shattered Trust.
  • The High Country News article, The Karuk Tribe Fights a Growing Wildfire Threat and a Lack of Funding, also features the Karuk Tribe and their cultural and controlled burning efforts. In the article, Lisa Hillman, program director for the Píkyav Field Institute explains, “They used to call us the ‘incendiary Indians,’ […] But it’s the responsible thing to do.”
  • When it comes to restoration, monitoring is often times an integral part of how groups restore trust with one another. (Monitoring allows people to get answers to the question, “Is what we’re doing helping, hurting or not impacting what we care about?”) As part of their Western Klamath Restoration Partnership, the Karuk Tribe is monitoring a new type of indicator, one they are calling a socio-ecological one: the huckleberry. Learn more about what they’re studying and why in the blog, Managing for Socio-Ecological Resilience First: How a New Type of Indicator Enhances Wildfire Resilience Monitoring.
  • The North Fork Mono Tribe is also sharing information about cultural burning. Watch this video of Chairman Ron Goode of the North Fork Mono Tribe:

Don’t Just Learn. Invest.

FAC practitioners shouldn’t just be learning about prescribed fire and cultural burning from indigenous communities, they should be investing in it. Revitalizing indigenous fire-dependent cultures is a critical component to investing in our collective fire future. One great model for building prescribed fire capacity in a cultural context is the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX); here are two TREXs that I recommend learning more about. Could your organization support an indigenous-focused TREX in your area?

  • For four years now, the Klamath River TREX has convened ingenious fire practitioners, applying prescribed fire to the landscape and training more burners. KlamathMedia has several resources on these and other related events. The areas that this TREX aims to restore present complex variables ⁠— dry vegetation, steep slopes, high winds, etc. In turn, this particular TREX applies a rigorous organizational structure, essentially convening a Type 3 Incident Management Team, to support successful implementation and training in a complex, relatively high-risk context.
  • The Yurok TREX is a similar effort focused on Yurok territory. Their Facebook page has several videos and albums for past TREXs.  Their spring events are particularly unique because they enable a smaller group of practitioners to apply fire in a manner that feels more like family-based burning.

Most to Teach, Most to Lose

Along with having the most to teach when it comes to fire, a recent PLOS study finds that Native Americans may also have the most to lose. New York Times reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis summarized the research findings in her article Minorities are Most Vulnerable When Wildfires Strike in U.S., Study Finds by saying, “People of color, especially Native Americans, face more risk from wildfires than whites. It is another example of how the kinds of disasters exacerbated by climate change often hit minorities and the poor the hardest.”

If you’re not collaborating with indigenous communities in your area on FAC, reach out. And when you do, focus less on talking and more on listening. I know I’ve got a lot to learn.

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2 thoughts on “Cultural Burning and TEK: How Can FAC Practitioners Leverage Indigenous Connections to Fire Without Exploiting Them?”

  1. Shoana Humphries says:

    Thank you for putting together this great blog on this critically important topic, Allison! It is very informative and thought provoking, and I really appreciate all the resource links.

  2. Allison Jolley says:

    Thanks for taking the time to read it Shoana!

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