Blog cover: Damon Panek “smudging” in a still from the film Oshkigin Spirit of Fire. Photo by Old Saw Media.
Editor’s Note: Gloria Erickson is the Community Wildfire Project Manager for Dovetail Partners and a FAC Net member. Over the past year plus, Gloria worked in partnership with Research Forester Lane Johnson with the University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry Center; Damon Gezhiibideg Panek, member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota; Melonee Montano, member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe in Wisconsin; and Vern Northrup, member and elder of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe in Minnesota, to develop a video about the relationship between Ojibwe people, land, and fire in the Great Lakes region. The video is called Oshkigin Spirit of Fire. FAC Net’s Communications and Membership Coordinator Annie Leverich recently met with Gloria to hear more about the process of making the video, its meaning for the local community, and its contribution to the larger conversation around restoring our relationship with fire.
We strongly encourage viewing Oshkigin Spirit of Fire (just over 16 minutes and linked below) and the accompanying video Understanding Oshkigin (56 minutes) to feel the power of the project and fully appreciate the content of Gloria’s interview. The interview has been edited for content and clarity.
How did the idea for making the Oshkigin Spirit of Fire video come about? What kind of process did you undertake to work with the Indigenous community in the making of the film?
The idea came about when I was doing a presentation with Lane Johnson, who is a forest researcher from the University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry Center. The Center is in the heart of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe reservation. Lane has done extensive research on tree-ring-based fire history in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Much of his work focuses on using western science to demonstrate that Indigenous people applied fire to the landscape regularly in the Boundary Waters prior to colonization.
A lot of people don’t understand how important fire is to the health of our boreal forest up here. Lane and I had a conversation in the parking lot after the presentation. I said, “Lane, what do you think about creating a video about the cultural significance of traditional Indigenous fire use in the Great Lakes region? I would like the story to be told by an Ojibwe band member.” My intention, my hope, was to provide an opportunity for someone from the Ojibwe communities in our area to talk about the traditional use and significance of fire in Anishinaabe culture. I felt like this information was not “out there” about the Indigenous people of the Great Lakes region. He thought it was a great idea, but emphasized the importance of this being not only an educational piece about the benefits of prescribed burning but an acknowledgement and honoring of traditional Anishinaabe fire use. I wholeheartedly agreed.
So an idea was born. I suggested we get Damon Panek involved. I knew Damon had been instrumental in a recent cultural burn on the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin, while he was working for the National Park Service. Damon is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and an Ojibwe Cultural Specialist. Lane suggested we also talk with Melonee Montano, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe who also works educating and preserving Ojibwe culture. In addition, he thought we should talk with Vern Northrup, former BIA Wildland Fire Operations Specialist, elder and member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Lane arranged a call for all of us to meet and discuss the idea further. It was during the time of COVID-19, so we all got on Zoom, and Lane kicked off the conversation by asking “Gloria, what’s your vision here? Why do you want to do this?”
I totally freaked out. I did not want to make a mistake, or offend, or be disrespectful, or anything like that. I think this is part of the hesitation that a lot of white people have in trying to approach Indigenous people to learn more about their culture. We are afraid we’re going to say the wrong thing, walk on eggshells…or worse, we just don’t engage at all. That fear was definitely in me, big time. So I decided, okay – I’m just going to speak from the heart. I explained, “This is a story that I feel needs to be told – but I want it to be coming from you. I’m contributing funding to be able to do this and will organize as many logistics as is appropriate – but what I want to make really clear is that I am not going to edit it in any way. You’ll be the ones who decide what you say, and how you say it.” Speaking from the heart was the right approach. They agreed that this video needed to be made – and that they would be happy to help make it a reality.
How did you find funding for the project? How did the local government respond to the development of the film?
St. Louis County funded the development of the video, which was a real step forward since our county has not historically embraced the use of prescribed fire. The only governmental agencies that use prescribed fire as a tool in Northeastern Minnesota are the Superior National Forest and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in cooperation with the tribes. Even the Minnesota DNR doesn’t use prescribed fire in our area. It’s a big challenge for fire practitioners up here, and for those of us who embrace prescribed burning, to get more fire on the ground. When I do co-presentations with Lane and other fire practitioners, who are really working hard to get more fire on the ground, I always forget that. Not all forest management people endorse prescribed burning as an ecosystem restoration tool. I’m so used to being in the crowd of FAC Net and the Fire Learning Network, where everyone gets it. The majority of our agencies in our area are not prioritizing prescribed fire, and they don’t necessarily embrace it. Oftentimes, we have to start from ground zero. These presentations often involve just the western science perspective on the benefits of fire. What we need to do is acknowledge the people who have been doing this for millennia: Indigenous people. They need to be part of our ecosystem restoration conversation and implementation. For Indigenous people, the practice of using fire as a restorative tool was not just cultural but about survival. A way to provide food, shelter and clothing for the entire community, as well as caring for the earth.
I approached the county to see if they’d be open to funding the project. We have two Ojibwe reservations in St. Louis County: Bois Forte and Fond du Lac. I saw the video as an opportunity to acknowledge and honor their knowledge, and build a better relationship with our local Ojibwe Nations. I am the contracted St. Louis County Firewise Coordinator and building trusting relationships and partnerships across boundaries is essential to restoring our Northeastern Minnesota ecosystem and helping it be more wildfire resilient.
How did you distribute the film once it was finished? How has the film been received since its release?
First, I would like to acknowledge the sensitivity and creative genius of Old Saw Media, the video production company we contracted with to make the film. Directors Tom Deschenes and Andrew Bydlon provided the questions and expertly honed in on the intent and direction the film contributors expressed. They were the ones who made it the educational and beautiful film that it is.
When we were all satisfied with the final version of the film, we sent it out to all our networks, and they loved it – they shared it with their networks. FAC Net helped get it out there, and the buzz just kept growing. We started getting inquiries from all over the country – even internationally! The film has been in four film festivals in the United States. The film and its message is reaching audiences we never imagined we would reach when we began this project. Whenever we get a request, I always share it with the initial contributors and team involved in the making of the film. That’s part of holding up the agreement that the film’s impact and distribution is in the hands of the Indigenous contributors.
After the film was finished, we wanted to host a premiere at the Language and Cultural Center on the Fond du Lac Reservation. We worked with the Program Manager of the Center. He was excited about the film and our proposed premiere and panel discussion for the community. He presented the idea to tribal leadership to get their support before moving forward. He received the green light from the Council, but a week before the proposed event the Tribal Emergency Manager decided to call off the in-person premiere with the onset of another spike in COVID-19 on the reservation. Beyond the impacts from the pandemic, the community was dealing with a lot of other serious issues. Even though the Cultural Program Manager saw the film as an uplifting message for the Fond du Lac community, the Tribal Emergency Manager needed to do what he felt was best to protect the health of the community.
What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from participating in the making of Oshkigin Spirit of Fire?
I learned a lot from Mary Huffman, Director of the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, about how to work respectfully and in partnership with Indigenous people. It’s critical to acknowledge that Tribal nations are just that, Nations. They have their own government and are dealing with all aspects involved in governing a nation. You don’t just call up the Tribal Chair – that would be like trying to call the President of the United States. You have to understand that you or your idea is not necessarily a priority, and you need to respect that, even if you have a lot of excitement about what you’re proposing. I went in with the desire to learn and asked how I could be a positive ally in whatever their priorities were.
Melonee said something that really stuck with me. She said, and I’m paraphrasing, “We have to bust the myth that Indigenous people are mystical or untouchable in some way. We are people.” Melonee also said if you have a question about cultural appropriateness, ask it! One of the Ojibwe cultural traditions I learned is the giving of a gift or an honorarium when requesting something. A first step is the giving of pipe tobacco (asemaa). Traditional gifts of blankets might be appropriate. Or something more practical like a gas card or cash. Again, just ask.
Building relationships of trust takes time. Fixed agendas and expert or authoritative attitudes will not cut it. You need to come in as a person, be open, ask questions, and most of all listen. You need to hear what people are saying. You need to respect them and their time, and you need to follow through. I have given presentations to researchers and agency people about the importance of building trust in relationships and partnerships. It starts with trying to get to know people as people. What do they value, what do they want to protect? That is key to all of our work – and it holds with working with Tribal Nations as well. It’s about respect – respecting their time, their position, their culture, and their knowledge.
What are some other stories that could be told as complementary videos to Oshkigin Spirit of Fire?
The film is a beautiful reflection on the reciprocal relationship between humans and fire. We need to embrace and respect that the right fire is good. It gives us heat. We cook with it. It regenerates our forests. And fire is just one piece of how we relate to our landscapes.
We want to continue this thread, and feature cross-cultural conversations about blending together Indigenous and Western knowledge. We’ve got to reshape conversations around land management, stewardship, and connection to place. We want to help transform the widely held notion that humans are separate from the natural world, and that our impacts are only destructive. We have to shift to a mindset that celebrates the potential of human impacts as constructive and an important part of the reciprocal relationship with the environment that shapes our well-being as individuals in society. We expanded on this conversation in the second video, Understanding Oshkigin, which is a discussion with Vern and Damon about these concepts presented in the original film.
In terms of a sequel to or continuation of Oshkigin Spirit of Fire, we’re talking about debunking the fallacy of “wilderness” or what’s “natural.” When we talk about wilderness, we often imagine a space without people or untouched by humans. Indigenous people have stewarded the land for thousands of years. There is not one spot on the planet that has not been touched by humans. The wilderness idea has perpetuated long held misconceptions and stereotypes that have adversely impacted how we do fire research, policy and management. The team that worked on Oshkigin Spirit of Fire, including the video producers/directors, are interested in addressing this in a next chapter film.
The video covers fire as a land management tool and also as a deeply important cultural practice. What messages do you hope the audience will walk away with after viewing the film?
When I came to Ely, MN, I came with a broken spirit. The forest and the lakes here are healing places for me. Working and learning from Lane, Vern, Damon, and Melonee reinforced, to me, the importance for human beings to get back in touch with the land. As Damon often says, we were all Indigenous at one time. We need to listen to our Indigenous teachers. Taking care of the earth is about survival but it is also about healing. Returning fire to the land is just one of those tools for taking care of home. Being in touch with the land can be a beginning of the healing process from the genocide, from the forced assimilation, from so much disruption and loss in Indigenous communities across the globe. It’s hope. Native people have adapted and survived and they have so much knowledge regarding taking care of the land and all the creatures in it. That’s the story that needs to be told – it needs to be told within the Tribal Nations as well to help heal and to move forward.