In California, the arrival of fall comes one of the most dangerous times of year: wildfire season. Severe drought, coupled with increased susceptibility to fires, cause Californians to annually endure dangerous and uninhabitable conditions. Every year, these wildfires have grown progressively more dangerous, leading several government officials to wonder what actions must be taken to ameliorate these fires.
Before Euro-American settlement in the 1800s, cultural burning was an integral part of California’s landscape. Indigenous burnings were used to shape the land and encourage specific vegetation growth for tribal use. Cultural burnings have been perfected over centuries by tribes such as the Wapishana and the Makushi people of the South Rupununi; the degradation of the landscape without their maintenance is clear evidence of its success. Here, fires are used to fight approaching large hazardous fires and to burn overgrown vegetation.
However, in California, this practice of cultural burning was quickly banned as populations grew and newly formed colonial governments began to encourage fire suppression techniques. Rather than use fire as a tool for combating future fires, fear of fire gripped new government officials who banned this technique. The new Euro-American settlers held reservations about Indigenous practices and used their new government control as a means to replace longstanding land use techniques with new colonial practices.
Cultural burns are spiritual and religious practices for Indigenous peoples. However, with the increased Western settlement came the banning of Native American tribal ceremonies. In addition to California’s brutal history of government sanctioned genocide targeting Native Americans, practices meant to cultivate and sustain the land were quickly outlawed. Section 10 of the deceptively named Act for the Government and Protection of Indians effectively forced Native Americans into Spanish servitude and outlawed cultural burnings.
California’s fire-fearing history can certainly be traced back to brutal treatment of Native Americans at the hands of Western settlers. Cultural burns were associated with Native American practices, and Western settlers viewed Native Americans as gente sin razon, or, uncivilized. Not only did this false perception of Native Americans fuel horrible acts of violence against Native peoples, this extended history of suppression also caused increased vegetation growth and dry land, a disastrous combination contributing to the severity of wildfires today.
This fear of fire culminated in the 1910s, when wildfires in Montana and Idaho burned millions of acres and killed 86 people. In response, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a policy of “putting out all blazes.” This technique included preventing fires and suppressing emerging fires almost immediately. The Forest Service also deemed light burning (a practice used by many ranchers, farmers and timbermen to improve land conditions) a hazard. To the Forest Service, all fires were bad and needed to be extinguished immediately; this contention would ultimately increase the wildfire problem and fuel the megafires California experiences today.
Today, it is imperative that we recognize the benefits of using Indigenous practices to combat fires and begin to combat the Western perception that all fires should be immediately suppressed. Not only can Indigeous practices combat today’s megafires, but Indigenous land use practices have proven to be effective in preventing deforestation and limiting greenhouse gas emissions, particularly CO2 emissions.
However, in recognizing the potential Indigenous practices have to mitigate climate change and California wildfires, it is important that we respect the ontology and value systems of Indigenous peoples. Too often, when Indigenous practices conflict with Western economic models, they are dominated by Western beliefs. This combination often leads to assimilation attempts rather than a recognition of Indigenous sovereignty. Therefore, while the use of Indigenous wildfire techniques do have the potential to attenuate the wildfire situation, these practices must be implemented in a way that values the autonomy of Indigenous peoples. The focus should also be on practices that incorporate both the livelihood of individuals in the area, and good landscape management practices. This requires the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge and culture.
The consequences of not respecting Indigenous knowledge and culture are evident among the young Krahô people in Brazil. Interaction between young Krahô tribe members and farmers of European descent (who disagreed with the Indigenous burning techniques) caused the young Indigenous men to criticize the knowledge of elder tribe members in communal meetings; coupled with the scrutiny of Indigenous fire practices by European farmers, this ultimately prevented the implementation of early-season protective fires. If we hope to utilize Indigenous practices to combat California wildfires, it must be done with the highest degree of respect for Indigenous knowledge. Recognition that Indigenous peoples are native to the land and know it best is essential to avoid attempts of Western assimilation.
With that, there have been attempts to work with Native Californians to combat the wildfire situation. In 2017 at Sequoia National Park, controlled burns were used to manage Sequoia's Ash Mountain area. These controlled burns were conducted with the help of Sequoia’s Indigenous neighbors, the Mono (Monache), Yokuts, Tübatulabal, Paiute, and Western Shoshone. These controlled burns are credited with the survival of General Sherman, the largest living single-stem tree, in the 2021 wildfire season.
These kinds of collaborations are taking place on the state government level as well. In the Sierra Nevada Foothills, men and women from Native American tribes in Northern California have been leading the way in regards to cultural burns. The idea is to bring back the “good fires” that were considered illegal just a century ago. In conversation with NPR, Ron Goode, the tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono, explained that cultural burning is a cultivation technique. Fire is never placed on the ground without knowledge of the outcome.
The development of relationships between tribal leaders and government officials has allowed tribes to regain access to ancestral lands and use cultural burns to begin to restore the land. Today, the California state government has committed to reducing vegetation on half a million acres. This ambitious goal requires the knowledge of the people Native to the land and emphasizes the importance of literally fighting fire with fire.
Cultural burns are an extremely important and useful tool for addressing California’s current wildfire crisis. Crucial to the use of this technique, however, is recognizing that Native people should be at the forefront of this partnership. We must not continue our history of using native techniques, and then effectively excluding Indigenous peoples. In order to successfully fight California’s worsening fires, we must elevate the knowledge of those who know the land best.