Bringing Good Fire Back to the Land
Of the many beliefs and practices carried into Turtle Island by settlers is the notion that all fire is bad and must be suppressed, no matter the cost. Indigenous peoples, however, have utilized fire for many generations, more so after the extinction of the megafauna that used to roam the planet, such as North American mastodons, short-faced bears, giant sloths, and giant beavers. Many of these great animals grazed on conifers and other vegetation, maintaining a balance within forested ecosystems. With their extinction around 10,000 years ago, the use of fire became more necessary to reduce vegetation and maintain ecosystems.
My people, the Bodewadmik, are so-named because of our relationship with the other Anishinabek people of the Three Fires Confederacy. The name means, “People of the Place of the Fire,” and is related to our role in this alliance in maintaining the sacred fire. Our elders explain that Anishinabe, the first human man, went to great lengths to find a mate. After many trials and attempts at crossing the great lake, he finally landed on an island, upon which sat Firekeeper’s lodge. Firekeeper had a human daughter, and the two people married, eventually birthing four sons who traveled in each of the four directions. On their wedding day, Firekeeper gave an immense gift—that of fire. He explained to Anishinabe: “You must remember that fire has two natures. It can cook your food, warm your lodge, and clear your land. But it can also maim, destroy, and kill. Remember that your relatives each have their own nature—Bear can only be bear; Wolf can only be wolf. But like fire, humans have two natures. Like fire, you can also nurture life, or destroy it, and the choice is yours to make.” The understanding of and use of fire by Native people cannot be overstated.
The practice of cultural burning by Indigenous people has been increasingly studied by Western scientists. Intentional burning has been used to clear land, promote plant growth, improve soils, and shape landscapes to develop habitat for preferred species such as hazelnut, willow, and bison. Good fire is also necessary for certain plant species which have adapted to regular small fire intervals, such as California’s giant sequoias and the lodgepole pine, which require fire to reproduce. A vital effect of prescribed burning is the reduction of “fuel loads,” the brush and other plant material that under the right circumstances can become a tinder box for out-of-control wildfire. Compared to wildfire, prescribed fires are carefully planned, monitored, and take place in small areas when the weather is most ideal. Prescribed burns that are accompanied by forest thinning and which take place every few years have been shown to reduce the size and severity of wildfires.
While Native communities have understood these relationships for literally thousands of years, the practice of traditional burning was banned by European settlers and American governments. With more than a hundred years of fire suppression under our belts, North American forests are largely overgrown and primed for the massive wildfires we’ve seen sweeping across the West for several years now.
With tribal communities leading the way, scientists and agencies are reconsidering the default approach of fire suppression and are researching and implementing prescribed burning as a way to mitigate the destructive force of massive wildfire. This 2020 article published by UC Davis is a great overview of the history of cultural burning (and the removal of good fire as Native people were displaced), and the reemergence of this traditional practice. And this NPR article from last year highlights the partnerships being developed between tribal communities and state agencies in California to return good fire to the land. If you really want to dive into understanding the history of wildfire, the use of good fire by Indigenous peoples, and the current efforts to shift our use of fire in North America, I highly recommend listening to this three-part podcast series on fire by Future Ecologies. The podcast examines both the historic and cultural aspects of good fire, but also the science of fire management and what we’re learning about prescribed fire and climate change.
While the science and culture of good fire is sound, the current mindset and policies regarding fire must be challenged, and this is easier said than done. We all have a part to play in understanding the role of fire and supporting efforts to integrate an old way of fire use into our communities. Over the long term, this will help prevent the massive destruction that can come with out-of-control wildfire and help us become better land stewards.
Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.
McLeod, G. (2018). Changing the Culture of Fire in Washington. The Nature Conservancy. Retrieved from https://www.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=23ea2dd4e9fb46d98fac559c9ab262b3
Raish, C., González-Cabán, A. & Condie, C.J. (2005). The Importance of Traditional Fire Use and Management Practices for Contemporary Land Managers in the American Southwest. Retrieved from https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_other/rmrs_2005_raish_c001.pdf
Marks-Block, T., Lake, F.K., Bliege Bird, R. et al. (2021). Revitalized Karuk and Yurok Cultural Burning to Enhance California Hazelnut for Basket Weaving in Northwestern California, USA. Fire Ecology, 17(6). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1186/s42408-021-00092-6