The First, Best Stewards: Aboriginal Fire and the Klamath-Siskiyous

BLOG | The First, Best Stewards: Aboriginal Fire and the Klamath-Siskiyous

By Daranda Hinkey and Tule O’Rourke, May 2020

Daranda Hinkey and Tule O’Rourke are both graduating Environmental Science and Policy majors at Southern Oregon University, currently interning for Lomakatsi Restoration Project. Daranda is an enrolled member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, located in Northern Nevada. Tule is an enrolled member of the Yurok Tribe located in Northern California. As part of their internship with Lomakatsi’s Tribal Partnerships Program, Daranda and Tule have been helping to coordinate the tribal panel of the Spring 2020 Fire & Climate Summit, and they wrote this blog post to give you some background on aboriginal burning.

Photo, left to right: Tule and Daranda with Lomakatsi Tribal Partnerships Director Belinda Brown

This May, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Lomakatsi Restoration Project, and other partners will host a Fire & Climate Summit webinar series. Originally slated as a single-day public event, due to COVID-19 safety concerns the effort is going digital, with weekly webinars exploring different aspects of the intersection of climate change, wildfires, forests, and human communities 

The third webinar in the series will be a dialog around the cultural landscape of the Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion, native people of the Southern Oregon and Northern California region, fire ecology, climate change, indigenous stewardship practices, and colonialism and its impact on the land and people. 

Since time immemorial, Indigenous people have been developing sophisticated methods for tending the land, including the use of fire. Indigenous peoples methodically burn certain areas across different elevations and habitats in order to renew food, medicinal, and cultural resources, encourage vegetation regrowth, and add a more nutrient rich environment not only for animals and plants, but for the people too. Traditionally, carefully applied fire by tribal people was also an important tool to reduce excess fuel loading in an effort to safeguard villages and seasonal camps from high intensity fires. Indigenous fire maintains a cultural and spiritual balance between the Earth and its people. 

Photo provided by Margo Robbins, Yurok Tribe, Cultural Fire Management Council.

For most of the last 100-150 years, government agencies have considered fire a dangerous and destructive element and actively suppressed and excluded it from the land. The previous stigma that fire is bad, and the resulting age of fire suppression and intensive industrial forestry, has led us to the current reality of vastly overgrown forests, loss of large old trees that are more resilient to fire, higher intensity fires, and the declination of natural meadows and prairies. These conditions all have a ripple effect on the ecosystem, and local tribes’ ability to gather valued species that they have relied on for thousands of years. 

Today we are encountering an “out of balance” landscape that has been left without the healing medicine of fire on the land. Native American Tribes and communities are working to integrate their knowledge and practices into Traditional Ecological Knowledge—including bringing fire back to the land in a good way. Native tribes provide a framework for improving fire management; this includes reduction of fuel loading, restoration efforts, and cultural revitalization through fire use. Reclaiming this heritage is now resurging as we face increasingly frequent megafires and the destruction they have been causing. 

“Aboriginal fire is resurging across tribal communities, as an important land stewardship tool,” said Belinda Brown, Tribal Partnerships Director at Lomakatsi. “Fire has been used on the land for time immemorial to manage vegetation, influence landscapes and increase diversity in the ecosystem. I grew up in Modoc County California where my grandfather, father and I burned the XL Reservation meadows in the spring and fall. This is the heartland my people—the Kosealekte Band of the Ajumawi-Atsuge Nation, otherwise known as the Pit River Tribe.” 

Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Western Science are being woven together to develop best practices in ecosystem stewardship. Understanding the immense knowledge from these two systems can benefit the environment and people. With government agencies seeing the value of this approach, and community based restoration organizations establishing strong partnerships with tribes, it has further empowered Native American Tribes on a growing scale with their models of ecological forestry practice and long-term thinking. On a national scale, academia, foresters, and place-based conservation organizations are following Native tribes’ traditional knowledge, as their wisdom serves as a model to help guide ecological forestry practices through a whole systems approach to resource stewardship. Continuing their long-term vision for the environment, and being the first and best stewards of the land, make tribes invaluable allies and leaders in forest and watershed restoration. 

Photo provided by Richard O’Rourke, Yurok Tribe, Cultural Fire Management Council.

Organizations such as Lomakatsi are championing the involvement of tribes in landscape-scale ecosystem restoration. For more than fifteen years, Lomakatsi has worked in partnership with Native American Tribes and tribal communities throughout Oregon and Northern California to build sustainable ecosystem restoration programs. Lomakatsi’s tribal staff works closely with tribal and agency partners to incorporate Traditional Ecological Knowledge into ecosystem restoration projects. Tribal partnership initiatives assist in building tribal capacity for the implementation of ecological restoration across thousands of acres of ancestral lands. For example, over the past 10 years Lomakatsi has partnered with The Klamath Tribes to restore over 50,000 acres of forests, meadows and riparian areas on their ancestral lands. Lomakatsi has also been partnering with the Ajumawi Band of the Ajumawi-Atsuge Nation (Pit River Tribe) on returning fire to the cultural landscape and oak habitats, near Fall River Mills, CA. 

Landscape-scale restoration projects aimed at improving ecosystem resilience can also enhance sources of traditional subsistence food and medicines, while presenting opportunities for employment of indigenous people in stewarding their ancestral lands. It is therefore critical for organizations concerned about ecological and social health to engage with indigenous people in ecological restoration, to be inclusive of the first, best stewards of the land, and also to realize the multiple ecological and social benefits that come from incorporating traditional ecological knowledge into restoration planning and evaluation.

The First, Best Stewards: Aboriginal Fire and the Klamath-Siskiyous Webinar, part of the 2020 Fire & Climate Summit, will take place Wednesday, May 20, 2020 from 6:00pm-7:30pm. Click here to learn more.

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