Fire as medicine: Learning from Native American fire stewardship
For centuries, Indigenous peoples have worked to live in harmony with fire. Can integrating such cultural practices into contemporary wildfire management help prevent catastrophic wildfires?
By Jane Palmer
In 2020, nearly 60,000 wildfires raged across the United States, burning a record-breaking 10.3 million acres. The fires weren’t just frequent; they reached epic proportions: California and Colorado recorded their biggest fires ever, and in early October, 65 large fires were burning in California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and, in smaller instances, five other states. In all, the blazes consumed more than 2 million acres.
The year’s catastrophic fire season could potentially be the new normal, as climate change is bringing hotter and drier conditions, perfect for igniting forests laden with fuel after decades of fire suppression efforts.
“As a tribal forester, I am always thinking about climate change,” said John Galvan, a forester for the Pueblo of Jemez, a tribe located in north central New Mexico. “It is so much drier, and we are getting so little precipitation.”
The ancestors of the Native American community at Jemez Pueblo lived in fire-prone forests for centuries before European contact, often in densely packed towns. Nearly 2 decades ago, it struck environmental archaeologist Christopher Roos how those tribes learned to live sustainably in a highly flammable ecosystem.
Indigenous peoples “are depending upon these landscapes for their lives and livelihood,” said Roos, who is now a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University in Texas. “Of course, they would have figured something out—some sort of accommodation.”
To investigate further, Roos initiated a study in 2011 to analyze the dynamics of the region’s fire regime over the past 7 centuries, and also to learn more about the ancestral practices of the Jemez with respect to the forests and fire. In doing so, Roos was one of a group of Western researchers learning more about how Native Americans relate to the land, in the hope of gleaning valuable insights regarding the current wildfire crisis.
“In the Indigenous worldview, people can be a force for good and regeneration on the land,” said Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Kimmerer is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. “And I think that is a perspective we desperately need right now.”
Collaborating for the Cause
Tom Swetnam grew up near the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, which form the southernmost tip of the Rockies. He described the Jemez’s dense forests of piñon-juniper, ponderosa pine, aspen, and spruce-fir. Swetnam also recalled walking through these woodlands and the many ruins of ancient Jemez villages and fortresses. Some of these strongholds were up to four stories high and had more than 1,000 rooms.
For Swetnam, a professor emeritus who was the director of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona from 2000 to 2014, the Jemez Mountains struck him as the perfect place to study the combination of fire and human history. “It’s somewhat unique to have such a large number of datable archaeological sites within a forest like this,” he said.
Swetnam and Roos teamed up to start the Jemez Fire and Humans in Resilient Ecosystems (FHiRE) project in 2012. The project aimed to investigate the history of fires, people, and the interaction between the two in the Jemez Mountains over the past several hundred years.
Project scientists worked on reconstructing the region’s population history from archaeological artifacts—they used ceramics to identify dates and rubble volume to determine the number of people living in a house or a village. Simultaneously, they used tree rings, soil, and sediment data to document past records of fire and vegetation. Then, using the collected data, ecological modelers ran computer simulations of fire, land use, and vegetation under different scenarios of population history, wood availability, and fire use. “We assembled all the pieces that we thought were needed to build a holistic picture,” Roos said.
To understand and interpret the historical data, the researchers needed to learn about the behaviors and practices of the Native American tribes who have lived on the land for centuries. To that end, the team connected with tribal members of the Pueblo of Jemez and, with their help, members from the Hopi, White Mountain Apache, and Zuni tribes.
The team’s ethnographers worked with Chris Toya, the Pueblo of Jemez Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, and Paul Tosa, the two-time governor of the Pueblo, to conduct more than 50 interviews with tribal members about the traditional use of fire and wood in the past and present. Many of the recorded interviews were conducted in Towa, the native language of the Jemez, and Toya and Tosa translated parts of the interviews to relay the relevant information to the FHiRE study’s researchers.
The researchers’ goals were to learn more about the tribes’ relationship with fire, and also to provide an archive of the elders’ knowledge that the tribes would keep. The collaborations between the FHiRE team researchers and the Pueblo of Jemez were so beneficial to both parties that in 2015, the Tribal Council of the Pueblo of Jemez unanimously passed a resolution that called for more collaborations in the same vein.
“We now have this pool of data that can really benefit the forest and the people that interact with it,” Toya said. “Not only my people, but everyone else that wants to enjoy the landscape.”
A Fiery Tale
After 5 years of research, the Pueblo of Jemez hosted a meeting at which the FHiRE study researchers presented the history they’d uncovered to a gathering of representatives from each of the tribes involved. “We talked about our results and had an open conversation about how they might be beneficial,” Roos said.
The researchers had found that when Indigenous Jemez settlers first moved to the mountains in the 12th century, the number of fires increased in the region, most likely due to cultural burning practices. But the tree ring data revealed a surprising story. During that time, many trees were fire scarred at the base but went on to survive. And the dates of fire scarring would differ, even for trees close to one another. “There was no evidence that these were really widespread fires,” Swetnam said. “They were just really small, patchy fires.”
The frequent collecting of wood for fuel and the clearing of the areas around the villages prevented fire from spreading, even in hot, dry summers, researchers concluded. “They would always run into another burn area and run out of fuel, so [the fires] never got very big,” Roos said.
Beginning in the late 1500s, Spanish colonizers forced the Jemez people into the Jemez River valley. With few people living in the mountains, tree ring data showed that wildfires became very large and widespread. “With the trails and forests overgrown, the fire really ranged over the landscape uninterrupted by humans,” Swetnam said.
The 1623 Jemez Revolt led most of the Jemez population to move back to defensible spaces in the uplands. Then, as white settlers moved into the area in the 1800s, they brought with them sheep and cattle. The livestock ate the grasses that were important in spreading fires. During this period of the return of the Jemez to the mountains and white settlement in the valley, researchers saw the elimination of widespread wildfires.
The final stage of the story was all too familiar to FHiRE participants. In the early 20th century, fire suppression became the official policy in the United States with passage of the Weeks Act in 1911. This law largely outlawed Native American fire management and called for fire protection efforts through federal, state, and private cooperation. Wildfire fuel accumulated, and as a result, 21st-century fires are frequently catastrophic, roaring high into the canopies and burning hundreds of thousands of acres.
“They burn so hot that they kill almost all of the trees over large areas,” Swetnam said. “There are big canopy openings where there are no living trees, and [the trees] are probably not coming back because there is no seed source.”
Feared and Revered
In the past 3 years, the FHiRE team has published a series of papers, the most recent in January 2021. The researchers identified several lessons learned, not least of which is that living without smoke and fire is simply not an option.
“It is possible to live sustainably in these forests. But you have to use the wood, you have to keep the fuel density low, and you have to live with fire—you have to make an accommodation with fire.”
“I think the simplest lesson is that it is possible to live sustainably in these forests,” Swetnam said. “But you have to use the wood, you have to keep the fuel density low, and you have to live with fire—you have to make an accommodation with fire.”
For Native Americans, living with fire has been a way of life. “For us, fire is sacred,” Galvan said, “and it is important to recognize that it has many benefits.”
Native Americans depend on fire in so many ways that forest ecologist Frank Kanawha Lake of the U.S. Forest Service refers to their cultures as fire dependent. Lake is a Karuk descendant with Yurok family and grew up immersed in the cultural beliefs and knowledge systems of the two California tribes.
Before the widespread fire exclusion policies, these tribes used cultural burns to enhance the value of food and raw materials they used in their everyday lives. Early in his career, for instance, Lake became involved in a pilot study to look at what was needed to produce the gold standard of hazelnut shrub stems used for tribal basket weaving. Controlled burning, the type traditionally practiced by tribes in the region, turned out to be key. “The straight, nonkinky stems that we thought were natural were actually a construct of sophisticated Indigenous agroforestry and fire stewardship,” Lake said.
For the past 2 decades, Lake has collaborated with Yurok and Karuk tribes on this hazelnut study, publishing the findings in 2019 and February 2021. The project has demonstrated that cultural fire practices could benefit tribal economies in the region, while continuing to reduce wildfire risks.
In a similar collaborative effort, Lake has also worked with California’s North Fork Mono Tribe and colleagues to create a synthesis report outlining how low-intensity fire can help preserve mature California black oaks, which provide an important food source for Native Americans and habitat and sustenance for numerous wildlife species such as spotted owls and fishers.
Judicious thinning and fire treatment that benefit black oaks would help the tribes, wildlife, and the environment, researchers said. “From a fire resilience and a drought resilience perspective, it’s a very important species to try to make sure we maintain,” said the report’s lead author, ecologist Jonathan Long of the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station.
In many Native American cultures, all beings, be they a bear, a tree, or a human, have a gift, Kimmerer said. And one of the gifts of humans is the ability to use fire creatively. “So the use of fire is understood to be responsibility for caring for the land, not controlling it,” Kimmerer said. “It is something that we are supposed to do to keep the land healthy.”
Fire as Medicine
Fire is a form of medicine for the land and its people, Lake said. It is necessary to prescribe the right amount of medicine through a process of understanding how to live with fire and adaptation to a changing environment. “But if you don’t have adequate medicine on the landscape, the ecosystem and [the] people are sick,” Lake said. “Now, with the wildfires we are seeing due to fire suppression, we’re having an overdose.”
“In Indigenous science, you cannot separate knowledge and responsibility for knowledge. They are tightly coupled with one another.”
Indigenous Knowledges have emerged from centuries of Native Americans studying how the land has responded to controlled burning, akin to the Western science approach of field study and experimentation. “Traditional and Western knowledge each have their own form of science,” Lake said.
Indigenous science, however, is guided by a value system of humans playing a positive role in creating balance and well-being, not just for the tribes but also for the environment and all the plants and animals that inhabit it. “In Indigenous science, you cannot separate knowledge and responsibility for knowledge,” Kimmerer said. “They are tightly coupled with one another.”
Restoring Cultural Practices
Recognizing the value of Native American knowledge and experience about fire, a suite of federal policies in the past 2 decades—including the Healthy Forests Restoration Act and the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act—have sought to facilitate tribal engagement in Forest Service land management activities.
According to Long, many tribes are keen to move forward. “We hear from many tribes that are interested in maintaining their traditional relationships with their aboriginal lands,” Long said. “They want to apply their practices and do the restoration work needed to sustain their communities.”
To make the cultural use of fire a reality requires Western forest scientists collaborating with tribes at every stage of a project and a respect for Indigenous science, Kimmerer said. “There’s a sense [that] we need to encourage native people to embrace Western science so we can collaborate,” Kimmerer said. “Well, we also have to teach Western scientists Indigenous science so that they can collaborate.”
Successful collaboration involves having a respect for and an understanding of Indigenous Knowledges systems. As the director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, Kimmerer is engaged in programs that introduce the benefits of traditional ecological knowledge to the scientific community.
Helping to improve the representation of tribal voices in government agencies is also key, Roos said. Roos has a proposal in for another collaborative project with the Jemez, which would fund internship opportunities for the tribe’s college students in federal agencies. “It could start a pipeline of Jemez people in the [U.S. Forest Service] so their voice is not an episodic thing, but a daily thing,” Roos said.
Cooperators for Abundance
Currently, some tribes lack the resources to engage in cultural burning, as they have so many other issues that they are trying to keep up with, Long said. “We can’t incorporate our cultural values in[to] the use of wildfire because we simply don’t have the capacity at the tribal level,” Galvan said.
In other tribes, some Indigenous Knowledges surrounding fire practices may have been lost. Education is key, especially for younger tribal members, Toya said. Before the pandemic, Toya would visit Jemez classrooms and teach students about how their ancestors took care of forested landscapes. “And that, in turn, the land took care of them,” Toya said.
Despite the challenges of more intense fire seasons, Kimmerer believes that incorporating a Native American viewpoint, which sees humans as positive participants in ecological systems, could bring an element of hope and empowerment to the efforts.
Lake concurs. In his role as an academically trained scientist, he aims to contribute to caring for the forests, while simultaneously helping to fulfill the federal government’s responsibility to Native Americans’ livelihood and well-being. Guided by his cultural values, Lake has a vision to use the best available science to inform policies that benefit both the environment and the communities that live in it.
“You know, fire can be one of those things that brings back abundance and health and productivity of the environment, as well as a culture that depends on it,” Lake said. “We could go from being perceived competitors for a scarce resource—where things are degraded, people are excluded—to being cooperators for abundance.”