Cultural Burns: How Indigenous Peoples Use Fire to Heal and Protect the Land
*originally posted to elainealec.com
Unless you're living under a rock, you've probably noticed, whether it's the Okanagan, the prairies, the Western coast of the so-called "USA," or all the way across the Atlantic to what's now known as Australia, the landscape is on fire. Not only that, but it's getting worse each year. What if I told you, that prior to 1492, Fire wasn't a problem for Indigenous peoples? Not only that but what if I told you that Fire was intentionally placed on the Land to heal, activate and even protect the Land from devastating forest fires like the ones we see each year today?
The fires raging in the Okanagan right now are devastating for the various groups of peoples there, both Indigenous and Settlers, but it never used to be this way. Indigenous peoples have long known that Fire is medicine, and have used it deliberately to promote the health of the ecosystems they have been placed in charge of by the Creator. While Western fear-mongering would have you believe that Fire is merely destructive and must be snuffed out immediately, this was actually a racist assimilation tactic first used in 1874 to further separate Indigenous peoples from the Land by banning their use of cultural burns for foodways and ecosystem management. Colonizer practice and legislation at the time sought to actively isolate Indigenous peoples from their food sources and relationships with the Land in order to forcibly assimilate them, thus began the Bush Fire Act of 1874 in BC, specifically designed to criminalize Indigenous peoples for participating in cultural burns despite the most devastating wildfire in Canadian history actually being Settler started. Letters between British Army Officer Walter Colquhoun Grant and Governor James Douglas complain about having to withhold potlach gifts to "punish" local Indigenous peoples for feeding themselves from the forest through cultural burns, indicating that the ban on cultural burns had nothing to do with the safety of the forests or fear of wildfires as is perpetrated now. (Boutsalis, 2020, para 29-31)
To those who are familiar with Fire management practices, the concept of a cultural burn may be relatively known to you under the guise of a prescribed burn. However, the two concepts are vastly different. I want to note that a prescribed burn is merely the act of burning excess fuel that has accumulated at the forest floor, which is part of a cultural burn but can be done without any ceremony to it and thus does not constitute a cultural burn. Cultural burns are a part of being a Land steward and require ceremony. Indigenous peoples use cultural burns as part of their relationship with the Land and animals in their ecosystem and accept them as part of their responsibility and their role in keeping the system balanced. Across Turtle Island, Indigenous peoples have used cultural burns to cool rivers for salmon, to burn off dead layers of grass to reveal healthy grass for deer and bison, to burn out overgrowth and prevent ticks and other pests from investing calving grounds of caribous species. Cultural burns are also used to clear pathways for migration, protect forests from fires spreading from the undergrowth to the trees, reduce greenhouse gases when the wildfires do catch, activate the Land (open seeds that require heat or burn back overgrowth to remineralize the soil and help berries grow), and even protect camps and people from Fire that may get out of control and burn through an area.
Each Indigenous group had a different use for cultural burn depending on their relationship with the Creator and their responsibility for the Land they were provided, so cultural burn practices looked different across the continent. Regardless, thousands of years' worth of knowledge governs how to know when the Land is ready to burn, and nearly every Indigenous Fire Knowledge Holder has already indicated that the Land is sick and long past the point where it has been begging for a burn. With Indigenous peoples being forcibly removed from the Land and unable to care for her, she has become sick and overgrown. Fires rage across her every year, and the influx of greenhouse gases further exacerbate climate change, altering weather patterns and causing worse forest fires each year as the positive feedback cycle continues. Every year, the Land cries out for our help, and yet every year the Canadian government refuses to allow Indigenous peoples back on the Land to repair the damage that their assimilation policies caused. Of course, that would be admitting defeat in assimilation and Land dispossession tactics.
However, the only way forward in reversing the effects of climate change, especially in the department of wildfire management, is to hand back Fire management (and Land management in general) to Indigenous peoples who have the Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and the relationship with the Land necessary to properly heal her. While the fear of Fire in the 21st century is real and the wildfires we have seen are devastating, they are only this way because of the assimilationist rhetoric that was intentionally used to remove Indigenous peoples from their sovereignty and make them dependent upon Western food sources and Western society. The fear-mongering went from something fake and legislative to something with real-world consequences that Western civilization is not prepared to handle because it simply does not possess the adequate understanding of this Land that we as Indigenous peoples do. Handing back the driver's seat to Indigenous peoples and the real decision-making power is the only real answer to saving this Land from a real full-scale breakdown that Western society is willingly causing by refusing to check its ego and racism at the door to this reconciliation meeting.
Countries like Australia have developed Fire management programs that incorporate Indigenous TEK and their Indigenous population with great success, citing sources that Indigenous peoples that participate in Land-based activities fair better in both physical and mental well-being (Boutsalis, 2020, para 64). Not to mention, both the TEK and Indigenous peoples being back on the Land have improved wildfire outcomes, though the process is slow because the Land has been left untouched for so long. Similar outcomes are being seen in the USA, but "Canada" simply refuses to relinquish any control or decriminalize Indigenous peoples for participating in cultural burns. Indeed, as previously stated, doing so would be an admission of racist legislation that benefits them and enforces Land dispossession and Land management by the State.
Despite this, there has been a massive uprising in support for traditional Indigenous Fire management across "Canada" as several Indigenous groups push for their right to engage in cultural burns once again. In some areas, their fires are put out, while in others their fires are left alone or even encouraged as Settlers become allies. We have never lost the understanding or knowledge that Fire is medicine, and certainly, the Land recognizes this fact as well, and it's exciting to see more and more Westerners learning this new way of seeing Fire as well.
Cultural burns, Indigenous Knowledge Keepers and Traditional Ecological Knowledge hold the key to slowing and reversing the devastating effects of climate change. Indigenous peoples are experts in the Land and have understood how to heal it since time immemorial. However, "Canada"'s unwillingness to release any true power to Indigenous peoples in Land management and Fire management while simultaneously parroting reconciliation and nation-to-nation relationships are costing all peoples and nations involved valuable time and resources and is pushing us dangerously close to the point of no return with climate change. While individual Settlers are slowly getting on board with the idea that Fire is medicine, and that Fire can and should be used to heal and activate the Land, the wildfire devastation we see repeated year after year will only slow down and stop once "Canada" understands that only Indigenous peoples and our TEK hold the answer to healing the Land. Once we're back on the Land, and back in control, the Land will heal. However, assimilationist solutions to assimilationist-made problems are only making it worse, and I just wish there was a way to make "Canada" see that.
Capitalization clarification: For Settlers who may be confused about the inconsistencies with the capitalization of Fire, Land, Water and Air in Indigenous writing, it is vital to remember that Fire, Land, Water and Air are alive and possess spirits. Therefore, they are proper nouns in Indigenous culture. However, there are cases when they are, in fact, not being referred to as proper nouns and may then be lowercase.
Boutsalis, K. (2020). The Art of Fire: Reviving the Indigenous Craft of Cultural Burning. The Narwhal. https://thenarwhal.ca/indigenous-cultural-burning/.
Further Reading if you're as excited about this topic as I am:
Fighting fire with fire
The art of fire: reviving the Indigenous craft of cultural burning
With wildfires on the rise, indigenous fire management is poised to make a comeback
'Fire is medicine': the tribes burning California forests to save them