Rural Texas – Rusty abandonded oil pumps

Op-ed by Dawn Blake, a Hupa Tribal member, a Yurok Tribal descendent and a resident of Hoopa.

February 3, 2023 .

First published in THE TIMES-STANDARD 

As a child, I watched my grandmother maintain her basketry material by burning her gathering patches. She did this on an annual or even semi-annual basis. I am a Hupa Tribal member and a Yurok Tribal descendant, and by serving as forestry director for the Yurok Tribal Council, I am working to uphold my grandmother’s and my mother’s tribe’s sacred practice of cultural burns.

Our use of cultural burns — a process by which we set small fires to prevent larger ones — is a form of land management that has been passed down through generations. It is called cultural burning because of the holistic changes that fire brings to the landscape, and it is important to us both spiritually and culturally.

Despite its numerous benefits, cultural burns have long been misunderstood and even outlawed — an egregious mistake that puts our forests and communities in grave danger. A century of European forestry management laws suppressing fires and banning Indigenous peoples from practicing cultural burns has made the landscape more susceptible to catastrophic wildfires over the last decade

Cultural burns make the land healthier, more diverse, and better able to withstand catastrophic wildfires, like those occurring with increasing frequency in the Western United States. Indigenous cultural burns focus on what needs to be burned to revitalize the land, resources, and water, with the intent of returning to make use of the land again — to bring the ecosystem back to where it can reproduce on its own.

These burns grant us food sovereignty by allowing our traditional foods, like salmon, acorns, and berries, to flourish. In the space newly opened by a cultural burn, a variety of plants, bushes, and smaller trees can grow. Many of these species are dependent on fire and have been in decline for decades. Fire also opens up the forest to large animals, such as elk and deer.

Thanks to recently passed legislation, there are new resources to support this critical and sacred practice of burning the land to heal it. A California law has affirmed the right to cultural burns, reducing the layers of liability and permission needed to set “good fire” on the land. The law recognizes the value of our Indigenous knowledge and the experience of Native people with fire. It opens the door to us starting to take care of our land again with fire without fear of going to prison.

At the federal level, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides grants to support cultural fire as it applies to ecosystem restoration. The Inflation Reduction Act provides $220 million in funding for tribes and tribal organizations for climate resilience and adaptation programs. This includes grants to support forest conservation and the development of fire-resilient forests. The principle of Tribal sovereignty supports flexibility in how Tribes spend those dollars in ways that make sense for our communities. For us, that includes the support and freedom to practice cultural fire.

We have been strongly advocating for years for our cultural right to use fire. Only now that there is consensus from the western scientific community are our voices finally being heard. Keeping fire out of the ecosystem is making our forests and communities far less resilient. We must re-learn how to live with fire and use it to protect the land and all who depend on it.