In the vast expanse of the great outdoors, away from the bustling city life, there lies a connection between nature and humanity that has deep historical roots, particularly for Indigenous communities. And this week, in an illuminating YouTube video for PBS Origins, Tai Leclaire takes us on a journey through time, exploring the intricate relationship between Indigenous peoples, fire management, and the repercussions of a misguided suppression policy.

Indigenous Fire Management

Before contact, Indigenous communities engaged in daily practices to manage and steward their lands. One such practice was the controlled or prescribed burns, a method now recognized for its ecological benefits. These intentional fires promoted the growth of useful plants, increased animal populations, and prevented the accumulation of flammable materials that fuel wildfires.

Smokey Bear

However, with the passage of the Weeks Act in 1911, the U.S. government initiated fire suppression policies, effectively outlawing cultural burns and traditional land management tactics. The fear of enemy fire during World War Two further fueled the suppression efforts. Enter Smokey Bear, the iconic figure with the slogan “Only you can prevent wildfires,” marking the beginning of an era that perpetuated a negative perception of fire.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge 

In a conversation with Dr. Melinda Adams, Tai delves into the implications of the suppression era and the importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Dr. Adams emphasizes the layered nature of her work, integrating cultural ways and teachings into ecological research. TEK, often seen as an alternative to Western methods, embodies knowledge derived from being Indigenous to specific ecosystems.

Dr. Adams sheds light on overlooked aspects of TEK, particularly its application to water management. Indigenous peoples, guided by maritime calendars, have maintained close relationships with water scapes, yet this facet of knowledge often goes unrecognized.

Tai Leclaire expands the discussion to include the broader context of TEK as a form of environmental justice. The erasure of Indigenous presence and stewardship through the concept of terra nullius is examined, challenging the narrative that Indigenous lands were unowned and unoccupied before settlers arrived.

Climate Change

A groundbreaking study published in the journal Tree Physiology, underscores the long-term consequences of strict wildfire control on the eastern U.S. forests. The absence of fire for 70 years has triggered a fundamental shift, raising concerns about the forests’ ability to withstand the impacts of climate change.

Professor Marc Abrams, a co-author of the study and an expert in forest ecology and physiology at Pennsylvania State University, highlights the drastic shift from a period of moderate to frequent fires to one of overprotection. He emphasizes the need to reintroduce controlled fires to the landscape.

The study reveals that sensitive tree species like maple and birch have replaced less sensitive species such as oak and hickory, a shift with potential implications for the forests’ resilience in the face of climate change. This alteration, known as mesophication, poses a particular threat in a warming climate characterized by more frequent and severe droughts.

The study concludes that the alteration in eastern U.S. forests, primarily driven by changes in land-use history, makes them more susceptible to the challenges posed by future climate change, particularly in terms of increased drought vulnerability. 

Moving Forward

Despite historical mistreatment, government agencies are beginning to recognize the power of TEK. Initiatives, such as California Governor Gavin Newsom’s apology and commitment to fund more prescribed burns, signal a growing acknowledgment of tribal land stewardship.

However, challenges persist. TEK is often undervalued, categorized under humanities rather than science, making funding difficult to secure. Access to land and federal recognition for tribes are highlighted as crucial components for realizing Indigenous agency and self-determination in stewarding lands.

Perhaps, as the YouTube video suggests, the next slogan should be, “Only you can give stewardship of lands back to Indigenous people.”