Indigenous communities all over the world have been caretakers of this land for thousands of years. Many communities created caretaking traditions that worked in tandem with the Earth, never taking more than what was needed, and always giving back. These communities were able to function in both self-sustaining and Earth-sustaining ways, prospering in ways that didn’t put human life above everything else. However, with the spread and destruction of colonization, many of these sustainable practices were forced from tradition. With disease, genocide, and assimilation fueled by ethnocentric attitudes, many of the traditions, cultures, languages, and caretaking practices have been lost… but this does not mean that they were forgotten.
For this installment of the Indigenous Voices series, and in honor of World Indigenous People’s Day, which was on Monday August 9, I want to explore and share a traditional caretaking practice that can guide us toward global climate solutions. The history of Indigenous communities is proof that there is both truth and great purpose to the techniques they used to care for the Earth. And in the wake of our global climate crisis, these caretakers and their knowledge might just be the solution to our dying planet. In the last three years, we have seen the most intense and destructive wildfires decimate parts of Australia and the West Coast of the U.S., and every year that our planet warms, the possibility of these uncontrollable fires destroying entire ecosystems rises as well.
Cultural burning has long been a practice for Indigenous communities around the world. In Australia, Aboriginal tribes practiced cultural burns (cool burns) for the purpose of saving flora and fauna in a wildfire-prone environment. These low-intensity, “cool” burns allow time for animals and insects to escape, are not hot enough to destroy young trees, and keep grass seeds intact for regrowth. On the West Coast of the U.S., tribes would use controlled burns to stimulate forest regrowth, destroy invasive species harmful to the health of the forest, and sustain overall environmental cycles.
Indigenous tribes in both Australia and the U.S. also used controlled burns for cultural practices integral to their long standing traditions. For the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa Tribes of Northern California, traditional burn practices would produce strong hazel stalks that were gathered and woven into baby baskets, traditional dancers hats, and resource gathering tools. The fires help tan oak acorns to drop, and burn invasive plants that suck up rain water, letting more clean, cool water flow down into the Klamath river for the salmon. In a piece on controlled burns written for The Nature Conservancy, Bill Tripp, Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for the Karuk Tribe, said:
Without being able to freely engage in our cultural burning practices, we lose our culture. We can’t teach someone how to make a basket if we don’t have the materials that are pliable enough to make them. And we can’t access our food resources. We lose our salmon, we lose our acorns, we lose all those things, and we don’t have a culture. We just slowly disappear.
The D’harawal Aboriginal people of Western Australia use cool burning to replenish the Earth and enhance the biodiversity that sustains their ways of living. For example, the ash from the burn fertilizes the soil and the potassium from the ash encourages flowering. And soft burning encourages rain: It warms the environment to a particular atmospheric level, and once the warm and the cool meet, rain falls, helping mitigate fires and encourage/sustain agriculture growth. Cool burns protect Aboriginal lands and clear access to areas for cultural uses like hunting, access to fish traps, and ceremony.
In addition to controlled burns being fundamental to the prosperity of the cultures, traditions, and practices of Indigneous tribes, it is clear that without these moderate/low-intensity burns to clear fuel, forests and landscapes quickly become vulnerable and primed for destructive wildfires. Unfortunately, because of the U.S. government’s interference with this practice (paired with the destructive effects of climate change), fire is now seldom connected with its life-giving and revitalizing qualities. Fire-suppression rules have forcefully stopped the ability of Indigenous communities to conduct traditional burns, and American Indians still face persecution and penalty for using fire for their traditions. However, it seems progress is slowly being made. In Australia, controlled burning is now widely used to mitigate the effects of destructive wildfires, and parts of the West Coast of the U.S. are starting to take advantage of a climate solution that rests in the hands of the very people and cultures they once sought to destroy.
Controlled burns are just one piece of Indigenous land management and caretaking that should be implemented as solutions to the climate crisis. Indigenous communities understand the environment and understand the complexities of how to have a sustainable relationship with nature. I strongly believe that these are the voices that we need to listen to as we work together to save our home. And I strongly believe that the attitude most humans have towards the environment needs to significantly change, because each choice we make that negatively affects the environment will eventually negatively affect us. This Earth has given us a place to grow, learn, explore, and create. Let us save her so that future generations may get the chance to enjoy her as well.
This article is part of the Indigenous Voices series.
GiGi Buddie is an American Indian artist and student studying theatre, with an emphasis in acting, at Pomona College. Whether it be through acting or working in tech, GiGi has dedicated much of her life to the theatre. In the summer of 2019, her passion for art and environmental justice took her to the Baram River in Malaysian Borneo where she, alongside Pomona professors, researched the environmental crisis and how it has been affecting the Indigenous groups that live along the river. As a result of her experience researching and traveling, she student-produced the Pomona College event for Climate Change Theatre Action during the fall 2019 semester.