Colonization, Fire Suppression, and Indigenous Resurgence in the Face of Climate Change

The 130-year legacy of fire suppression in the U.S. is a process that continues to dispossess Native peoples of their lands.
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European settlers who came to the Klamath region at the turn of the last century feared fire and set up land management policies to suppress it.

Photo by Mark Boster/Getty Images

“We are closely related to fire. Fire takes care of us and we take care of fire.” —Leaf Hillman, Director, Karuk Department of Natural Resources.

“Without fire, the landscape changes dramatically. And in that process, the traditional foods that we need for a sustainable lifestyle become unavailable after a certain point. … When there is no food, when there is no food for regalia species that we depend upon for food and fiber, when they aren’t around because there is no food for them, then there is no reason to go there. When we don’t go back to places that we are used to, accustomed to, part of our lifestyle is curtailed dramatically. So you have health consequences. Your mental aspect of life is severed from the spiritual relationship with the earth, with the Great Creator. So we’re not getting the nutrition that we need, we’re not getting the exercise that we need, and we’re not replenishing the spiritual balance that creates harmony and diversity throughout the landscape.” —Ron Reed, Karuk Traditional Dipnet Fisherman

Ron Reed and his family packing salmon for Elders. Photo from Karuk Tribe.

The Middle Klamath Basin in California is a place of profound beauty and paradox, where significantly intact ecological systems coexist alongside advancing environmental degradation. The region has been a touchstone for landmark environmental policies, not the least of which is the current process for the removal of the Klamath River dams.

The Klamath Basin is remote—from the heart of Karuk ancestral territory at Ka’tim’îin, it is a 2-hour drive to the nearest traffic light. There, cutting edge and innovative research is being conducted by tribal scientists and under-resourced tribal leaders.

Early anthropologists marveled at the enormous abundance of natural resources of the people living on the Klamath River. Karuk people, together with their Yurok, Hupa, and Konomihu neighbors, are considered to have been the wealthiest of all Native people in California. This wealth was a direct result of their intimate knowledge of the land and their ability to sustain and enhance the Klamath region’s year-round abundance of food resources, particularly salmon, deer, elk, and acorns. Today, its vast “wilderness areas” (representing 15% of the total wilderness designation in California) are still full of people who secure their food and drinking water directly from the forest.

One of the key tools the Karuk have long used to maintain this natural wealth is fire, something I’ve learned about in my time as a research collaborator and consultant working for the Karuk Tribe. Indeed, fire records obtained from studies in California clearly indicate that Native land management has shaped the evolutionary trajectory of the region for at least 12,000 years.

Ron Reed and his family cook salmon at the University of Oregon Many Nations Longhouse. Photo by Kari Marie Norgaard.

For me, the Klamath Basin and the people who live there have been a source of profound learning and inspiration. In fact, despite having spent significant portions of my life here over the last decade and a half, I continue to learn something new every day I am “on the river.”

My biggest teachers have been the people of the region, Native and non-Native alike. Despite having been educated in what must be the most radical public school system in the country, in Berkeley, California, a mere six hours to the south, like most settlers of this continent I was not taught much about my Native neighbors.

I was not taught, for example, that so many people in my own state were hunting and fishing for their food, weaving baskets using traditional techniques, carrying out important ceremonies to keep the world intact—activities their ancestors had done back into time beyond memory. Nor was I aware that they continue these practices despite the concerted efforts by the state of California and the federal government for over a century and a half to prevent them.

Engaging in these activities today is still an act of fighting for cultural and physical survival.

In direct contrast to the notion that North America was a wilderness untouched by humans, Indigenous people in California and across the continent have systematically developed sophisticated methods of using fire to enhance specific plant species, optimize hunting conditions, maintain open travel routes, and generally support the flourishing of the species upon which they depend, according to scholars like United States Forest Service ecologist and Karuk descendent Frank Lake.

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Low intensity, purposefully set fires are used to provide protection from the fuel buildup that causes larger, hotter (potentially quite dangerous) fires that have lately been burning across the West. Fire is especially important in mountainous places like the Mid-Klamath, where forests and grasslands are considered to be “fire adapted” both due to the presence of frequent lighting strikes, and also due to the systematic use of fire by Karuk people over thousands of years, according to work by fire ecologists such as Carl Skinner and colleagues.

What people have described as “traditional management” involves extensive knowledge of particular species and ecological conditions, as well as the knowledge of how to reproduce them. Rather than doing something to the land, ecological systems prosper because humans and nature work together. Working together is part of a pact across species, a pact in which both sides have a sacred responsibility. Traditional foods and what the Karuk call “cultural use species”—such as salmon and acorns—flourish as a result of human activities, and in return, they offer themselves to be consumed. 

Today, participation in fishing, burning, gathering, and other aspects of traditional management still hold immense personal and spiritual significance for many Karuk people and are central to their identity. As the Karuk traditional dipnet fisherman Ron Reed describes, participation in these management activities is at the heart of “being Indian”:

“You can give me all the acorns in the world, you can get me all the fish in the world, you can get me everything for me to be an Indian, but it will not be the same unless I’m going out and processing, going out and harvesting, gathering myself. I think that really needs to be put out in mainstream society, that it’s not just a matter of what you eat. It’s about the intricate values that are involved in harvesting these resources, how we manage for these resources and when.”

Indigenous Fire Science and Management

One of the most powerful tools Karuk people have long used to enhance the Klamath region has been fire. Whereas the persistence of fire belies the myth that humans have control over nature, humans and fire have long co-evolved across North America. Fire suppression is a recent undertaking.

Studies of historical fire records in California clearly indicate that Native land management systems have significantly shaped the evolutionary course of plant species and communities for at least 12,000 years. Species composition and dynamics are a product of Indigenous knowledge and management in which high quality seeds have been selected, the production of bulbs has been enhanced through harvest techniques, and populations of oaks, fish, mushrooms, and huckleberries have been reinforced and carefully managed with prayer and fire. Indigenous knowledge and management generated the abundance in the land that formed the basis of capitalist wealth across North America. These activities on the landscape continue today, although they are often the site of intense political struggle.

Settler-Colonialism and Fire Suppression

European settlers who came to the Klamath region at the turn of the last century feared fire and set up land management policies to suppress it—a worldview epitomized today by the iconic character of Smokey Bear.

A wholesale shift in ecological practice, state structure, and public perception does not happen overnight. Indeed, as compared to discussions of Indigenous land dispossession as a past event, we can trace the 130-year legacy of fire suppression as a process that continues land dispossession into the present, thereby understanding what is at stake in the scale of Karuk resistance to Forest Service fire policy today. Fire suppression was mandated by the very first session of the California Legislature in 1850 during the apex of genocide in the northern part of the state.

Smokey Bear sign in Orleans, California. Photo from Jenny “Stormy” Staats. 

When the Klamath National Forest was established in 1905 together with the formation of the U.S. Forest Service on the national level, the new agency began a policy of fire suppression in an attempt to protect commercially valuable conifer species from being “wasted” in fires, as the language put it in a 1923 Forest Service report. The “Smokey Bear” campaign was launched in 1942 at the same time as timber production was increasing, and along with this development Indigenous burning practices were progressively restricted. Fire suppression may be an engine of colonialism, but it is one that has been continuously and creatively resisted in a wide variety of ways from the ongoing use of fire to the use of research illustrating fire’s importance.

Ecological changes and their scientific rationales became the means to perform Indigenous erasure and replacement, and continue to serve as ongoing vectors of colonialism. Ecologists Kat Anderson and Frank Lake describe how fire exclusion has altered species composition and diminished the production of hundreds of important food resources including acorns, huckleberries, and elk, as well as a wide variety of mushrooms and bulbs.

Whereas Indigenous land stewardship occurs at the local level through tribal and family responsibilities to particular places and is guided by knowledge gained through interactions with landscapes, the capitalist-settler state created bureaucratic institutions to manage the land. These natural resource institutions set comprehensive, often nationwide policies based on ecological principles that were believed to be universal.

“Fire Suppression Has Failed”

The colonization of North America was legitimated by Indigenous erasure. Today the story that Indigenous people were never here (or are now gone) is actively maintained through the narrative of wildfire and climate change and the dismissal of Indigenous fire science.

After half a century of increasingly intensive fire suppression, the forest structure has changed and fuels have accumulated. With wildfire suppression costs overtaking the budget of the U.S. Forest Service and increasingly large fires damaging life and property throughout the West, the once optimistic notion of total fire suppression no longer exists.

Karuk Department of Natural Resources Director Leaf Hillman observes, “Today, fire suppression has failed. We talk about fire suppression policies that are 100 years old. That’s experimental. Our practices in terms of using fire to manage this landscape, that’s not experimental. These are tried-and-true practices that we know work. Karuk people have been here using fire since the beginning of time.”

Fortunately, in the face of the changing climate, many ecologists, fire scientists and policy makers, Native and non-Native alike, have turned to Indigenous knowledge and management practices with renewed interest and optimism in the hope that they may provide a much-needed path towards both adaptation and reducing climate emissions.

Indigenous peoples have done much better than the general population in engaging the most urgent concerns raised by climate change. Not only have Indigenous people around the world identified changes in the earth’s system early on through traditional ecological knowledge, my Karuk colleagues and other Native leaders have provided clear and coherent analyses of why climate change is happening—analyses that incorporate economic, political, and cultural dynamics.

As much of the Western world continues to debate appropriate responses to climate change, Indigenous people offer a multitude of sophisticated, time-tested, and pragmatic solutions. It is time we all listen, take their voices seriously, and figure out how to follow their lead.

This excerpt has been edited for publication in YES! Magazine. It is from “Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People” by Kari Marie Norgaard (2019) and appears by permission of the author and Rutgers University Press.