Indigenous Fire Futures

Hey everyone, happy Thanksgiving. Today we’ve got a special feature – an interview with Bruno Seraphin and Deniss Martinez, who recently helped write a paper on indigenous fire futures which puts forward the thesis that if we are talking about giving land back to Native Americans, many communities won’t be able to thrive or manage their ancestral lands unless we also return them responsibility for the management of fire.

Bruno Seraphin and Deniss Martinez.

Thanksgiving seems like a good time to be thinking about Native people and the history of America. Folks are telling different stories now about Thanksgiving than when I was in elementary school. Recently, I hear the term “Thanks-taking.” Of all the things that we’ve taken away from Native people, fire is probably the most significant one. While most people recognize that putting out all wildfires has had negative impacts on forest health, the true impacts of fire suppression are much broader, and include loss of cultural knowledge, altered diets, reduced populations of wild game, and a general diminishment of native peoples’ ability to tend the lands around where they live.

We talk a lot about active forest management on The Lookout, and I hear a lot of talk and see a lot of posts that say, “Hey, if we just get back to active forest management, if we put the loggers back to work, and build new mills, we won’t have these fire problems.” But cutting down all the big trees was “active forest management,” too, and this really set us up for the wildfire disasters we’re having now. So I think when we talk about active forest management, we need to look back further. We need to look back thousands of years.

Native people didn’t have chainsaws, but they did have a mastery of fire. And so when we talk about “land back,” and about giving native people control of land, what Bruno and Deniss’ paper is about, basically, is the idea that it’s not enough to give land back if we don’t also give native people back control of fire.

I enjoyed this conversation with Bruno and Deniss and I think it’s thought provoking. If you want to read their whole paper, you can download it here. Anyway, happy Thanksgiving, y’all. And thank you for supporting The Lookout.

NOTE: In this conversation, we use the example of the Forest Service bringing in incident management teams from the East Coast as an example of how people with minimal connections to the landscape are often tasked with fire (land) management responsibilities that were traditionally informed by a deep, place-based knowledge. This is not intended to criticize individuals or specific teams that have been involved in recent fires. We’ve heard good things about many of the incident management teams being willing to listen to native advisors while they were working to manage the SRF Lightning Complex Fires this summer.