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By Erin Myers Madeira and Mary Huffman

Columbus Day in the United States has long been known as a celebration of the discovery of the “New World” by the Spanish explorer, and many people across the country take the second Monday of October off from work and school to honor the founding of America. But in celebrating this holiday, many overlook the fact that rich cultures inhabited the Americas long before Columbus arrived, and that European settlement initiated a difficult legacy for many indigenous peoples.

With European settlement of the Americas, many ancient ways of living began to disappear as indigenous populations plummeted and communities were forced to relocate and assimilate within the new dominant culture. This had ramifications across the continent. Indigenous peoples are the original stewards of their landscapes and therefore are often the best at knowing how to make those landscapes thrive. The loss of these traditional ways of landscape management have caused some devastating environmental disasters, with uncontrollable fire being a prime example.

Indigenous peoples and local communities are vital leaders in pursuit of lasting solutions to achieve positive outcomes for peoples and nature. In 27 countries around the world, they are among The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) most important partners because it is their stewardship of land and waters that will lead to sustainable and enduring conservation and development outcomes. Cultural burning is just one example of using traditional knowledge to better manage landscapes.

Elder basketweavers from three tribes in Northern California celebrate the reappearance of suitable hazel stems for basketweaving after a TREX prescribed fire training exchange Photo © Luna Latimer

Stretching across 1.85 million acres (750 thousand hectares) of Northern California, both the Yurok-Hupa-Karuk landscape and Native culture thrived when indigenous people were using fire to care for plants, animals, watersheds and sacred sites. But as Native communities declined, so did indigenous fire practices. As a result, so did the forests, meadows, and Native fire cultures. Margo Robbins, Yurok tribal member and co-founder of the Cultural Fire Management Council explains,  “Without fire, our culture will not survive. It’s that simple… Before fire was outlawed in the early 1900s, Native people had a prescribed fire regime that kept the land in balance and enhanced conditions that promote the growth of culturally desirable species. This land management practice also provided hospitable habitat for wildlife. The fire suppression era changed all this.” The absence of fire in this landscape allows for impenetrable brush to grow uncontrollably, leading to a lack of traditional food sources for people and wildlife, as well as a much greater potential for quickly spreading wildfire.

In North America, the goal of the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network (IPBN) is to “achieve fire-related cultural restoration—knowledge and practices—in large landscapes to perpetuate traditions and quality of the environment.” Launched in 2015, IPBN operates from the indigenous perspective first, facilitating Native Americans’ efforts to revitalize their traditional fire practices in a contemporary context. Networking among tribes in multiple landscapes provides an intertribal support system where traditional ecological knowledge is shared among participants and Native peoples’ rights are protected. The inaugural landscape in the network stretches across the ancestral territories of Yurok, Hupa and Karuk peoples of Northern California.

Cultural fire practitioner, US Forest Researcher and descendent of the Yurok and Karuk Tribes, Dr. Frank Lake shares a moment of intergenerational teaching with his son during a TREX prescribed fire training exchange. Photo © Luna Latimer

Through the Network’s 15-year partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s fire agencies, it provides prescribed fire training exchanges through a system called TREX. Participants in TREX practice controlled burning to meet local needs, build local fire partnerships and prepare for living-wage jobs in fire management. When TREX takes place in Native American ancestral territories, signs of cultural revitalization appear. Medicinal plants appear in small forest openings.  Fresh, straight and pliable stems suitable for basketweaving sprout from tough, crooked and bug-eaten hazel shrubs.

Thus far, the IPBN has burned close to 300 acres (120 hectares) in the Yurok-Hupa-Karuk territory and Margo says they have started to “notice deer returning to the places that we’ve burned. We eat deermeat, use their hide for ceremonial dance regalia, the horns for tools, and sinew to make sinew backed bows…traditional food sources, such as wild potatoes are also starting to flourish, as are plants we use for medicine.” The IPBN staff is currently exploring how to expand the network to more landscapes across the country – where there is high potential for working with tribes to advance controlled burning in a purely indigenous context.

Traditional fire management practices are just one example the many ways indigenous knowledge and stewardship has been critical to our landscapes across the globe for millennia. At TNC, our work in partnership with indigenous peoples and local communities aims to strengthen both conservation and local-well being by addressing and changing the distribution of power, left over from the colonial era of Christopher Columbus, that in many cases disadvantages these groups in putting their traditional knowledge to work for conservation and sustainable economic development. So, this Columbus Day, keep in mind the first stewards of our lands and the importance of their knowledge in mitigating climate change and preserving the health of ecosystems we rely on.

Erin Myers Madeira is Director, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Program for The Nature Conservancy. Mary Huffman is Director, Indigenous Peoples Burning Network and Fire Science. North American Conservation Region, The Nature Conservancy.

Explore more insights from Indigenous Peoples & Local Communities from The Nature Conservancy.