Artemisia Journal

ARTEMISIA | Vol. 49 No. 2

Climate Change’s Effects on Tribal Cultural Plant Resources

How Traditional Cultural Practices Strengthen the Land Amid Climate Chaos

Fall 2023

By Tribal Chairman Ron Goode, Christina Oraftik, Hannah de la Calle

Climate normalcy is a period of stable and predictable water cycles with only occasional extreme events such as flooding or drought.

Normalcy allows us to make predictions (e.g., it’s going to rain in mid-September and early October, or frost will come by November and then snow by December). Weather anomaly is an unpredictable climatic pattern: drought, flood, drought, El Niño, drought, snow-pack, extreme heat, and extreme chill, all on a roller-coaster continuum of climate change. This abnormality is now being called “climate chaos.” 

The trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses have to find normalcy (resilience) in an abnormal atmosphere. In our sixth drought in the past 35 years, resources struggle to survive; trees are hit by invasive pests such as mistletoe, Sudden Oak Death, worms, and weevils. The outer limbs of the oak die during the drought, but the trunk regrows fresh limbs when the abundance of water returns. This is one example of a cultural resource dealing with climate change. This article on impacts to culturally significant native plants will take a deep dive into the swirling effects on a variety of Tribal resources affected by the abnormal climatic conditions. 

In the “Summary Report from Tribal and Indigenous Communities within California,” from California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment, Tribes from the South-Central San Joaquin Valley reported their climatic issues, and included their cultural resources (2018). California’s Native American Tribes are using fire to fight fire—Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK) to address resource restoration, and Traditional Cultural Practices (TCP) to find “culture stability.” Indigenous Peoples set the fires for better regrowth. Proper and respectful harvesting mthat plants can reproduce again the next year — just as caring for a meadow ensures water for all. The plants themselves are resilient, but the practices of the people that have stewarded the land for thousands of years help the plants maintain resilience.

Wildflowers, sky lupine (Lupinus nanus) and purple owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta), blooming several years after a cultural burn, Mariposa County 2023; Image: Christina Oraftik

Interconnectedness

Resilience holds its foundation in the soil, from within Mother Earth. The inner-world protects her life from the chaotic middle and upper worlds. Climate change on Earth has been here since time immemorial; its normalcy is in the fact that the climate is always in a state or condition of change. The rate of climatic events is where focus is placed; one or two events each decade allows normalcy, whereas a continuum of events decade-in and decade-out causes the solastalgia of alarm. An atmospheric rise and fall of chaotic climate conditions has blanketed the landscape in the last 35 years. Plants are rooted in place and cannot seek shelter during extreme weather—they must adapt. However, when the climate is changing so rapidly from year to year, they are unable to adjust properly.

Resilience holds its foundation in the soil, from within Mother Earth.

Harvest Window Study

Native plants have struggled over the past 12 years. Chairman Goode’s research, some of which was also documented in the report, recorded what is known as the “window” of harvest time. The study looked at Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii) and Gold Cup Oak (Quercus chrysolepis) acorns, the Sourberry (Rhus aromatica), Elderberry (Sambucus spp.), and Tobacco (Nicotiana sp.), examining the harvest window from 2010‒2017, a period that included the fifth drought in the past 35 years spanned from 2012‒2015, but politically was extended to two more years to continue drought related funding (2017). 

Cultural Resources

Tobacco (Nicotiana sp.) 

During a period of five to seven years, the harvest window fluctuated but essentially stayed within the parameters of the harvest period, (i.e., Tobacco gathering is mid-May through June). During drought periods, the plant would give a “false” harvestable product one-and-a-half months ahead of time. This meant the Tobacco plant grew around the first of April and matured by early May. The problem was that the plant had but a few leaves on the bottom, while the rest of it grew tall (two to three feet) and flowered on a spine stem with no leaves. Then, weeks later, a second version of growth sprouted that was full of leaves, grew four to five feet tall with white flowers, and reproduced seeds on top. 

Sourberry (Rhus aromatica) 

The same scenario that occurred with Tobacco repeated itself in the three-leaf Sourberry bush, giving a “false” berry, which had no seed inside of it in the late springtime. Then, by mid-June (beyond the early harvest time), new berry seeds sprouted. The harvest window normally would be early June to late July, but instead it was shortened to mid-June to mid-July. 

During the past 12 years, there have only been three prime harvests of the Sourberry: 2010, 2014, and 2019. Several harvest years in between the prime years produced a light-to-no berry crop production. In these circumstances, the gatherer has to harvest enough product to last until the next prime harvest year. It also means the gatherer has to find solutions to process the berries, so the product can be stored. There are three techniques for storing: making a juice and storing in bottles; grinding berries into a seasoning; or storing the fresh berries in cardboard boxes in a dark facility, which allows them to stay semi-fresh. 

Plants are rooted in place and cannot seek shelter during extreme weather—they must adapt.

Acorns 

Acorn harvest time is normally mid-September to late November. There were acorns falling in July and August during the drought, but these were not harvestable or edible. Over the past 12 years, the acorn harvest window fluctuated from late September to early December. Whereas acorns might normally get three harvest periods, instead, at times, there would only be one harvest window (i.e., late October to mid-November), staying within the parameter of the harvest period. 

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.

The Elderberry’s reaction to the climate chaos has been to die off. The stalks that were hit by the Elderberry beetle dried up and died on the shrub. Some new and young shoots grew, but it’s the older stalks that retain the berry. If the main stalk survives the drought, it will eventually grow into a tree. Trees have berries that are harvestable mainly by birds, but the Elderberry is a source of resistance to the COVID pandemic. Not only is the berry juice a healthy source of medicine, so is the inner-bark. The yellow flower has long been used as a pre-combative resource for colds and flus. The sturdy stalks are used for musical hand-clappers, in ceremonies, and hand-game activities; they’re also used for pop-guns and dart guns. In Creation stories, the stalk is used to travel from one world to another, such as escaping from the middle world to the upper world to avoid a predator.

Western Redbud (Ceris occidentalis

Another important resource (not listed in the 2018 report) is the Western Redbud. The shrub and its shoots, which Native basketweavers use for their traditional baskets, have been impacted. This resource is generally harvested November through January. The harvest window is kicked off by a heavy frost late October and early November, which causes the leaves to drop off the plant. By late December, the new buds are beginning to appear, and by mid-January, the bark is loosening on the shoot and no longer a good basketweaving resource (if the shoot is to be used in a basket with the bark on). However, the abnormal weather impacts have created havoc: Leaves are not dropping in November, and gatherers are harvesting in late January and early February because of the lack of frost during the drought years.

Blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) regrowth following a cultural burn; Image: Christina Oraftik

Dry Climate Species

Some species thrive in drier and/or high carbon climates. The California Tobacco grows well along roadways. When there have not been fires, mistletoe, California dodder, Italian thistle, bull thistle, yellow star thistle, velvet grass, Scotch broom, and goathead puncture vine are a few noxious weeds that will become quite devastating. They can become dominant and spread rapidly, pushing the native plants and grasses out of the way. Even the common tarweed will take over a space or landscape, and Sudden Oak Death will also flourish when not regulated by fire. 

As these noxious weeds cover California landscapes and replace native species, they alter the ecosystem. They are often unpalatable to grazing animals, and once established, it can be very difficult to eradicate large populations of weeds such as yellow star thistle. Often, these invasives make areas more susceptible to high-severity fires. In order to restore native ecosystems that are resilient against climate chaos, many Indigenous practitioners continue to utilize Traditional Cultural Practices (TCP) such as cultural burning. 

In order to restore native ecosystems that are resilient against climate chaos, many Indigenous practitioners continue to utilize Traditional Cultural Practices, such as cultural burning. 

Indigenous Traditional Cultural Practices

Traditional Cultural Practices of burning and tending are one way of putting stability back into the resource(s). Cultural burning incorporates many specific techniques to apply fire on the appropriate resources at the right time, and finishes that fire by creating a midden nutrient that gives the soil resiliency. This technique is managing the ash and charcoal by massaging the ash back into the soil, giving the root system food as well as the opportunity to hold water and moisture. This process rejuvenates the soil and roots, allowing the plant resource to regenerate back to a healthy, vibrant, and reproducing cultural resource plant. Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge becomes vibrant when the TCP is in place. When the cultural practice is implemented and repeated, the ecological knowledge becomes apparent as the practitioner applies the generational knowledge with the practice. In other words, the figurative knowledge is saying that the Native Americans burned and used fire as a tool; the literal knowledge comes when the practitioner understands the different concepts of burning and the variable resources being burnt through their own personal experience with the practice. Cultural burning is about the culture. Cultural burning is the cultivation of the landscape and the resources. 

TCP Case Studies

Through the use of TCPs, including cultural burning, the North Fork Mono Tribe has worked to restore meadows throughout the Sierra Nevada. Clearing overgrown vegetation allows for the water table to rise and the meadows to properly function as a sponge. New native plants that spring up from recently burned areas will store water that will eventually continue to flow down the watershed in a gradual manner. Therefore, creeks and streams will hold water for longer in the summer when there is no rainfall. 

Indigenous Native cultures have been using fire as a tool to steward the land for thousands of years. 

More and more of the world’s leaders are recognizing the need to give back to nature rather than just take, as well as the important role of Indigenous Peoples in that stewardship, both in the past and today. Prior to colonial contact in California, the land was well-taken care of by the Native American Peoples both before and shortly after the Euro-American arrived. The Euro-Americans reaped the rewards of giant trees and timber for their operations in the latter 1800s here in California, but they never restored and never put back—they just took. Then in the early 1900s they did the opposite. They did not allow fire in the forest, instead planting thousands of trees and never “tending the garden;” they just let the trees grow. This inconsistency of managerial practice, targeting the economy of their pocketbook, has enhanced the climate chaos’ impacts on California landscapes. 

To combat problematic parasites, weevils, worms, and noxious weeds, native plants need smoke, and they need fire. The large statewide fires of 2008, 2015, 2020 and 2021 burned 2% to 4% of California (CAL FIRE, n.d.), laying smoke down on the landscape for weeks and months at a time. That smoke curtailed the parasites and allowed the vegetal resource to rejuvenate and to regenerate. 

During the drought, even the lichen becomes an attacker. When assessing and observing the condition of the Sourberry, Indigenous practitioners look at the color. Is the bush green/gray? Is it a gray or a tan/brown? Is the stalk reddish, greenish, or yellowish? These are all stages of the deterioration of the shrub. If the grassland is brown or orange, but not golden, then the tarweed is the dominant resource. One must see the grasslands’ health by its color. The ame applies to the meadows. Lush green, blue-green, yellow-green, brownish with patches of green—these are the color indicators, not only describing the health of the meadow, but the health of the forest, the wildlife and nature’s economy itself, because these are all interconnected and rely on each other. 

Chairman Goode and team burning Sourberry in Mariposa County, 2022.

Acorn Monitoring

Cultural burning is being implemented throughout the United States. Tribes in Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Oregon are all struggling with state and federal policies to get cultural burning done and done properly. Here in California, an accounting of how Tribes and practitioners once burned, would like to burn again, and/or are burning is being conducted by the authors. Many Indigenous practitioners and gatherers are burning on their own private or Tribal lands. 

The North Fork Mono Tribe has been burning and monitoring the oaks and the acorn production for 20 years on two meadows and Oak orchards of Black Oak and Golden Oak in the Sierra National Forest; and on two Oak orchard plots of six and nine acres in Sequoia National Park. There were 91 Blue Oaks (Quercus douglasii) on the six acres and 115 Blue Oak and Interior Live Oak (Quercus wislizenii) on the nine acres. This research was conducted over a three-year period, recording the condition of the trees, the acorn production before the burn and who utilizes the acorn as a primary food source.

More and more of the world’s leaders are recognizing the need to give back to nature rather than just take, as well as the important role of Indigenous Peoples in that stewardship, both in the past and today.

The Tribe compiles a species list for every project they work on. This is the responsibility of the agency in charge of said landbase (i.e. the National Park Service, US Forest Service, or the state or county; however, the species focus is often too narrow, typically accounting only for endangered species. But the agencies should know the entirety of who they are supposed to be feeding and maintaining a healthy habitat for, including bears, turkeys, deer, coyotes, foxes, woodpeckers, blue jays, squirrels, chipmunks. In other words, these agencies need to have a complete list of their wildlife, not just the endangered species list. However, when requested to produce a list of species on their land, their list will only include those of special or protected status. 

The Tribe’s study was conducted from 2017–2019. As reported in the climate report, the first year of monitoring showed that 36% of the oak trees produced acorns in some manner, i.e., light cover to heavy cover of mostly all “caps” of the acorn. The animals ate all the good healthy acorns by late November when the first study was done. When Good smoke (the right amount and intensity of smoke) was applied through a broadcast burn, then the following year produced an acorn-producing tree count of 54%. This was an increase of 18% of blue oaks producing acorn. A couple of one-gallon bags of very healthy acorns were gathered as a sample and given to the local Native maker of traditional acorn foods. Although a third of monitoring following another burn was unable to be conducted, a large flock of turkeys was seen, and bear sightings were reported. This is an example of native species restoration. 

Conclusion

Restoration of the resources and landscape is a means to restore the culture. Traditional Cultural Practices have been implemented and refined over millennia to take care of the plants so that they are healthy and can play their roles in the ecosystem. These practices take chaotic, unstable unpredictable middle and upper worlds and create normalcy via the under-world— the soil of Mother Earth. This creates a soil that gives enough nutrients and holds a sufficient amount of water that encourages the resource to want to survive no matter what the erratic weather provides. When a nutrient is mixed just right, the resource will respond with a healthy plant recovery, even with as little as a half inch of rain. Refreshing the cultural resources affords the basketweaver, harvester, berry gatherer and native medicine enthusiast a happy heart. If these practitioners can tend their own resources, they don’t have to trek up steep rugged hillsides, or cross fences and get shot at, or fined for gathering on private or public properties without permits. Most of all, cultural burning done right brings back a higher quality and larger quantity of cultural resources. 

Cultural burning is more than doing something for the Indigenous practitioner and restoring the plants, flowers, and grasses. It restores the water. Regenerated vegetation holds water closer to the surface, recharges groundwater, and releases the water more slowly downstream. Not all ash piles and burns are fully mixed. Elders give instructions to be sure to leave a couple of ash deposits and charcoal for the animals. When at a burn, animals from the deer to the squirrels, will be observed rolling and pawing at the biochar to remove fleas, ticks, and mites. 

Therefore, cultural burning and other Traditional Cultural Practices strengthen the land and all the creatures that live on it, including humans, in the face of climate chaos. Traditional Cultural Practices have stood the test of time and been passed down through the generations because they create the right conditions for all life to flourish. This is why California needs Indigenous practitioners and must support Traditional Cultural Practices—these ways hold the key to help steady our plant and animal Relatives in a changing world.

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