Artemisia Journal

ARTEMISIA | Vol. 49 No. 2

Indigenous Ecologies

Cultivating Fire, Plants, and Climate Futurity

Fall 2023

By Melinda M. Adams, N’dee, San Carlos Apache

Indigenous Peoples are currently being called on to participate in the public discourse on climate change and resilience.

Since time immemorial, many Native American Tribes conducted cultural fires as an ecological approach to tending and caring for our lands (Ericksen and Hankins 2014; Lake and Christianson 2019; Long et al. 2020). Cultural fires are low-temperature burns that not only improve the ecosystem’s plants and animals, but provide socio-cultural medicine, which strengthen the intergenerational bonds between Tribal members. Indigenous Peoples’ relationship to native plants is part of myriad land stewardship practices that Tribes have held for millennia. In what is now known as California, Tribes have been applying culturally-led fire to landscapes for the revitalization of plants, soils, and cultures. Further, placement of slow, low-temperature prescribed fire has been proposed for broader implications that include mitigation of wildfire and the effects of climate change in California, and in the West more broadly. Conceptually, this piece braids together eco-cultural restoration efforts centering Indigenous Ecologies, concentrating on climate futurity—the act of living out the futures we wish and the creation of the conditions for these futures (Harjo 2019), and grounded in Native American studies frameworks. This research moves away from dominant approaches that center Western concepts of fire and science. Instead, the purpose and protocol are to acknowledge local Indigenous knowledge as an equally relevant knowledge system (Kimmerer 2003, 2019; Kawagley 2006; Lam et al. 2020; Hausdoerffer et al. 2021), and specifically Indigenous women’s knowledge and practice of “good fire” (Adams et al., forthcoming). Good fire can be interpreted as Indigenous-led prescribed fire conducted with the goal of ecological, cultural, and social restoration. 

Bundled Tlaka, tule used to carry fire during the Leok Po, good fire cultural fire demonstration at the Tending and Gathering Garden; Image:Tiśina Ta-till-ium Parker
(Southern Sierra Miwuk/Kutzdika’a Paiute/Kashia Pomo).

Here, I seek to center what I am terming Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies, land stewardship practices led by Native women toward the betterment of ecological, social, and cultural systems. Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies prioritize relationality (relationships to the land, more-than-human Relatives), reciprocity (connectedness that positions people in relationships with each other and with the environment), re-membering (collective and individual connection of bodies with place), and futurity (intergenerational exchanges) (Archibald 2008; Wilson 2008; Nelson 2008; Smith 2012; Johnson et al. 2016). These protocols are commonplace in Native American and Indigenous studies, and have the potential to be deployed by allied scholars, community members, and certainly by those who care for our shared California environment. 

The Tending and Gathering Garden (TGG) is a notable location where Native American women practice and lead Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies. The TGG sits on two acres of  Patwin (Southern Wintun)  California Indian land dedicated to the restoration of native plants used for basketry, food, fiber, and medicine utilizing Indigenous land stewardship practices, including cultural fire. The TGG is a collaborative effort between the Cache Creek Conservancy (CCC) in Woodland, California, and the local Indigenous community.

 

Indigenous Peoples’ relationship to native plants is part of myriad land stewardship practices that Tribes have held for millennia.

Nearly 30 years ago, representatives from the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association (CIBA) envisioned land return to cultivate culturally significant local plant species on this former gravel mining site (Middleton 2011; Ross et al. 2012). Today, the TGG protects two acres of restored lands and waters with native plants within the Cache Creek watershed. The TGG serves as a public space for hands-on education incorporating plant identification, plant use, and traditional management methods. Throughout the course of multidimensional field observations, the effects of cultural fire were compared on pre- and postburn ecological properties. Additionally, visual field observations led by Indigenous women basketweavers, and fire practitioners compared the quality of plants cultivated by cultural fire that are then used for basketry. Reflections from these Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies emphasize the positive effects of cultural fire on environmentally degraded soils and culturally significant plants, creating favorable conditions toward the improvement of basketry materials: Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens), dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), and tule (Schoenoplectus spp.), while building native plant and soil resilience toward climate and cultural futurity that all California communities can enjoy. 

Throughout this work, I will refer to plants as Relatives (versus species) and encourage others to do so in an effort to Indigenize the way we approach ecological restoration and as a way to connect more closely to the places we live and care about (Wildcat 2009; Kimmerer 2013; Hernandez 2022; Adams 2023). As a stylistic practice, and to Indigenize this article, I will refer to the plants by their Wintun names. These names were gifted by the Elders central to this work and referenced in this article; Pam Gonzales (Wintun, Concow, Huchnom) and practitioner-cultural expert Diana Almendariz (Wintun and Maidu).

The intergenerational Indigenous women of the Tending and Gathering Garden. Left to right: Chrissy Almendariz, Diana Almendariz, Pam Gonzales, and Tracy Gonzales; Image: Ameen Lotf

Native Plant Relatives

Lul, the Wintun name for Western redbud, is a native winter deciduous tree/shrub that can be seen from February to April; and can be found in plant communities such as oak woodland, chaparral, mixed conifer forests, and riparian woodlands (USDA NRCS n.d.). Lul is highly valued by Native American basketweavers for its vibrant red branches used in the design of baskets (Anderson 2005). 

Nope Laol, Wintun for deergrass, is a native perennial bunchgrass found in a wide range of ecotones including grassland, riparian, chaparral, mixed conifer, and oak woodland communities. Nope laol is a significant Relative to many Tribes who use the flower stalks in the beginning of coiled basketry. Culms are gathered in the spring or early fall (Anderson 2005). Ecologically, deergrass provides cover during mule deer fawning, and the younger tufts are grazed by ungulates and cattle. It gains increased browsing activity when first resprouting after a burn. Ecologically, deergrass provides streambank stabilization from its vast root systems, mitigating soil loss from erosion (USDA NRCS, n.d.). 

Dogbane, known as Collie in Wintun, is a native perennial forb/herbaceous Relative found near streams. Many Tribes in California tend this plant for its fibrous materials for fishing and carrying nets, for ropes, and for weaving and cordage materials. It is important to first speak of this plant Relative’s usefulness and role it continues to play in Native American culture and the construction of cultural memory and stories. This is integral because dogbane has been known to be poisonous and/or noxious amongst ranchers due to its invasive growing behavior and its toxicity to livestock. This labeling has contributed to the decline and eradication of a valued plant to California Indians (Almendariz, discussion). 

Tule is known as Tlaka in Wintun, and is a native perennial herbaceous sedge, and obligate wetland Relative. Tule can be used for marsh restoration and to control erosion along streams, levee banks, canals, and other places where land meets water (USDA NRCS, n.d.). Many forms of wildlife will utilize the plants for food and cover. Young tule shoots can be eaten raw or cooked. Amongst Tribes, the rhizome is used for black coloration in basketry designs. Tule and cattail can be used together as insulation for matting, bedding, and roofing materials (Vasquez 2019; Almendariz, discussion).

Indigenous Eco-cultural Restoration

As California plant communities continue to experience the effects of climate change, scientists work to understand adaptable measures to build resilience in the places we all live and care about (Williams and Underwood 2021). There are numerous examples of ecological and cultural restoration with cultural fire that centers Indigenous knowledge and practices to regenerate ecological diversity as well as cultural identity reclamation (Goode et al. 2018; Long et al. 2020; Mucioki et al. 2022; Tom, Adams, and Goode 2023; Adams 2023). In the author’s restoration work led with Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies, we center the perspectives of Indigenous Peoples, prioritizing that of our Native women. Within traditional Native societies, often the decision-making power was held within women’s circles or councils as the de facto process (Goeman 2013; Risling Baldy 2018; Gray 2022). Eco-cultural restoration led by Native women invokes societal roles held since time immemorial while also offering a unique perspective of the environment, including land tending and care. 

Eco-cultural restoration led by Native women invokes societal roles held since time immemorial while also offering a unique perspective of the environment, including land tending and care.

Inclusivity and the centering of Indigenous women’s knowledge also allows opportunities for us to contemplate plant and soil health, remediation, and rematriation of the quality of our plant and soilscapes to provide a beneficial support structure that enables our native plants to thrive. Numerous cultural fire practitioners directly, and indirectly, emphasize the importance and value of storytelling the land; they are also reiterated during on-the-ground cultural fire training, demonstrations, and workshops (Tom, Adams, and Goode 2023). For example, Braiding Sweetgrass author Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer (Citizen Band Potawatomi) says, “to be a good ancestor, you have to build good soil!… Building good soil enables resilience in the face of change, buffering against shortage and stress, so that life force can go into something more than survival—into becoming: Soil, to me, is a worthy ancestor for it is simultaneously the repository of what has come before and garden for what is to come” (Hausdoerffer et al. 2021). And so, by centering Indigenous Ecologies led by Native women, or Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies, these practices provide an opportunity to enrich restoration goals of landscapes, soilscapes, and native plants—in addition to Indigenous cultures and landcare for all. 

Top left: Melinda Adams leads a Nope Laol, deergrass cultural fire burn at the Tending and Gathering Garden; Image: Lynne Haralson; Bottom left: Soil layers created by Indigenous cultural fire on formerly mined soils at the Tending and Gathering Garden; Image: Melinda Adams; Left: Chrissy Alemdariz leads youth in constructing a traditional acorn granary out of native plants; Image: Ameen Lotfi

The Return of Fire

In California, and in the West more generally, wildfire has now become seasonal—setting records of acreages burned, lives lost, and rising economic costs (Sommer 2020). Historically, many Native American Tribes conducted cultural burning as a spiritual and ecological approach to fire use. However, as early as the late 1800s, federal resource management agencies began suppressing the use of Indigenous burning. This reunification with fire as a land conservation tool and medium to reclaim cultural identities is being called upon by state and federal entities who are making strides toward working with Tribes and Tribal groups to hold more cultural burn demonstrations, trainings, and experiences. In holding these collaborative burns, practitioners, agencies, community members, and students all play a vital role in mitigating the effects of wildfire season, which continues to devastate communities in the West through prolonged megafire seasons. These climate change threats that are imposed through the deadly wildfire season add to emissions, pollution, and public health concerns from prevailing wildfire smoke, particulate materials release, and greenhouse gas emissions. 

But one of the most devastating climate threats we are experiencing is land degradation through ecological collapse: losing the places of familiarity and the lands and waters, which form our identities as humans. Therefore, it is up to many of us, including Native American cultural fire practitioners, traditional gatherers, and all Californians to rebuild our connection to and relationship with fire. It cannot be solely on the shoulders of agency representatives to meet prescribed fire goals or land conservation efforts through California’s 30×30 policy. Instead, educational awareness around cultural fire could be learned to support Tribes returning more fire to the ground and the legislative efforts that will support it. 

“[…] it is up to many of us, including Native American cultural fire practitioners, traditional gatherers, and all Californians to rebuild our connection to and relationship with fire.”

Indigenous Women, Homeland Histories and Homeland Ecologies

Recently, there has been a (re)awakening of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) leading to a resurgence of Indigenous cultural fire practices (Hankins 2015; Goode et al. 2018; Long et al. 2020; Adams 2023). It is important to acknowledge that there is a wide range of approaches among our Tribal representation and differing practices we each have as cultural fire practitioners. Cultural fire demonstrations involve place-specific land stewardship techniques, but all, for the most part, have the goal of environmental and cultural improvement. While much of the literature uplifts the voices and leadership of Native men, we must also centralize and privilege the role of Indigenous women’s fire stewardship toward our collective climate survival and environmental resilience. To ground my theorization of Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies, I lean on Native American studies scholar Mishuana Goeman (Tonawanda Band of Seneca Nation) and her call, “How might our stories become the mechanism in which we critically (re)map relationships between Native Peoples and communities?” (Goeman 2013) In response to this question, my work (and our collective work as Native women) at the TGG invokes Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies as a (re)mapping tool in returning our stories, land stewardship lessons, and culture to our lands. Specifically, I work with Indigenous matriarchs who have taken a lead in reclaiming cultural fire. This place-based work invokes an Indigenous female analytic: “our revitalizations, when built with Native feminisms, disrupt intrusions in our past and contemporary cultures and strives to reclaim our ecological knowledge systems and relations” (Risling Baldy 2018). Reconnecting our Peoples to cultural fire and reinstating the environmental leadership roles of Indigenous women will catalyze the return of our stories and fire to the land. A modality of Matriarchal Ecologies is our conceptualization of Indigenous “Homeland histories” and “Homeland ecologies.” Homeland histories are the histories of Native people in relationship to their landscapes and waterscapes as articulated through storytelling, storysharing, and Indigenous ways of knowing and being (Gonzales, discussion). Tethered to Homeland histories is what we present as Homeland ecologies. Homeland ecologies are Indigenous stewardship lessons of native plants and animals on Indigenous Homelands towards the (re) creation of healthy landscapes and waterscapes. It also involves making “liveable areas” for both human and more-than-human Relatives (Almendariz, discussion). 

Our Indigenous women-led good fire (Adams et al., forthcoming) allows participants—whether they are Indigenous, non-Indigenous, agency, or community members—to learn about Indigenous Peoples and our connectedness to lands and waters through Homeland histories and Homeland ecologies. Our Matriarchal Ecologies of fire and native plant revitalization efforts are rooted in relationality, reciprocity, re-membering, and futurity (Archibald 2008; Wilson 2008; Smith 2012; Harjo 2019). This work makes strides to reconnect our people with our land stewardship responsibilities and reinstate the environmental leadership roles of our women.

Indigenous matriarchs and practitioners, Diana Almendariz (left) and Melinda Adams (right), gather Tlaka, tule to construct a canoe; Image: Melinda Adams

Matriarchal Ecologies and Tending Fire

In 2000, UC Davis geography student Shannon Brawley connected with Kathy Wallace (Karuk, Yurok, and member of Hoopa Valley Tribe), a traditional basketweaver, cultural educator, and cofounder of the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association (CIBA); and Jan Lowrey, the former executive director of the Cache Creek Nature Preserve, located in Yolo County, California (Ross et al. 2008). CIBA is a non-profit community-led organization whose vision it is to “preserve, promote and perpetuate California Indian basketweaving traditions while providing a healthy physical, social, spiritual, and economic environment for basketweavers, and to provide access to traditional cultural resources on public and Tribal lands and gathering sites”(CIBA). Baskets made by California Native weavers are among some of the finest anywhere in the world (Bibby 2004, 1996; Anderson 2005). Together, members of this “Tending and Gathering Garden” (TGG) envisioned land return for a garden of culturally significant local plant Relatives (Middleton 2011; Ross et al. 2008). 

“[…] we must also centralize and privilege the role of Indigenous women’s fire stewardship toward our collective climate survival and environmental resilience.”

Through a combination of empirical plant and soil ecological readings, as well as observations made by Indigenous practitioners and basketweavers, Patwin Elders and I developed a “good fire eco-cultural matrix” to aid in welcoming fire back to Patwin Homelands. Pam, Diana, and I are excited to add a soil health approach to our work with cultural fire, specifically to assess how low-intensity and low-severity TEK-led fire benefits weathered and degraded soil profiles. With regard to climate change, there are current initiatives put forth by agencies in California to build climate resiliency. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization suggests, when managed sustainably, soils can play an important role in climate mitigation by storing carbon and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions (FAO 2015). By restoring degraded soils and adopting soil conservation practices, such as those practiced in cultural fire and Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies, there is potential to enhance carbon sequestration and build resilience to climate change. Specifically, good fire shifts nutrient levels that increases organic matter, keep soil surfaces vegetated through the regrowth of plants, and encourages biodiversity. Further, these soil improvements on formerly mined and degraded lands could make soilscapes more resilient to erosion and desertification, while maintaining vital ecosystem services (FAO 2015). 

In addition to this good fire eco-cultural matrix, another example of Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies is the Leok Po (“good fire” in the Wintun language) cultural fire workshop held in partnership with the Cache Creek Nature Preserve and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). Collaborative initiatives such as these make strides toward supporting Native American cultural burn demonstrations, and provide opportunities to deploy Indigenous land stewardship practices such as Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies toward our collective climate and ecological resilience. In November 2022, the Tending and Gathering Garden was chosen as the site for one of the first ever CAL FIRE cultural fire workshops and training sessions in collaboration with on-the-ground CAL FIRE firefighters, policy makers, and administrative representatives. This demonstration invoked a new California fire bill, Wildfires AB 642 (2021), which, for the first time, defines a cultural fire practitioner—equating the status to a state-certified burn boss. During this training, three Indigenous cultural fire practitioners, two women, and one man, held the status of “burn boss”, individuals who are qualified to plan, organize, and execute what are known as prescribed, or “Rx”, burns (NWCG 2022).

“By restoring degraded soils and adopting soil conservation practices, such as those practiced in cultural fire and Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies, there is potential to enhance carbon sequestration and build resilience to climate change.”

Bundled Tlaka, tule used to carry fire during the Leok Po, good fire cultural fire demonstration at the Tending and Gathering Garden; Image:Tiśina Ta-till-ium Parker (Southern Sierra Miwuk/Kutzdika’a Paiute/Kashia Pomo).

The CAL FIRE cultural fire training started with, and centralized cultural workshops and approaches to fire stewardship led by Indigenous Peoples. Nearly 100 agency participants took a step back from fire suppression and instead listened, watched, and learned a different way of placing good fire. The Leok Po cultural fire training concluded with a live prescribed burn, which exhibited Native women led cultural fire and Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies. To demonstrate Indigenous relationality, reciprocity, re-membering, and futurity, Diana Almendariz and author of this article (Adams)—two Native matriarchs and Indigenous fire practitioners—designed a family burn for the day so that observers could experience good fire that is started, passed, and carried by four intertribal and intergenerational matriarchs. 

Before beginning the burn, Diana offered a brief prayer to ask that the fire be carried slowly and in a good way, speaking her language into action—“Leok Po”, proclaiming “we are here for good fire.” Greenville Assistant Fire Chief Danny Manning (Maidu), author of this piece (Adams), and Diana started a small, prepared Lul (Western redbud bush) pile burn. Diana instructed that coals from the Lul bush pile be carried to the second burn location, which was nearby native grass patches. Next, Diana instructed her family members and burn leaders to place bundles of cattail and Tlaka throughout the grass patch to accelerate the cultural fire, allowing it to continue to burn from one end of the patch to the other. 

The author (Adams), an Indigenous woman and practitioner, then picked up the coals from the first fire and carried it to the next designated burn area. The symbolism of passing this second coal acknowledges the exchange of lessons from expert (Diana) to learner (Adams), teacher to protégé, matriarch to matriarch— from one Tribe to another. The grass patch flames carried calmly and slowly, with assistants nearby carrying live fire to other parts of the native grass patch to continue to burn. The third coal was then passed to Diana’s daughter, Chrissy, at a Tlaka patch across a path in the garden. The passing of these coals represents lessons of matriarch to matriarch, Tribal to Tribal, and mother to daughter. The Tlaka patch lit quickly but calmly, and leaders tended to live flames of grass that surrounded Tlaka. 

The last and most significant coal was then passed from Chrissy to her daughter and Diana’s granddaughter, Julie. This flame was the most meaningful as it represents the last flame, the future of fire, and the role of Indigenous youth in carrying cultural lessons forward. Julie gently placed the flames, which took to the plants well and resulted in the hottest and most impressive fire of the rotation. Julie’s flames were fed with the prayers, language, and culture of the coals passed amongst all four matriarchs. Indigenous Ecologies of place and culture led the day and were brought to life by the Matriarchal Ecological knowledge embedded within each leader. Participants watched Indigenous Knowledge be put into practice, and experienced the power of regenerative stewardship that is place-based, centered on Ancestral knowledge, and led by Native women.

“The passing of these coals represents lessons of matriarch to matriarch, Tribal to Tribal, and mother to daughter.”

Climate and Cultural Futurity

This project places Indigenous Ecologies and what I term Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies at the forefront of climate change solutions, through the revitalization and reclamation of cultural fire practices, since recently there has been a movement of Indigenous fire practitioners reclaiming their land stewardship roles through cultural fire (Aldern and Goode 2014; Hankins 2015; Lake et al. 2017; Long et al. 2020; Marks-Block et al. 2019; Clark et al. 2022). The native plant and soil restoration, reunification with cultural fire, and intelligence shared by Native women practitioners who are intertwined with these practices allows us to take steps toward climate futurity—for the betterment of all people. In this work, futurity means envisioning an improved environment and relationship with our more-than-human Relatives, in abundance, until the end of time. It privileges relationships over resources (Wildcat 2009; Smith 2012) and time together on the land with our kin (Simpson 2017) for the ecological, social, and cultural betterment of our communities (Adams 2023). Futurity also means remembering, acknowledging, and activating our Indigenous Homeland histories and Homeland ecologies that are connected to all landscapes and waterscapes, because everywhere you are, you are on Native land. 

“The native plant and soil restoration, reunification with cultural fire, and intelligence shared by Native women practitioners who are intertwined with these practices allows us to take steps toward climate futurity—for the betterment of all people.”

There is a role for us to fulfill (Native and non Native Peoples) in listening to our landscapes, caring for our surroundings, and tending to the places we all live and care about. Part of caring for our lands involves recognizing its First Peoples who have been responsible for reciprocal relationships with our more-than-human Relatives for millennia. Culturally, Indigenous women are agents of climate futurity in the heritage lessons we each strive to pass on through Seventh Generation teachings. In our communities, Seventh Generation teachings can be thought of as the decisions we make now that will benefit our children and grandchildren seven generations into the future. These teachings concentrate on the futurity we want all of our Relatives (beyond solely Indigenous Peoples, but instead all peoples) to enjoy. Through Leok Po good fire teachings at the Tending and Gathering Garden and Homeland histories and Homeland ecologies, Native women practitioners share Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies by restoring formerly mined and degraded soils, and the revivification of culturally significant California Native plant Relatives (species). The improvement of soil health and the protection of native plants through Indigenous cultural fire allows for a rebalance of people, plants, and fire (Suba 2020); restores our connection to place (Hunter 2020); and leverages Indigenous land stewardship toward our collective climate futures (Adams, 2023). 

“The improvement of soil health and the protection of native plants through Indigenous cultural fire allows for a rebalance of people, plants, and fire; restores our connection to place; and leverages Indigenous land stewardship toward our collective climate futures.”

Given California’s vast biodiversity, combined with the threat of Relatives’ loss due to climate change, it is timely that we not only engage with Traditional Ecological Knowledge toward our restoration goals, but we must deploy what Tribal Chairman Ron Goode refers to as “Traditional Cultural Practices” (Tom, Adams, and Goode 2023) and what I further with “Traditional Ecological Practices”,  Indigenous knowledges activated as land and water care. This must also include what Indigenous women like Diana Almendariz and Pam Gonzales embody as Indigenous Matriarchal Ecologies—moving beyond commonly static perceptions of what our Traditional Knowledge is and how it is used (Adams et al., forthcoming). Practices such as these at the Tending and Gathering Garden more closely prompt action of our Indigenous knowledge systems. These experiences also welcome learning from all Californians toward rebuilding our relationships with place, plants, soils, and fire—all toward our collective climate and cultural futurity.

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