War on Fire: Indigenous Fire Uses and Colonialism
In this past month in BC we have seen some of the worst symptoms of climate change. A heat dome swept in, causing record-breaking temperatures likely to be a leading cause of the deaths of 719 people and more than a billion sea creatures.
The effects of this heat dome are still being felt in the impact of wildfires such as the one that destroyed the community of Lytton— after the town endured record-breaking heat 3 days in a row.
These out-of-control wildfires are not new to BC, which has consistently seen wildfires for the past several years, with red suns and smokey streets being the new normal for interior cities’ summers.
Wildfires have long been an issue and continue to show detrimental effects to countries and communities across the world. Countering them are many efforts to minimize their effects, such as fire bans and the lessons of Smokey the Bear. A lot of these efforts create a worldview in which fire is bad, and to be avoided. However, for time immemorial those who have fostered true relationships with the land have been using fire as a way of management.
What are Cultural Burnings?
For time immemorial before colonization, Indigenous people across Turtle Island and other countries such as Australia used low-intensity fires as a way of caring for the land.
The ability to light these fires safely came from generations of knowledge of these burnings passed down orally. Indigenous peoples lit these fires during very specific times that are low-risk for their communities. Fires are also observed carefully and low-intensity allowing Indigenous peoples to have full control of the fire.
Some might see similarities between these practices and prescribed burnings; there are major differences between these two. While prescribed burnings work to decrease hazards, cultural burnings hold a much higher significance and history of knowledge. Cultural burnings are a way in which Indigenous communities continued their stewardship with the lands and because of this carried many more benefits.
These controlled burnings discouraged pests and weed growth, accelerated nutrient cycling through nutrients in ash, blackened the ground to encourage spring growth, and promoted early vegetation, which in turn attracted animals to the area. These fires also created openings in forests which caused a shift in vegetation to create a diverse system of patchwork, which is important in maintaining biodiversity.
History of Colonization—War on Fire
Obviously, these fires have not been around for a long time now. That is due to the colonial project which has banned Indigenous fire management, as well as settlers making their view of fire the dominant one. European settlers coming to Turtle Island brought the ways in which they used fire with them— which was to clear vast areas of forest for agricultural use, with little care for current weather conditions. Because of this massive fires were lit by settlers causing unnecessary deaths and loss of thousands of hectares of healthy land. Due to these fires that made up the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, there was an attitude shift towards fire which was the beginning of the outlawing of fires. During this same time, Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island were being removed from their lands and homes through the reserve system.
Since then laws banning fires continue on and public campaigns such as Smokey the Bear continue the paradigm in which fire is bad and not to be used. These are colonial thoughts that only work by erasing and ignoring the history and knowledge of Indigenous peoples.
Colonialism and the anti-Indigenous racism that lives in it continues to this day in the laws and public opinion which ban Indigenous fire management. Currently, people are only now finally coming to understand the importance of traditional knowledge in all parts of life. Because of this, the appropriation of Indigenous knowledge is seen everywhere, from the fertilizers we use to the controlled burns that are now beginning in Canada and Australia.
When Parks Canada began trying these burns on Tumbo Island— a small Island off of Saturna Island— and invited members of the Penelakut tribe to be present it didn’t go well. Well, the fire went fine— it worked like Indigenous peoples knew it would however Parks Canada failed in listening to the Penelakut tribe. When Augie Sylvester— an elder, cultural expert and residential school survivor from the Penelakut tribe, was asked about his experience he said he didn’t feel listened to and would not do a burn with Parks Canada again. These burnings are a linked social-ecological system, meaning Indigenous knowledge livelihood and culture are interconnected with this knowledge. To attempt to do these fires while ignoring the knowledge behind them is not only retraumatizing to communities facing the genocide of their culture but also dangerous. The traditional knowledge and reciprocity of relations behind these burnings are why they are safe, beneficial and needed. Without Indigenous knowledge and worldviews behind them, they cannot aid in any fight against climate change. Western science does not have the capacity to do these burns the way Indigenous traditional knowledge has.
Future for Fire
The future for fires is uncertain at this point. The only certain thing is that our current wildfire issues come from hundreds of years of fire suppression and an ever-warming planet creating an ecosystem of out-of-control fires. If this is something we ever want to see changed, reconciliation and Indigenous land sovereignty must happen first. Without the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples practised by Indigenous peoples, western science will continue to find ways it can exploit the planet.
While a lot of these issues need fast action sometimes the action that has to be taken first is growing relationships and fostering knowledge. Cases such as Parks Canada’s burnings on Tumbo Island prove that this is a solution that first needs relationship building. Without it we get the exploited and appropriated version of traditional knowledge which will only ever further the issue.
About the Author
T Schwab (they/them) is currently majoring in Psychology and Environmental Studies. They currently live on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples. Their passions lie in holistic care and sustainability.