Reclaiming fire: Indigenous-led cultural burning training brings healthy fire back to the land

“Because my tribe was displaced from our ancestral lands…we had to reclaim our knowledge of how fire was used by our people and relearn what it means to work with it.” — Jessica Douglas, member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians

By Kelsey Kuhnhausen October 11, 2022
Firefighters oversee a controlled burn on forested land, with smoke in the background.

The story below is a part of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts’ 2022 “State of the Land” report and is being shared this week in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day, celebrated on October 10. You can find the full report here.

Last October, 15 Indigenous fire practitioners, their families, and more than 10 community groups gathered at Andrew Reasoner Wildlife Preserve outside of Eugene for a cultural burn training — an important fire management technique and traditional ecological practice used since time immemorial by Indigenous people in this region. Practitioners joined from different tribes across the region to reclaim their ancestral knowledge of how fire was used on the land.

Located on Chelamela and Chemapho Kalapuyan homelands, Andrew Reasoner Wildlife Preserve is presently held in easement with the accredited McKenzie River Trust, and owned by Linda and Doug Carnine, who have played an instrumental role in supporting these trainings.

“Ultimately what we want to do as landowners is return land to Indigenous people, but until that can happen our goal is to share this land, so people have guaranteed access to collect traditional foods and cultural items for art and plants, practice cultural burning, and meet and have ceremony,” said Linda Carnine, who is also a McKenzie River Trust board member.

Before colonization, cultural burns took place regularly, creating a healthy, resilient landscape. But for the last 200 years, cultural burning has been almost fully banned by federal and state agencies, leaving landscapes in the Pacific Northwest without healthy fire, which has resulted in mega-fires and habitat loss across the west.

The burn that took place on this property in October was the first in 150 years. This training was a step toward empowering and centering Indigenous leadership in fire management in Oregon.

“Because my tribe was displaced from our ancestral lands, terminated by the federal government, and then restored in 1977, we had to reclaim our knowledge of how fire was used by our people and relearn what it means to work with it,” shared training participant Jessica Douglas, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, in a recent article in High Country News.

Partnerships between private landowners like the Carnines and nonprofit agencies provide a unique opportunity to restore connections between people and place.

*This project received funding from the Land Trust Alliance through the Advancing Conservation Excellence (ACE) Program.

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