Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part article penned by Samantha Swank, a Linguistics and Spanish major at UC Davis with a minor in Professional Writing, Politics and Communication.
Beth Rose Middleton Manning, 41, a Professor and Department Chair of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, instructs a class called "Keepers of the Flame" that teaches students about cultural burns.
"It's not only about the application of fire, " Manning explained, "but about fire, caring for the soil, then harvesting, then coming back and applying fire again."
Although the burn process is unique to each tribe and event, she elaborated, prayer is often conducted before the burn and the ash mixed in with the soil. Later, members return and harvest what has regrown. "The cultural burning approach to me is more like gardening," Manning said.
Prescribed fires, on the other hand, are also controlled burns but are "more like these broad treatments over larger ecosystems," where ash is not mixed with soil and nobody comes back to harvest. But, Manning said, both are effective tools for combatting the overgrowth that feeds massive, rapid blazes.
So where are the burns?
A series of extensive land losses, caused by the forceful removal of natives from their lands through relocation and genocide; the revocation of federal recognition in the 1950s; and a tangle of sovereignty and local rules, have all contributed to the near elimination of these burns.
The Lake County Fire Safe Council acknowledges in its Wildfire Protection Plan that, "Many historical land practices gained from the indigenous communities, such as the use of fire as a management tool, are no longer practiced due to a minimal (or nonexistent) land base among these tribes."
The Habematolel and other Lake County tribes know this well: their federal recognition was revoked in 1958 under the Rancheria Termination Act, and although they successfully restored their status following a 1979 lawsuit, many remained landless for years. The Habematolel didn't own any land again until 2008, when they purchased about 11 acres.
Historically, California and the federal government have pursued policies that suppress cultural burns and other fires, said Jessica Morse, 39, the Deputy Secretary for Forest and Wildfire Resilience at California's Natural Resource Agency.
Pre-contact, California tribes would regularly conduct these burns in locations that didn't burn on their own, typically every 10, 15, or 30 years. But now, Morse said, "Some areas see no fires in 100 years."
And without the smaller intentional fires, the brush grows so thick that sparks ignite and more often and burn much faster. Even though the same amount of land still burns each year now as did thousands of years ago - between 4 and 12 million acres - fires nowadays release enormous amounts of emissions that older, slower fires simply didn't.
Geneva Thompson, 31, two weeks into the first position of its kind as Assistant Secretary for Tribal Affairs at California's Natural Resource Agency, joined my call with Morse. Rather than any explicit ban on cultural burns, Thompson said, federal agencies such as the USFS pursued a general policy of fire suppression which - combined with the forcible removal of natives from their lands - made it impossible for tribes to continue these burns. Instead, she explained, "They were in survival mode."
"It was a deliberate, conscious policy decision by the USFS to suppress fires," Morse added, saying that in the 1910s Congress agreed to fund the USFS only if it adopted fire-suppressive protocols. And later, in the 1980s, California halted agricultural burns to combat excessive air pollution that lingered as acidic smog in the Central Valley.
But Native Californians' ecological troubles long outlive USFS policies. From the 1700s to 1800s, Spanish settlers constructed almost two dozen missions along the California coast and scattered tribal populations through enslavement, preventing tribes from managing their homelands. And californios - Mexican citizens who inhabited the then-Mexican province - would often force local natives to labor on their ranchos.
In 1847, the first two White settlers to reside in Lake County purchased a ranch, where they were considered "notoriously brutal" toward Pomo natives even by fellow anglo settlers, according to an essay by Jeremiah J. Garsha, a Cultural Historian of Colonial Violence at the University of Cambridge, England.
When laborers took matters into their own hands and killed the two settlers following an especially brutal murder of a boy who - according to Pomo tradition - simply asked for bread, the U.S. Army launched a planned, retaliatory attack on Bo-no-po-ti Island and nearby areas, slaughtering over a hundred natives in what's now known as the Bloody Island Massacre. It's doubtful whether those on Bo-no-po-ti participated in the uprising, writes Garsha.
In 1907, remaining Pomo members in Lake County were placed into a rancheria, and in 1934 received federal recognition under the Indian Reorganization Act. Only 24 years later, that recognition was revoked under the Rancheria Termination Act of 1958, and many lost their land allotments. Even when a 1979 lawsuit restored that recognition, the Habematolel and members of neighboring Pomo reservations remained landless for years.
Chairperson Treppa emphasized the cruciality of land not only as a cultural resource, but also as a financial asset that helps fund community programs for eldercare, scholarships, back-to-school drives, and more.
"It's the cards you're dealt," Treppa said. "In our case, we had no funding other than very restrictive grants." And without another source of money, she added, "What are you gonna do?"
"Tribal nations have a deep, place-based knowledge," Assistant Secretary Thompson said, and "have always been stewards of the land."
Professor Manning, however, believes it will be difficult to reinstate that stewardship at the scale that's needed, and that more work is necessary before California will be ready to conduct such burns on a larger scale.
"One of the hardest things," she said, "is that although you don't have jurisdiction over lands-you know, you're homeless in that way-you're still within your homeland. There's still history at that place and you still have places you need to take care of, to carry out traditional responsibilities."
"So that relationship doesn't change," she added, "but the difficulty of carrying it out, when the land is not under your jurisdiction, increases."
But, she said, in reference to CalFire, "I think the agency's open to learning about how that could be improved." And, regarding the reimplementation of tribal traditions, "It's inspiring to see people who are doing it."
"I think that policymakers tend to forget or not think about what happened in this state," Manning said, "which dually affected both people and lands."
Yet it seems Lake County and other agencies are responding. The Habematolel has a Memorandum of Understanding - a type of formal contract - with Lake County that allows them to participate in environmental surveys conducted under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), including on lands the tribe does not own. When they receive notice of any archaeological or other findings, they can send tribal monitors and historic preservation officers to survey sites.
Statewide, Deputy Secretary Morse says, liability insurance and easing public fear are major priorities for her agency. "Liability risk is so high that it's a deterrent" for private burners, she said, because of "fear around private burns getting out of control."
Morse emphasized that California is doing much more now to "bring back tribal ecology" and "make tribes active, integral partners" in policymaking. She cited Thompson's recent appointment to the position of Assistant Secretary of Tribal Affairs as one symbol of change out of many, as well as more inclusive policies, grants that promote wildfire resilience, and funds that give special priority to tribes.
"The fire's not going to stop at your jurisdictional borders," Morse said, making collaborative efforts between counties, tribal communities, and the state extraordinarily crucial.