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Fire Suppression as Native American Oppression

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Wildfires have become an increasingly familiar issue for many populations on and surrounding the west coast. As these large-scale wildfires have become detrimental to so many communities, researchers and the general public alike often look to climate change for answers regarding this phenomenon. However, there is another answer that is beginning to gain traction and recognition in the broader media and has been understood by Native Americans in this region for time immemorial. This answer is the use of fire and prescribed burns to promote diversity in forest life, enhance resources vital to the area, and clear out dense brush that would otherwise fuel high-severity fires. The article “What western states can learn from Native American wildfire management strategies” by Kari Marie Norgaard and Sara Worl from the University of Oregon further examines this relationship between the banning of indigenous ceremonial burning and the increase of forest fire frequency and severity.

The article concentrates on northwestern California and southern Oregon where there have recently been some of the most devastating fires in the area’s history. This area is also home to the Karuk Tribe and much of its population. With the increase in severe fires heavily affecting the Karuk people’s ability to live and prosper, activists are illustrating how having a relationship with fire that involves fear and helplessness is destructive in overall fire management. Rather, it should be a relationship that understands fire as “inevitable and necessary in many ecosystems”. Native Americans have been using fire to manage forest ecosystems throughout time which allowed for expansive biodiversity and reduced the accumulation of fuels that create more dangerous fires. The use of frequent, low-intensity fires by the Karuk Tribe was crucial in the evolution of flora and fauna as well as provided shade to cool the river water temperatures, benefiting fish during the hotter months of the year. The movement away from these traditional fire practices was first introduced and then perpetuated by Euro-American colonizers who, while astonished by the biodiversity, did not recognize that the use of fire in the area was responsible for it. Through colonization, fire suppression was imposed, land burning ceremonies were banned, and “the largest shifts in fire behaviors in California over the past 400 years” were seen. The authors explain, “the genocide of indigenous peoples directly relates to today’s catastrophic burning.” This article, along with the attached videos, provides a comprehensive base into how the oppression of Native Americans has changed lives and landscapes forever, as well as provides insight into how the reestablishing of traditional indigenous burning practices can be instrumental in restoration processes. The authors present some of the actions being taken to restore forests and protect the public such as the Karuk Tribes climate adaptation plan. This is an issue that if not addressed in the near future, will be detrimental to various peoples and ecosystems. The harms of institutional fire suppression are felt widely, but especially impact the people of the Karuk Tribe.

The Karuk people are a federally recognized tribe and are primarily located in the northwestern region of California in Humboldt and Siskiyou counties. Through the harmful effects of colonization, the tribe was not afforded a true reservation of land. However, the Karuk people have not allowed this to prevent them from carrying on their culture and lifestyles. The Karuk Tribal Council currently consists of nine members between three districts. The council’s goal is to “promote the general welfare of all Karuk people, to establish equality and justice for our tribe, to restore and preserve Tribal traditions, customs, language, and ancestral rights, and to secure to ourselves and our descendants the power to exercise the inherent rights of self-governance”. Throughout the past fifty years, the tribe has “managed to acquire 1,661 acres of aboriginal land [and] have had the U.S. place 900 of those acres into trust status”. All through their people’s history, the use of fire has been essential in cultivating “grasslands for elk, managing for food sources such as tan and black oak acorns, maintaining quality basketry materials, and producing smoke that can shade the river for fish”. However, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the US Forest Service implemented a banning of land burning fire ceremonies that essentially directly targeted native peoples. Under this ban, indigenous people could be fined for burning on their own lands. Throughout the time since the bans were lifted but quickly reintroduced. These bans have created a “social-ecological trap” where the practices that contribute to the betterment of ecosystems become very challenging to exercise because of current and historical legal and political constraints. Even so, as there is currently increasing awareness of this issue, the Forest Service has started to recognize that fire suppression is not a successful or beneficial tactic in land management and is reconsidering the extent of the bans. These bans have had extreme effects and have altered the lifestyles of people in this tribe and area. The effects range including everything from a major loss of culture and practices to the creation of food deserts. The changes to the ecosystem through fire suppression made traditional foods fundamental for a sustainable lifestyle, from acorns to fish, severely decrease in availability. Stretching beyond the access to food, the people of the Karuk Tribe have also experienced a change in how they connect with the land. Many of the land burning ceremonies traditionally practiced were fundamental in their spiritual relationships and subsequently, their identities. The article by Norgaard and Worl explains how the accumulation of all these factors and effects demonstrates the use of “fire suppression as colonial violence.” The Karuk people indigenous to this region have complex systems of knowledge regarding the continuation of their people and the only reason fire bans would have been introduced is due to colonial and oppressive factors and mindsets against native peoples. It was yet another way the US government demonstrated oppression and contempt against American Indians.

High severity wildfires bring many concerns and consequences that are felt throughout various populations and while it has become a problem for many, the true problem lies in the creation and continuation of these harmful fire practices. I, personally, strongly support movements that are allowing Native Americans to return to the forefront of advantageous fire management. The harmful effects of mismanagement range from impacts on people’s health to devastating ecosystem losses. As can be seen for many of the contemporary social issues in our society, the people who feel and experience these impacts to the greatest extent are Native Americans. As consistent in all of the contemporary and historical hardships natives have had to face, first colonizers and then the US government have always worked systematically to oppress and marginalize indigenous peoples. This is demonstrated clearly within this issue. As the Karuk people have known all throughout time, fire is a very important resource management tool. The bans on fire brought no true benefits in any regard. As no benefits can be seen from fire banning, it is clear that this was a tactic used by the government to further attack indigenous people. If natives have had this knowledge throughout time, the US government and forest service could have easily conducted scientific research into the benefits or harms of prescribed burns. As mentioned previously, the US Forest Service has recently changed its stance on the use of fire as land management and has now publically stated that there are many advantages to prescribed burns. While this is a constructive step forward, the forest service in no way mentions how this is a technique that was traditionally practiced and understood by the Karuk Tribe and other native people throughout time. The forest service explains how “In recent years, however, we have learned many ecosystems need occasional fire to thrive.” In my opinion, the way they explain this without even mention of the native activists advocating for fire management is a perfect example of why social and institutional discrimination against natives is persisting in this country. By not even mentioning the traditional practices, the organization is removing itself from taking any responsibility for the oppression seen throughout and in recent history. As we’ve discussed in class, even if someone was not specifically the one perpetrating the contempt, if one does not draw awareness and promote understanding and discussion of the issues, they are being complicit and perpetuating the problem. This goes for all issues facing American Indians from the fire bans and other land-use rights to personal rights of healthcare, shelter, and more.

The systematic and institutional oppression of Native Americans in this country has brought immeasurable trauma to many communities and is the reason for many of the issues people are facing today. While it is important to recognize the current problems at hand, such as issues surrounding fire management, and how native people hold much of the knowledge regarding betterment in these areas, it is a disservice and negative perpetuation of native contempt to not widely address how many, if not all, of these issues, are rooted in colonization. To move onward, there must be a broad acceptance and awareness that indigenous people have had extreme hardships to face because of how they have been treated since the beginnings of colonization. Once there is that recognition, it will allow for the space to facilitate conversations of reconciliation, cooperation, and improvements to life for many.

Works Cited

  1. “Effort to Restore Native Foods in Unlikely Food Desert.” Civil Eats, 31 Oct. 2018,
  2. “Facts Statistics: Wildfires.” III,
  3. Friedler. “California’s Wildfire Policy Totally Backfired. Native Communities Know How to Fix It.” Mother Jones, 12 Nov. 2019,
  4. “Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan.” Karuk Climate Change Projects, 8 Nov. 2019,
  5. Karuk Tribe,
  6. Norgaard, Kari Marie, and Sara Worl. “What Western States Can Learn from Native American Wildfire Management Strategies.” Indianz,
  7. Sierra National Forest – Land & Resources Management,
  8. “U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit.” The Karuk’s Innate Relationship with Fire: Adapting to Climate Change on the Klamath | U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit,’s-innate-relationship-fire-adapting-climate-change-klamath. 

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