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Native Americans Used Fire to Protect and Cultivate Land

September 18, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

Indigenous people routinely burned land to drive, prey, clear underbrush and provide pastures.

When naturalists like John Muir first entered the Yosemite Valley of California in the 19th century, they marveled at the beauty of what they believed to be a pristine wilderness untouched by human hands. The truth is that the rich diversity and stunning landscapes of places like Yosemite and other natural environments in the United States were intentionally cultivated by Native Americans for thousands of years. And their greatest tool was fire.

“Fire was a constant companion, a kind of universal catalyst and technology,” says Stephen Pyne, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University, author and fire historian.

Yosemite itself was routinely burned to clear underbrush, open pasture lands, provide nutrient-rich forage for deer, and to support the growth of woodland food crops to feed and sustain what was once a large and thriving indigenous population.

“If you look at the early photographs of Yosemite and you see the great big majestic stands of oaks, you would be led to believe that those are natural,” says Frank Kanawha Lake, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, wildland firefighter and Karuk descendent.

“But those trees are a legacy of indigenous acorn management. Those are tribal orchards that were managed for thousands of years for acorn production and for the geophytes or ‘Indian potatoes’ that grow beneath them.”

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Seasonal Wildfires vs. Cultural Burning

Thick smoke from multiple forest fires shrouds iconic El Capitan, right, and the granite walls of Yosemite Valley on September 12, 2020 in Yosemite National Park, California.

The hugely destructive seasonal wildfires that consume millions of acres of forest across the Western United States every year are mostly triggered when lightning strikes a stand of trees that’s dangerously dry from late-summer heat or drought.

While those types of natural fires have always existed, indigenous people have also practiced what’s known as “cultural burning,” the intentional lighting of smaller, controlled fires to provide a desired cultural service, such as promoting the health of vegetation and animals that provide food, clothing, ceremonial items and more.

“[Cultural burning] links back to the tribal philosophy of fire as medicine,” says Lake. “When you prescribe it, you’re getting the right dose to maintain the abundance of productivity of all ecosystem services to support the ecology in your culture.”

Examples of Native American cultural …read more

Source: HISTORY

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