We Cannot Choose a Life without Fire

  After an early morning drive along a black and gray California Coast Mati Waiya, Chumash Ceremonial Elder, who built his dream of bringing back to life this 8,000 year old Chumash Village takes his first glance at how the fire veratiously consumed parts of the site. “It’s sad.” he says in a solemn and reflective tone.    (All Photo Credits: Tano Cabugos)

After an early morning drive along a black and gray California Coast Mati Waiya, Chumash Ceremonial Elder, who built his dream of bringing back to life this 8,000 year old Chumash Village takes his first glance at how the fire veratiously consumed parts of the site. “It’s sad.” he says in a solemn and reflective tone.

(All Photo Credits: Tano Cabugos)

Wishtoyo Chumash Village was fortunate to have avoided substantial damage during the Woolsey Fire. Our hearts go out to so many in our community who have suffered great losses. As Indigenous Californians watching these catastrophic fires repeatedly ravage our communities, it invokes an additional layer of helplessness and loss. We actually know how to prevent this kind of devastation and protect the diverse modern communities living throughout our homelands, but we are denied the opportunity.

Today’s California is a system dangerously out-of-balance as Indigenous land tending practices have been suppressed for far too long. The impacts of resource extraction, water diversion and misuse, climate change, and inappropriately-placed development have left us living on the brink of ever-impending disaster. This is not a sustainable way to live. We cannot always be in the midst of recovering from one disaster as the next one befalls us. It is important to bring California’s Indigenous people back to the table and reinstate our successful land management practices.

  California wildfires dangerously out of balance    Mati Waiya offers prayers at the site of a burned down ‘ap (chumash dwelling) that he built himself and is used as a classroom for 1000s of students each year. It is one of four onsite. “The stone bowls where just being used to demonstrate oak ecology and uses of acorns for a group of students. We had to evacuate them just the other day. The bowls will crack to the touch and the ‘ap is gone,” he says.

California wildfires dangerously out of balance

Mati Waiya offers prayers at the site of a burned down ‘ap (chumash dwelling) that he built himself and is used as a classroom for 1000s of students each year. It is one of four onsite. “The stone bowls where just being used to demonstrate oak ecology and uses of acorns for a group of students. We had to evacuate them just the other day. The bowls will crack to the touch and the ‘ap is gone,” he says.

Traditional Indigenous landscape management in California has always utilized a sophisticated understanding of fire ecology. Fire is an integral part of the system in which we live. We cannot choose a life without fire, but we can choose healthy, knowledgeable relationships with it. Traditional indigenous lifeways in this region adapted to periodic fire, and like our ecosystems themselves, our cultural practices were also fire dependent and fire resilient.

Fire is a regenerative ecological force. The frequency and severity of fire must be appropriate to each region for the survival of certain plants and animals and the healthy regeneration of others. What we often think of as natural landscapes, are in reality unhealthy, overgrown, suffering ecosystems. The bountiful “untouched” landscapes described by California’s early settler colonists, were actually intricately managed by California’s native people. In contrast to the modern perspective, humans are not a necessarily destructive force in the natural world. In fact, we are a necessary part of a healthy world. Traditional Indigenous practices are unique in that they not only involve managing the world around us, but they also include us managing ourselves within that same world. We must ensure that modern fire management utilizes the best available indigenous and conventional science, rather than being controlled by people whose interests are focused on consumption and expansion.

  “We started the riparian habitat restoration in this creek area when I was just 15 years old,” says Kote Melendez who is now 28 years old and the site Manager of the Village.

“We started the riparian habitat restoration in this creek area when I was just 15 years old,” says Kote Melendez who is now 28 years old and the site Manager of the Village.

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We have known for a very long time that California’s land and water resources have been mismanaged. This is not new news. When I was a little girl living through the drought of the 1970s, my mom explained to me that fire and drought were natural but that the problems that we were living with were not. She told me that California ecosystems depended on healthy fire at regular intervals and that my ancestors used controlled burns to maintain habitat diversity, promote food production, and prevent over-accumulation of fuel. She told me that due to expanding residential development and modern management ideas, fire was being suppressed, water was being rerouted and that we were basically sitting on a powder keg of accumulated dry fuel that would result in out-of-control wildfires that hurt people, animals, and plants. My mom was not a scientist nor was she Native American, but what she said made perfect sense to 7-year-old me. Even back then, these ideas were not unknown or difficult to understand. The irony is that today, as a biologist and a Native woman, I have spent years studying evolutionary biology and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and it is still difficult for me to understand how California land management can continue to ignore the plethora of conventional and indigenous science that tells us how to minimize these disasters. Or are we so wrapped up in our obsessions with limitless consumption and domination of the natural world that we can’t change our ways even to save ourselves?

Article Written By: Alicia Cordero, Wishtoyo’s First Nations Program Officer and Educator