People gather at the Spokane Food Sovereign Garden to establish fire effects monitoring plots. Photo courtesy of the Spokane Tribal Network.
BY ERIN MCDUFF
“When they took the matches away from the grandmothers, that’s when things started going downhill.”
~ Neal Abrahamson, Spokane Tribal Elder
Melodi Wynne wondered what had happened to the Spokane Tribe’s sacred relationship with fire. She remembers the older people burning swathes of land in the late fall and early spring when she was a kid. Wynne’s father always helped to fight fires, and her son was a wildland firefighter. But the Tribe’s cultural use of fire is still recovering from years of fire removal and policies against cultural burning.
Knowing her interest, a family member introduced Wynne to Monique Wynecoop, a fire ecologist with the USDA Forest Service and Tribal liaison with the Northern Rockies Fire Science Network. The network is funded by the Joint Fire Science Program to bring people together and share knowledge. Wynne and Wynecoop began planning to restore cultural burning in combination with a project to promote food sovereignty within the Tribe.
Wynne works for the Spokane Tribal Network, a nonprofit that strives to inspire people to become stewards of the environment and work toward a more sustainable future. Through a grant from the Native American Agriculture Fund and ongoing support from the Spokane Tribe, the nonprofit took responsibility for some acreage on the reservation and launched the Spokane Tribal Food Sovereignty demonstration project. Wynne envisioned the garden as a healing place after a long history of their culture being prohibited.
In the early spring of 2021, the Spokane Tribal Network and community volunteers conducted a cultural burn in ceremony to open the space and dedicate the land for the demonstration garden. As fall edged toward winter, they held another cultural burn in preparation for wildflower seed sowing. After learning that cultural fire was historically the responsibility of women, an all-women crew conducted the spring cultural burn in 2022. The younger women were a little nervous, but the two older women felt more confident, bolstered by memories from their youth.
“We paid attention to what’s happening on the land, and we could see a change in the area we burned,” said Wynne. “We were going through a drought and experienced a heat dome, but the area we burned stayed green longer. Different plants began to grow there. Now there are little flowers blooming while the surrounding area is mostly grasses.”
The Spokane people have been food sovereign since time immemorial. They used the natural resources around them to live in a sustainable fashion. They carefully tended the land to help these native species thrive, including through cultural burns.
When settlers arrived in the area, they enacted policies that compromised the Tribe’s ability to manage the land and access these traditional resources.
These types of restrictions continued to resurface over the decades. In the 1980s, people in the area complained about allergic reactions from wheat fields burning, so new policies were enacted to prevent prescribed burns. The Tribe once again lost the ability to use its ancient knowledge to preserve the natural environment.
Returning fire to the land is a careful process. In its absence, the undergrowth has flourished and become dense. Invasive species like the rush skeletonweed have moved in.
The Spokane Tribal Network is beginning to restore native berries and roots, medicinal herbs, and a healthy ecosystem. At the same time, they are re-learning and sharing knowledge of the practice of gathering food from the land like their ancestors, including methodologies for building soil nutrients and ethical harvesting.
Their work was documented in the video Xx̣súl̓eʔxw ("a nice little place of good ground"): Healing the People by Healing the Land with Fire, produced by the Spokane Tribal Network and the Northern Rockies Fire Science Network. The video features a food sovereignty gardener, a Tribal member with knowledge about fire culture, and Wynne’s father, who is a Tribal elder and firefighter with cultural burn memory. Educating the public through efforts like this is an important element of their work as they strive to re-establish human relationship with fire and increase understanding about its natural place in the environment.
Recently, an interagency workshop coordinated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Northern Rockies Fire Science Network, Northwest Fire Science Consortium, and the Lake States Fire Science Consortium held a field visit at the Spokane Food Sovereignty Garden where technicians learned about the process of monitoring cultural burns for desired objectives.
Looking toward the future, the Spokane Tribal Network and Washington Prescribed Fire Council are exploring options to conduct a larger cultural burn at the garden through the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, which conducts cooperative burns to provide experiential learning.The burn in the spring of 2022 was followed by heavy rain. The conditions produced shoulder-high hairy vetch, an important ground cover that restores nitrogen levels in the soil. In the late fall of 2022, families came out in the cold weather to burn some piles of wood debris before winter set in. The long winter left the Spokane Tribal Network crew infected with spring fever and eager when it was time to get back out on the land for the spring cultural burn.
Erin McDuff is a public affairs specialist with Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire.