A Native American Perspective

by William Pink, Agua Caliente Tribe of Cupeño Indians

An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians

April 22, 1850

(Chapter 133, Statutes of California, April 22, 1850)

The people of the State of California, represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows:

       (Article 10)

  1. If any person or persons shall set the prairie on fire, or refuse to use proper exertions to extinguish the fire when the prairies are burning, such persons shall be subject to fine or punishment, as Court may adjudge proper.

So begins the State of California’s history of fire suppression.

It is inarguable to state that California has some of the most unique environments in the world. Hosting the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney, it also hosts the lowest point, Badwater Basin, in Death Valley. It is less than 100 miles distance between these two geographical features. Caught between the Sierra Mountains and the San Bernardino Mountains is the California Desert with its vast resources and rich history.

What is layered and preserved in the desert are the records of changing times, climate, and utilization by plants, animals, and man. Long before the arrival of Europeans, Native American tribes had adapted their lives in such a way that they could and did enjoy the bountiful resources hidden within such a harsh landscape.

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Red Maids and Elderberry by William Pink

The wilderness that so many yearn for and aspire to create was a product that was established through the cooperative efforts of plants, animals, and man. I believe it is fair to say that there is no plant in California that does not know the presence of man. Yet we continue to remove this crucial element from the environment we wish to create. One of the tools utilized by man to impose his will on the landscape was fire. This very powerful tool was removed from man by the State of California in 1850. The State of California has spent billions of dollars interfering with the ways of mother nature. As a result, catastrophic fires are more and more frequent. However, the State is not wholly to blame for these occurrences. Climate change has been slowly creeping into our daily lives, and we chose to ignore the warning signs.

Do we have answers? The simple truth is that we don’t. We are now looking back at past Native American practices and hoping to blend them with the more modern approach of managing fire. We are approaching a point of no return. This is why it is so important to begin the conversation and begin to share concepts and techniques that will result in action.

As a Native American, I and many other Native Americans, are still skeptical of the end result of sharing our knowledge. Will it mean we can return to our traditional gathering practices and benefit from this sharing? Will there be a resolution in the classification of lands that currently bar us from utilizing our traditional lands? We can only hope.

There are many ways in which fire was either employed or managed by Native Americans. One of the most obvious ways is in choosing where to live. Fire is a known factor so I would want to locate my home in a defensible space. This is not always possible, so a space that offered realistic post fire recovery is a consideration too.

An example of managing fire is demonstrated in the once vast forests of pinyon trees, generally trending along the eastern or leeward side of California’s great mountains. Although referred to as “Pinyon-Juniper woodland,” most of the pinyon regions are located along the desert regions. Pinyon trees alternate bearing and producing cones every two years. So important was the use of pinyon trees to the Washoe People, that the United States made allotments of land to the Washoe called the Pinyon Allotments. It was believed that each allotment would provide each allottee with a sufficient source of enough pine nuts to survive.

These pinyon forests didn’t just happen but were the result of years of intentional management practices. Of course, that statement is open to disagreement, but the evidence is clear that many tribes engaged in practices that expanded and preserved these forests for many if not thousands of years.

My uncle, Joseph Brittain was married to a Washoe woman, Ethel Steele, and together they participated in the last traditional pinyon harvest by her People. What do I mean by last? It was the last time that the Washoe People went up the mountains on foot and camped out for two to three weeks at various elevations while harvesting pine nut. I later went out on harvest with a group of Washoe People and am able to compare the practices employed by my uncle and aunt and the current practices of today. These practices revolve around the needs and respect for the pinyon tree.

Pine nuts reach maturity at different times depending on the elevation. Successful harvests can occur as high as 8,000 feet in elevation. The first thing that occurs is a campsite is established, usually around 5,000 to 6,000 feet in elevation. It is not a first-time campsite, but a campsite that has been used for possibly thousands of years. There are piles of dried limbs around the campsite. Sleeping areas are prepared and limbs are removed from the pinyon trees in the area to build wind breaks. These freshly cut lower pine boughs were in fact fuel ladders, and it is the normal practice to remove these fuel ladders. The piles of dried limbs were then used for campfires and eventually for fuel in the roasting pits used for cooking and preserving the pine nuts. So while reducing fuel ladders, the use of the dried limbs reduced the fuel load as well.

After the pine nuts are harvested within an area, the campsite is then moved to a higher elevation where the pine nuts have begun to reach maturity. These campsites are moved in response to the pine nuts maturity. At the first campsite, a pit is dug and the pine nuts are roasted in the pit which is covered with green pine boughs and dirt. This will happen at each campsite until the harvest is complete. There is a social time, a family time that occurs at the last campsite. There is teaching and simply enjoying the environment. The children are mischievous but often disciplined in meaningful ways. My aunt would relate how, when she was a child, she and her friends would look for arrowheads and then show off their plunder to their elders. They were immediately told to return the arrowheads to where they found them but not without reason.

Then the journey down the mountain began. The roasting pits were opened, and the pine nuts were removed and carried down the mountainside. They left behind them tended lands that benefited the pinyon trees and protected them from catastrophic fires. This set the stage for the next event of fire management. Pine nuts are harvested in the fall but there is another important practice that requires burning and provides for a summer harvest. There is a plant belonging to the Mentzelia family that responds well to fire. By establishing a well-managed pinyon forest, fires could then be lit (under the pinyon) and the grasses burned so as to enhance the production of this particular Mentzelia. This practice successfully increases its seed yield. This Mentzelia ranges from the Washoe basin to the Colorado River. Evidence of similar burn practices are evident amongst the pinyon forests throughout the region. This practice also benefitted Chia which also responds well to fire. The absence of these traditional practices has resulted in the rapid destruction in our pinyon forests.

The Pinyon forests around the Thomas Mountain area and Pinyon Flats of the San Berardino Mountains are in decline. When I was a child, we would go to these areas, and it was possible to spread a tarp on the ground and beat the pine seeds free from their cones while they hung on the tree. The current condition is that the fuel ladders are present, and brush has taken over the landscape, further preventing proper management of the pinyon forests. Probably in this case it is the lack of human resources. There just are not enough Indians left to manage this resource area properly.

There is a broad range of desert known as the territory of the Vanyume Indians. This area ranges from Victorville to Las Vegas and easterly to within proximity of the Colorado River. Vanyume is a Mojave word or name given to this group of Indians which means eaters of mush. This was in reference to the Vanyume’s normal practice of consuming pine nuts. The Vanyume have all but disappeared and so has the management system of this region.

Another example of utilization of fire by tribes is in the harvest of grasshoppers. Ruby (Nombre) Modesto of Torres-Martinez Indian Reservation (Desert Cahuilla) and her husband, David Modesto of the Santa Rosa Indian Reservation (Mountain Cahuilla) related the following. They told me that when the grasshoppers were swarming, they would go to a grassy field and in the middle, they would dig a shallow pit. They did not give the full dimensions, but it was suggested that the pit was only about a foot deep and five feet across. They would then light the field on fire in a location that would drive the grasshoppers toward the pit. According to their description, the grasshoppers would seek shelter in the pit but were eventually burned or roasted. The grasshoppers were then gathered and eaten. They said that eating grasshoppers was like eating popcorn. Crunchy is probably a better description. The Cupeno Indians were also known to gather grasshoppers the same way. They would burn the grasses within their traditional area which is situated within Warner Ranch.

Fire is fire, whether it is started by man or nature, intentionally or unintentionally. What is important to Native Americans is what happens after the fire. Plants used for basket weaving yield more and better material after a fire. The bark is slipped on the willow, cottonwood, and elder trees, making their inner bark available for harvest. The bark of these trees is used for clothing, rope, and padding. Tobacco plants respond well to the fire. Chia offers a better seed yield. Some woods are tempered by the fire and makes them a better selection for bows. Fire coppices many plants that respond by using the full force of its root system to force healthier growth. Straight shoots of chamise, mule fat, and arrow weed are more prevalent and available for a variety of uses.

It isn’t just fire that is beneficial to the plants, but often the soil erosion that occurs as a result of the fire. Soil run-off due to rains mixes ash with soil and can scarify seeds in two ways. Wet ashes form lye which can dissolve the protective coating on native seeds that inhibit germination. The tumbling action caused by the soil erosion abrasively removes this protective coating as well. We do believe that some native plants in the first two years after a fire event are able to out compete the non-native plants. This has to be considered in establishing a burn cycle program.

Developing proper burn strategies is not easy, and it will not be easy as climate change hands us the unpredictable. Hurricanes are getting stronger and more present on the Pacific coast. Wind patterns are changing. Temperatures are rising. Unless we learn to manage the canvas Mother Nature has provided in a cooperative and inclusive manner, we are possibly facing more than just catastrophic fires.

William J. Pink is a past members of the California Desert Conservation Area Advisory Committee; has served as Executive Secretary, California Native American Heritage Commission; is a former Tribal Chairman and Vice Chairman, Pala Band of Mission Indians; and is currently a practicing ethnobotanist and teacher.