Ron Reed and Kari Norgaard discuss the importance of fire for Karuk tribal culture, health, food, and sovereignty. They describe the history of settler colonial fire suppression practices and its ongoing impacts on Indigenous communities. Reed argues for the need to center place-based, Indigenous ecology model.
Ron Reed is a traditional Karuk dipnet fisherman, spiritual leader, and important public figure for the Karuk Tribe (in northern California). Ron Reed comes from a long and prominent family of traditional spiritual leaders and cultural practitioners, and is the father of six children. In his capacity as the Karuk Tribe’s Cultural Biologist, Ron has been an important tribal spokesperson who has communicated the cultural and health impacts of current river and forest mismanagement to audiences around the world, and works at home to restore Karuk culture and society through reconnecting people, especially tribal youth, to the natural world. His work has been featured in prominent news outlets around the world including National Geographic, National Public Radio, High Country News, and many more. Mr. Reed is a co-founder of the Karuk-UC Berkeley collaborative; has served as a member of the Forest Research Advisory Committee of the USDA, which reports directly to the Secretary of Agriculture; was a member of the Environmental Justice Task Force of the California Environmental Protection Agency; and was one of half a dozen delegates from California to the first US Social Forum in Atlanta.
Dr. Kari Marie Norgaard is Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at University of Oregon. She has served as a consultant for the Karuk Tribe since 2003, and chaired the Environmental Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association from 2018 to 2019. Norgaard is the author of Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life (MIT Press, 2011) and most recently Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People: Colonialism, Nature and Social Action (Rutgers University Press 2019), as well as dozens of other articles. Dr. Norgaard received the Fred Buttel Distinguished Contribution Award, chaired the Environmental Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association, and earned the Pacific Sociological Association’s Distinguished Practice Award.
“Fire is Food” was hosted by the University of Oregon Food Studies program as part of its “Food Talks” series. Reed and Norgaard discuss the importance of fire for Karuk food sovereignty. The event occurred on March 12, 2021, and was co-sponsored by the University of Oregon’s Native American Studies program and the Many Nations Longhouse.
Ron and Kari have been working closely together since 2003 conducting policy-relevant research on tribal health and social impacts of environmental decline. In 2004, their report The Effects of Altered Diet on the Karuk Tribe was submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as part of the opposition to the re-licensing of the Klamath River dams. Their action represented the first time a tribe had claimed that a dam had given their people artificially high rates of diabetes and other diet-related disease. Since that time, Ron and Kari have continued to work on policy-driven research projects including work that established the Tribal Cultural and Tribal Subsistence beneficial uses section within the “Total Maximum Daily Loads” water quality process in California. Together they have co-authored multiple articles and book chapters, and co-supervised over a dozen undergraduate theses. In 2019, their article “Emotional Impacts of Environmental Decline: What Can Attention to Native Cosmologies Teach Sociology About Emotions and Environmental Justice” received the Best Article Award from the Sociology of Emotions section of the American Sociological Association.
This discussion was transcribed, excerpted, and edited for clarity and length by Natchee Blu Barnd, Editor for Ethnic Studies Review.
When I Think of Fire, It’s Prayer
It is really an honor to speak to this community and certainly thank you to the Food Studies program. I thought we would just organize this around several questions and so I have a few slides.
I’m not necessarily planning to speak that much. When we first were opening up Ron said, “Oh, Kari lets me tag along,” but this work is very much work that we’ve been doing together. But, my thought, Ron, is really to let you take the lead here. Ron and his family have been in National Geographic twice in the last couple of months, actually, so just starting with the title of the talk. Why this talk title, Ron? Why is fire food?
All right. Thank you very much. Everybody, welcome. Very humbled, very honored. Thank you very much.
Fire is a lot of things in our culture. Fires provide our life; fire is provider of death. So, those two things right there make it a very respectable entity in our culture. But fire is also food. When I think of fire, it’s prayer. You burn your root and then your prayers go up to the great creator. When I think of fire, it’s resource management. When I think of fire: health, happiness, diversity, confidence.
Those are the things that we rely on. Without fire, is fire suppression. Fire suppression equals catastrophic wildfire, and ultimately catastrophic wildfire leads to a shattered existence for the people, and the people along the Klamath River. Fire is eco-cultural revitalization; connecting and building a relationship between people, the landscape, and the great creator of all things. Because of that, we develop through fire ecology our ethnosciences. So really what that does is it allows us to manage these resources to nearly optimal levels of management. To enhance and maintain this environment is very critical to our life cycle, to our lifestyle. So, fire is a lot of things. And, I guess that is the best way to express why fire is the subject matter here today.
Thank you. I’m just thinking about how this community [in Oregon] has, as did the community on the [Klamath] River, experienced very catastrophic fires. I’m thinking about the Food Studies program, “food justice,” or Indigenous conceptions of food, and how food justice often looks very different from the ways that other communities are thinking about it, and the kinds of things that they’re thinking about. There’s really a big gap and differences between the kind of understandings of fire; the popular understanding of fire.
The kinds of experiences of fire that happened in our community, the way people talk about those things, [versus] the ways that the people on the [Klamath] River and Karuk folks talk about fire. So, I really appreciate the opportunity to share some of these.
That’s a National Geographic picture (see Fig. 1). We went up to a friend’s land, and he invited us to burn. National Geographic wanted to capture that, and this is a long time coming to have our family members in the…intergenerational format we’ll just call it. You know I had my brother and my sister who are our cultural leaders, our spiritual leaders.
They come up and prayed on this process. This is the new cultural revitalization. We need to relearn fire. We need to relearn our traditional foods. We need to relearn those relationships that were stripped from us through forced assimilation. Through advocacy and through different platforms, we’re able to go out and be activists in a natural management paradigm; modern management paradigm. Prescribed fire is who we are as a people. Relearning goes back to fire is food, fire is prayer. All those things we’re doing out there is an intergenerational knowledge transfer. If we don’t have these types of situations happening constantly, all four seasons, then that leads to extinction of our knowledge.
So, it’s very critical to be activists in this time, this day and age, because in order for me to be able to get my message across I have to do these types of things. I have to go to National Geographic. I have to go to University of Oregon. Tomorrow, I’ll be speaking with a student of color environmental collective down in Berkeley. So, these are the things that I’m doing rather than going eeling down here at Ishi Pishi Falls. The resources aren’t available to us, so we have to go out and advocate and talk about why our resources are not available to us. It comes right down to why we’re talking today; because the lack of prescribed fire, or cultural burns in our landscape, and it creates a lot of problems that Western science is just now realizing.
Fire Suppression is Systemic Racism
People talk about the idea of food deserts, and I think it’s a really captivating concept, a really powerful concept. I’ve heard you, and I’ve heard other people, talk about the idea that the forest is now a food desert. Can you explain that?
Yeah. Fire suppression is systemic racism. It was that when it first occurred and it is that now. Maybe even worse than it was when it first occurred.
Fire suppression is devastating to the eco-cultural relationship between human beings and our relations. We did a media documentary called Salmon on the Backs of Buffalo (2004). That was one of our first outings—I see a nice big smile on Kari’s face there because that’s where we first met—and it’s no surprise to me that millions of fish do not return back to the Klamath River to spawn, and there’s such an ecological impact. Such a social impact. Such a physical impact that has gone through patriarchal society’s lens. They don’t acknowledge the devastating impact to national forests across North America because it’s a different lens that they’re looking through.
So, [this is] providing insight on fire, because fire suppression has literally bankrupted the federal government. Uncle Sam is now broke because of catastrophic wildfire. With that being said, now they’re looking for a way to circumvent catastrophic wildland fire and the only thing available today, as it was yesterday, is prescribed fire. And, because the Karuk Tribe was not impacted really until 1850, we still have a lot of knowledge. We have a lot of ceremonies. We abide by a lot of the creation stories. We have academic support quantifying a lot of our resource management processes. So, we're getting closer to the truth coming [to] the table, and that truth would be a management platform that constituted traditional knowledge or Indigenous science, [as well as] Western science, on that platform in a true integrated style or fashion.
I guess what I’m talking about here: fire is happiness.
[One of the National Geographic photos shows] my granddaughter running through the forest when it’s on fire (Mann 2020). It’s crazy that modern management or the modern society has demonized fire. This is a very important message that we throw out to society today, that fire is not all bad. If we can burn our resources to make it near optimal management with our babies running in the forest while we’re doing it, what more of a practical way of reestablishing spiritual connection with the landscape.
That’s the problem with Western science. The spiritual connection is not there. The reason why work on the Klamath River happens so readily is because the local community has bought into this tribal Indigenous science perspective. A lot of the people are educated in this region. So, the quantification of our cultural resource management is necessary for tribal community to be able to function properly into the future. And tribal community is ceremony. Tribal community is food. Tribal community is prayer.
Those are the things that are overlooked and those aspects of life have been demonized right along with fire. In order for Indigenous people to reestablish and revitalize our culture, we have to step in and manage the resources. [This is] something that we all know about: denied access to traditional food, right Kari? But, what we’re really talking about is denied access to management. That’s the other piece of the pie. That’s the spiritual connection of management.
And you’re about ready to break my heart with Smokey Bear up on the screen! [referring to slideshow image]
laughs. I tried to give some visuals that go along with what you’re saying. Yeah, denied access!
Yes. I think the denied management is really what forced assimilation has done to tribal communities, in the Indigenous societies of the [Klamath] River. Not only the river, the Pacific northwest and across the nation. Depends on what kind of time and scale we’re talking about here.
The last two questions that Ron and I talked about, I think the food studies folks, and I think people [generally], realize that a very high percentage of Karuk and many other Indigenous foods require fire. [Fire] for the acorns that were pictured there, in terms of removing the populations of different weevils, and also little worms, and making it easier to gather. And other plants like huckleberries, [fire] really increases production and many other things; to make that connection clear.
The last two things that Ron and I talked about, [that we are] sharing with you today, [alludes to] the idea about the environmental justice dimensions of smoke, which is something that really struck me. When you started speaking about it [in the past], we were doing that talk down at Berkeley several years ago when I really started to understand what you meant there, and what you were talking about. So, I wanted you to share a little bit of that, especially because this community did have really intense smoke for a long time, for multiple weeks, last summer. And then, thinking toward the last question, would that be what the paradigm shift is, the shift that’s needed?
Then, we can move to taking some questions. But, I would love if you would share with people about the environmental justice dimensions of smoke.
Well, let’s do it backward. The paradigm shift that’s needed is fire back in the landscape. Cool fire back in the landscape as a management tool, and if we can, as your primary management tool.
[My son,] he’s in the forest fire academy right now as we speak. He’s on an apprentice program, [so he can be the] boss somewhere in the prescribed fire world at some point in his career. So, I’m very proud of him.
But back to the question: this is public trust smoke. Let’s call that fire suppression. That’s unhealthy smoke that gets hunkered into specific communities, year in, year out. You guys got hunkered in with smoke this last year. Welcome to our life! Welcome to our world for every summer for a long time now. Catastrophic wildfire is not something you can pick and choose when you have that fire. And usually it’s just burning up forests, burning up private properties, killing people. That’s public trust smoke.
So, fire suppression basically kills our animals and kills the resource that our animals depend on for food. That’s where the forest becomes a food desert. The forest; after approximately seven to ten years, the new shoots stop being food and become users of the resources like water, sunlight, nutrients. You’re not getting optimal levels of management and you’re creating fire risk to all the different resources that have survived over geologic time, and been managed across geologic time by people.
Tribal trust smoke is the smoke from controlled burns, prescribed fire. When you’re burning low-intensity fire that creates food for animals, like our regalia species, and our food, [it] creates water for the hydrologic process. It cleans the disease off the landscape.
There are so many things that fires do that have positive eco-cultural restoration. That’s the spiritual relationship that is needed because back in the day we didn’t go hunting like we do today; be lucky and go catch a deer or find a deer. We knew where those deer were because we managed for those deer. We managed for the salmon. We managed for our basketry materials. We managed for all of our resources that we have built relationships with over geologic time. Eco-cultural revitalization is very important to the ethnosciences created by fire ecology, because if we create a perfect forest and yet our people are not connected into the management and into the procurement, distribution, and spiritual connection to those resources, it all goes back into a fire suppression realm.
It all becomes an inherent responsibility of the first peoples who lived in this landscape, [who] are connected to the ceremonies, to the creation stories, and our sense of well-being. So, fire is a tool that we need for so many different things. We need it for prayer, for life, for death, and everything in between. Denied access to traditional foods is that end result, but denied access to management is what causes the situation of fire suppression; the situation that we’re living in today.
Healing Our People, Healing the Landscape
Thank you. So, those are questions that we’ve we put together as a framework.
When Ron first started talking about all of this, I couldn’t follow. I couldn’t follow what he was saying, and you know we’d been working together on the denied access report that he mentioned. That was part of the Klamath dam removal process that’s moving forward, and that’s all very exciting. We’ve been working on that and he’d been talking about the importance of salmon, and then he was talking about how we need to work upslope and think about fire and how all this brush was taking up too much water. I mean, I have an undergraduate [degree] in ecology, but these were not the kinds of concepts that I had been exposed to as a non-Native person. It really took me quite a while to begin to follow what it was that you were getting at, even though I was aware from our work; the importance of fire for so many different food species and regalia species and cultural use species. So, I see that now in the dialogue last year around fire and of course the very real fear that people have, especially [with] really large, fast-moving fires that come in, the context of fire suppression and climate change. Yet there’s just so many pieces of the story that I think are missing.
When [the speaker series organizers] reached out to us about doing this talk, Ron, you wanted to have it be [called] “Fire is Food.” I just felt that was so perfect, that you would make that connection and put that connection at the center for today. So, thank you for the work.
Over the last few hours, [we] got the great news that representative [Deborah] Halaand was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, which means we’ll have the first Native person, Native woman, in the department at a cabinet level that’s responsible for oversight of the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service and other entities in state government. I’m wondering if you’ve already opened up conversations with representative Halaand, or if you have an idea about how receptive her administration might be to these paradigm shifts that you’ve been educating us on this afternoon?
Let me take a jab at that one; it’s an informal perspective. I believe that what I am currently doing on the ground is tailor-made for someone like that, put in such a prestigious office within the federal government. In other words, I’m working with North American Youth Parliament for water. I’m working with students of color down in Berkeley. It’s really important to be able to tell the story. I’m sitting right here, unemployed. Because the story, it’s not the story that I raise, in perspective. It’s the connection to something that’s been established a real long time ago. I really believe that being able to tell the story to Western science, Indigenous science, is very important. To get the practitioners together with our technical folks. In order for us to be able to tell the story we need quantification of our perspective.
I think that’s what the Karuk Tribe-UC Berkeley collaborative [is about]; it was quantification of management perspective, the work that we did with denied access with traditional foods. Give the importance of traditional ideology and something that is a human right. All these different things need to be told in a way that they can be understood. So, the quantification of the story is just as important as the story. That’s where I’m at right now. Trying to quantify the issues. That is what I bring to the table. Then, not only identify problems like I did for the tribe, but also uncover solutions oriented at healing our people, healing the landscape, and healing our ideology. So basically, I’m networking with academic and professional institutions to get this thing done. It’s a true collaborative, true grassroots, and it’s not taught in the schools today. That’s our job, [to figure out] how do we move into the future with Indigenous science and Western science.
I am really interested in how we translate this material across the cultural divide. It sounds like quantifiable research is the language that works for the Western, the colonizer, institutions. So, is there any other advice that you might have, or references that you could drop into the chat, for those of us who want to help, that we could [use to] model our advocacy work off?
That’s a very big question. The Karuk Tribe, because of the way the treaties were negotiated, because of genocide, because of colonialism, they don’t have the same kind of land base. So, there’s a lot of non-Native people living in the area. Maybe there’s other reasons, and you can speak to this Ron, if I’m not saying it in the right way. But, I just noticed that you all have done a really good job at gaining allies and collaboration and relationships. I think that there’s a lot of leadership in that space, of bridging Indigenous and Western science. I want to share a drawing that Kirsten Vinyeta did that offers one way of trying to combine or draw upon both Indigenous and Western science. And while I do that I also want to acknowledge that Elizabeth Hoover, who’s on this call, has done really important work in this area and has a book, The River Is in Us (2017).
Looking in terms of health, of blending of Indigenous and Western sciences, Ron often talks about the way that Western science is really good for identifying problems, but Indigenous science is really good for coming up with how to move forward. Kirsten has created at least five diagrams in the Karuk Tribe’s Climate Adaptation Plan (Norgaard and Tripp 2019) that are visual ways of trying to communicate across the Western and Indigenous notions.
Many of you have taken ecology classes and you’ll see a food web. And those food webs never have people in them! Well, this is a human-supported food web that has humans in it because of their role, for many things, but amongst them in terms of fire. Ron spoke about the importance of smoke for salmon. This is a way of visually portraying the kind of smoke shading, the reduction of evapotranspiration, some of these principles that he is describing. So, I would just say, you know, that’s a big question: how do you bridge across Indigenous and Western sciences? I’d say listen to folks in the Karuk Tribe, in particular, and that the example of these images is one way that’s being used.
What’s Your Food Base? What are the Stories?
I’m mentoring a new team of students in the spring term who are going to be interviewing residents who lived through the McKenzie fire this summer. I was wondering if you have any specific resources that you would recommend as good intro for someone who is new and trying to understand it? And, if you knew anyone here who might be good people for them to talk with directly in their interviews? If there were any fire folks [who] Indigenous community members here are working with [who] might be good for them to learn from?
Joe Scott is one person [who’s] been doing a lot of work with the Nature Conservancy, locally, and he would be. There’s probably a lot of people locally who were doing work on fire revitalization. Joe is Siletz [tribe, western Oregon].
How about Merv George? Isn’t he up there in Oregon?
Yeah, Merv George Jr. has been the force supervisor for Rogue Siskiyou National Forest. He’s Hupa, and a fire practitioner, and he gave a talk here two years ago maybe. Merv would be a great person to speak [to the students].
I wrote down and then I highlighted “the quantification of the story is just as important as the story.” I think as you might recall, I’m working with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla [north-central Oregon], and I’m really seeing this as a method that we’re working on. We’re continuing with a project working with their first foods, wanting to both quantify and qualify. [Wanting] to have a sense of the level of knowledge of first foods that exist in their communities. I’m curious if you’ve explored or if your community has also tried to quantify the knowledge that you have in your community, and if you have, how you’ve done that.
It sounds a little bit maybe more like what the Berkeley folks did on that big USDA grant. I know that Frank Lake [Fire Service ecologist] was running around timing himself during food gathering trials; like how long it took for him to harvest a slope of acorns! I’m not sure if that’s what you mean, but I know that there were a bunch of [those kinds of projects]. I wasn’t involved in that project directly.
I think it’s not easy getting into a community and getting this type of information because the people [who] have this information quite frankly went through hell to hold on to that information. So, now it’s hard to get them to give it back to something that isn’t real or truthful. You know, there’s a lot of trustworthiness that has to happen, and I guess [that’s] what I’m getting at.
You have to have a place-based model. What information is available? In our case, there was quite a bit of ethnobotany material available to us and names connected with that, so you can trace that back to people, living people, and what’s available now compared to what was available then. Then you start gradually figuring out that “Oh, wow nobody’s managing. Nobody even knows where the traditional foods are anymore.” When we had our food sovereignty grant, and traditional food was a big basis of that, it was kind of like, “I grew up in a forced assimilation era, and I didn’t grow up eating acorns, deer meat, salmon, and greens and things you get out of the landscape. I got everything from the store.” So, you had to start all over. Fortunately, I come from a traditional family, that we have a lot of this knowledge embedded in our lifestyle.
I’m not sure what your community looks like up there, but there are different layers of filtering that have to occur. What information is available? Who can you draw that to, as living people? How willing are they to move forward? Sounds like you got somewhat of a comfortable position with the tribes, where you do have some levels of trust, so I think that’s the main part of it. But I think you have to decide what your place-based model would look like.
I’ll tell you, when I talk about food to Indigenous communities, a lot of people are shaking their head. You start talking about prayer and fire, a lot of communities start shaking their head. So, really you got to do your due diligence, and figure out what level is forced assimilation in that region that you’re in. Because it’s going to be different than the region that we’re in here, along the Klamath River.
I would say that the different work that’s already been done by Kari, and by folks like her, can be used. I think the denied access to traditional food, that structure, that framework, could be used for another tribe as well. What’s your food base? What are the stories? What are the ceremonies? You kind of got to go through a whole, full-blown ethnographic process. I think a lot of that stuff would be available because we started that a long time ago, and since then there’s been a lot of work being done, and it’s really great work as well.
Fire Gets us Out from Being a Food Desert
I had [a] less, like, in-depth question. Going back to the questions of decolonization and language, I remember in another class we really had conversations about the term food desert, and that origin. I wonder if any of you had comments on that, or any insights that you wanted to contribute.
My comment, my first feeling to come out is, that’s how we got a multi-million-dollar, multi-state food sovereignty grant. Because the Klamath River was defined as a food desert. It really dug into my spirit, dug into my soul, because I’m still readily harvesting foods that are making me healthy, and a lot of people don’t have that knowledge and it was going by the wayside.
I was fortunate enough to network with academic folks and to gain Western science knowledge to be able to help not only define our situation, but look for solutions as well. It was a food security grant, but it was traditional food security, and the foods that were available to us a few generations ago. So, we’ve been busy teaching people how to plant, plant gardens, utilize gardens, but then adding on the traditional foods that were collected in the landscape today but aren’t available enough in abundance to have our traditional lifestyle restored.
So that’s the reason why advocacy is so important. Because if I don’t quantify that, this process, people like you don’t understand what that framework is and how we get to solving it. So prescribed fire, [having it] in our landscape does not make [the landscape] a food desert to Indigenous people. Western sciences platforms can also tell you all the positive impacts of cool burns, of prescribed fires, cultural burns. So, a combination that includes that quantification gets at the political realm, the physical realm, and the healthy realm. I think those are the things that are needed in this climate-changing world that we live in today.
This empowers me in an Indigenous community because everything we’re going through with a pandemic is, “you’re back with your family and what makes your family healthy.” So, climate change: “oh, we got to go manage our resources,” so it’s not a food desert. Not only are we getting food out there, but we’re saving a thousand-year-old forest. I call it a thousand-year-old forest because that forest, if wildfire ravages through it, it’ll take another approximately thousand years to restore that forest to its natural state.
Those are the things that we’re up against. It’s a race to the to the finish line. Fire suppression is at the finish line for us down here on the river. That’s why we do our due diligence in fire ecology. I’ve taken [it as] my job as a ceremonial leader to reestablish tribal community security. That really kind of brings it all into a nutshell because all the things we do in our ceremonies, all the things we pray, all our management acts, all our harvesting acts, support optimal levels of management, both with the relations we call our food and regalia, to human beings by the way of prayer.
Fire does all that. Fire is knowledge. Fire gets us out from being a food desert. Hopefully in a few years we don’t fit that description anymore, and we’ll see the positive impacts to Karuk social development.
One thing about Indigenous science; it’s the closest thing to truth on earth. If that’s the case, then place-based managers need to be the knowledge bearers and the managers.