Indigenous Fires: Invented Legends or Lessons for Today?

Indigenous fires may have played a part in the evolution of New England forests for thousands of years. Find out why that idea became controversial.

A unique vacation I’ve taken was a camping trip to the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation on the Bruce Peninsula. In addition to the spectacular beauty of the landscape, we timed our visit with the annual Pow Wow festivities.

We took in the music and dancing and enjoyed authentic indigenous food. We also contributed to the local economy via the craftspeople. It was a chance to inconspicuously take part in indigenous culture and get a feel for the authentic interaction of its people inside their community.

There was one thing on offer from which we shied away. The Chippewas of Nawash are fishing people, and they were offering some of their catch for sale.

Controversial – the Chippewas Didn’t Need Fishing Permits

Selling fish was controversial because the Chippewas didn’t need fishing permits to do this. In contrast, the commercial fishing businesses outside the first nation definitely did. People in the commercial fishery felt that not having to pay for a license and not having catch limits gave aboriginal families an unfair advantage.

The government imposed the license fees and the limits to conserve the fishery, which is in everyone’s interest. On the other hand, the indigenous community has been taking fish from Georgian Bay shores since time immemorial, and their fishing rights are constitutionally protected.

Did those rights extend to selling the fish commercially to people outside the native community? We discreetly left the fish where we saw them, and we wished their vendors well.

Small, Local Example of a Global Issue

Our fish dilemma is a small, local example of a global issue. We’ve covered it in these pages before.

It arose as part of the conflict between the World Wildlife Federation’s “fortress conservation” versus the hunter-gather rights of the Baka people in the Congo. It was also one of the issues around the Amazon fires last summer.

The journal Nature Stability published an article this week by Professor Marc Abrams of Penn State. Professor Abrams has researched forest ecology and physiology for forty years.

Traditional Indigenous Role in Fire and Vegetation

The article deals with indigenous fires and their role in forestry before Native Americans made contact with Europeans. Specifically, Professor Abrams defends the traditional indigenous role in fire and vegetation dynamics worldwide against what he considers to be overzealous climate science.

An earlier paper in Nature Sustainability by Professor Wyatt Oswald of Emerson College had argued that any indigenous fires in Southern New England were minor. Any major fires were naturally caused and driven by the climate.

Professor Oswald’s team concluded that “Land managers seeking to emulate pre-contact conditions should de-emphasize human disturbance and focus on developing mature forests; those seeking to maintain openlands should apply the agricultural approaches that initiated them four centuries ago.”

Forest Managers: Indigenous Fires Not a Model

In other words, modern forest managers shouldn’t view indigenous fires as a model for modern foresty. Professor Abrams disagrees with this view on historical grounds.

He maintains that conservation scientists have become ideologically biased. As a result, they tend to downplay evidence that contradicts their worldview.

Rather than recognize indigenous fires and other practices as part of the ecosystem, many climate scientists exclude them. As a result, environmentalists dismiss the aboriginal tradition of using controlled burns as merely anecdotal.

Indigenous Peoples Actively Managed Vast Areas

As Professor Abrams puts it, “In many locations, evidence shows that Indigenous peoples actively managed vast areas and were skilled stewards of the land.” The professors’ argument isn’t a dispute between a climate scientist and a climate contrarian.

Both Professor Abrams and Professor Oswald share the same goals and values. They clash on what the evidence tells us about what took place in pre-contact times and future best practices in conservation.

Professor Oswald takes the position that indigenous fires and stewardship practices became romanticized during the 20th century.  His team’s paper calls this view the “anthropocentric paradigm.”

Landscape Management by Horticultural Native People

His team’s paper describes the paradigm as a mistaken belief that “purposeful landscape management by horticulturally based native people sought to increase plant and animal resources by creating a diverse landscape mosaic, including non-forested habitats and successional forests.”

Professor Oswald’s team used a multidisciplinary approach to test the validity of the paradigm based on indigenous fires in New England. They collected sediment cores from twenty-one lakes and analyzed them for charcoal, pollen and vegetation.

The charcoal records suggested that widespread fires only occurred during a dry period at the end of the Ice Age and after European contact. The team concluded that the climate caused these fires rather than planned actions by indigenous people.

Climate Caused Fires Rather the Indigenous People

Similarly, the pollen records showed that the open forests we’d expect from indigenous fires didn’t appear until settlers started clearing the land for modern agriculture. Taking all this into account, they argue that controlled burns shouldn’t be part of forest management plans for the region.

Professor Abrams challenges both the methodology and the findings of the earlier study. In his view, “The palaeoecological view — based on a science of analyzing pollen and charcoal in lake sediments — that has arisen over the last few decades, contending that anthropogenic fires were rare and mostly climate-driven, contradicts the proud legacy and heritage of land use by Indigenous peoples, worldwide.”

He questions the charcoal evidence because, “Surface fires set by Indigenous people in oak and pine forests, which dominate southern New England, often produced insufficient charcoal to be noticed in the sediment.” He also maintains that the type of charcoal must be taken into account rather than merely the volume.

Historical Records Describing the Open, Parklike Woods

As far as the pollen, and the claim that there were no open forests, Professor Abrams points to historical accounts describing the open, parklike woods. He also cites eyewitness accounts of indigenous fires and oral histories that go back thousands of years.

Predictably, Professor Abrams reached the opposite conclusion to Professor Oswald. He believes that “Surprisingly, the importance of Indigenous peoples burning in vegetation-fire dynamics is increasingly downplayed among paleoecologists. This applies to locations where lightning-caused fires are rare.”

One of the goals of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity is to ensure that, “the traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and their customary use of biological resources, are respected.”W

What If Aboriginal Practices Conflict with Science?

That seems to back up Professor Abrams’ view. Still, what happens when aboriginal beliefs and practices conflict with scientific findings? Professor Abrams accuses Professor Oswald and his peers of being overzealous, but couldn’t the same be said for Professor Abrams?

If this were an academic dispute on a purely historical point, we could leave the two scholars to sort it out. However, their conclusions have real-world implications for solving our ongoing mass extinction crisis.

Is controlled burning of forests good or bad for conservation? Our professors leave us without a clear answer to that fundamental question.

Is Controlled Burning Good or Bad?

We need one quickly because the experts tell us that we need to conserve 30% of our land area by 2030 and 50% by 2050. If controlled burns are part of that solution, we need to start planning for them today.

We’re hoping to hear from other scientists either with more in-depth and conclusive research or with feedback on these two studies. That may tip the balance between the two radically different proposals.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Climate scientists increasingly ignore ecological role of Indigenous peoples
Native American imprint in palaeoecology
Conservation implications of limited Native American impacts in pre-contact New England
Mass Extinction Happening Again
Wild Claims about Wildfires in Brazil
WWF Congo Conflict and Fortress Conservation


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