Thoughts from a Karuk Research Ecologist on Fire and Ecology
Frank K. Lake discusses the pitfalls of SB 332, ecological health, a utopic vision, and why fire is medicine for land and people.
I was first going to interview Frank K. Lake pre-pandemic, when I was in the UK, but because of our conflicting schedules we missed each other several times. Finally I got to sit down over Zoom and ask him some questions. This is not a transcript, but more of a short essay, engaging with his answers. Anything he said is quoted directly— the rest is my own writing and thoughts.
One of the first things Frank and I discussed with the trauma of having one’s ancestral land stolen, which is a trauma that has echoed through generations of both Indigenous Californian and Indigenous folks throughout the United States and around the world. This trauma doesn’t only affect the people whose lands were stolen, but the land itself. Since the removal of its caretakers, ecological health throughout the United States has declined, particularly in the west— creating landscapes that are primed for megafires.
A key part of how land was removed in Northern California (where Frank K. Lake is from and where his work is concentrated) was the failure of the U.S. government to ratify its treaties. In order to entice Indigenous Californians off their homelands, government officials had them sign treaties promising land rights and payment, but these treaties were never ratified by the government and many are still unresolved.
Many of this enforcement was assumed by rangers, which monitored formerly Indigenous land and forced Indigenous Californians to extinguish fires. From Frank:
“The early Forest Service rangers; one account where ‘we had a firebug problem and I rounded up all the few Indian men and told them they either work on our suppression crew or they go to jail.’” (loosely quoted from an historic document).
“Can you imagine being 15, 19, 20, being a Karuk man who was trained from your grandfather to be a fire medicine owner…someone who has that spiritual responsibility, for their family, for their village, and being the person who inherits that, and being told that everything you were told to do for fire is rejuvenating, for world renewal, for balance…originally taught through the creator— as the first instructions given to human beings and how to live in place, and you have that cultural responsibility and spiritual position; then being threatened to be round[ed] up and put on a suppression crew because the government actually doesn’t have funding yet?
“Then, in that process that you’re putting out the fires, you’re also told to turn in ‘arsonists’ who are probably your family members who are burning for spiritual and for subsistence reasons. The hardship that that person would have faced, being taken into forced labor.”
I responded here to say this this sounds like a kind of genocide— a cultural erasure. A mental element of genocide is "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”
Lake spoke to the “legacy of erasure” in the Forest Service and the need for reconciliation. He noted that the term “ranger” originated from militias that hunted Indians in California when federal resources were otherwise engaged, funded by the state. That word “militia,” he noted, is still used today (within government agencies) in reference to the “fire militia,” or “local militia,” and even in reference to working with local Indigenous people. Many people working for these agencies may not be educated about the California Genocide or other violent historical events that occurred against Indigenous Americans.
What Lake is referring to here is a lack of historical education throughout state and federal agencies— many (specifically white) people working within these agencies are unaware of the cultural legacy of their own agencies, and the way they condone and reinforce those violent legacies through their use of militaristic language.
For many Indigenous Californians (and other Indigenous groups across the United States and beyond), fire was an integral part of their culture and life. Children burned under the direct supervision of elders, and developed a comfort with and knowledge of fire from a very young age.