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For over a century, California banned Indigenous cultural fires. Now, that's changing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For centuries, Indigenous communities in what's now called California intentionally set fires to manage their lands. Restrictive laws in the 1900s discouraged that, imposing penalties if those beneficial fires got out of hand. Now the state's poised to formally allow Indigenous fire practitioners to use good fire on tribal and private lands by granting new protections for what's called cultural burns.

DAN HANKINS: A cultural burn is the intentional application of fire to land by Native American tribes, tribal organizations and cultural fire practitioners to achieve cultural goals or objectives, including subsistence, ceremonial activities, biodiversity or other benefits.

SHAPIRO: Don Hankins is a Plains Miwok fire expert and professor at California State University, Chico. I asked him what will change for people like him once two new state laws go into effect in January.

HANKINS: Basically, if I set fire and, you know, an act of God causes, you know - so to speak - an act of God causes that fire to move in a way to get out of control, then I basically have the assurance that I wouldn't have to worry about the suppression cost. And so for me, anytime I'm burning, I'm not taking that personal risk, per se, of my own personal property, my own assets, you know, being at risk because of setting that fire. And it's not to say that, you know, folks are just going to go out there and set fires negligently because, obviously, that's what this law is really about. But it provides a little bit better cushion for folks who are engaging in these kind of activities.

SHAPIRO: Do you think these new laws are going to help the state address its growing wildfire problem?

HANKINS: I think that we're definitely on a better track for addressing some of our wildfire issues. You know, there's a learning curve that's there, but I think in time we'll get to that point where we can, you know, start to really see a difference in the types of fires that we're seeing within the state.

SHAPIRO: There's been more than a century of efforts by colonial settlers to extinguish Indigenous knowledge through genocide, through boarding schools, through other mechanisms. How widespread is the knowledge of cultural burning amongst Indigenous communities in California today?

HANKINS: Yeah. We're, you know, we're in a situation currently within the state where there aren't a huge number of people who have the traditional knowledge, you know, Indigenous knowledge around burning. So there's a lot of folks who maybe went into the pathways of career firefighting. And, you know, then there's the folks who maintain those traditions as weavers and as hunters and fishers and so forth that would have those connections to burning, but there's really not very many. And so, you know, I think about, you know, the actual numbers, and it's hard to say what those numbers are. But I would definitely say that we're talking maybe a few dozen people.

SHAPIRO: So I would imagine you're looking forward not only to having these cultural burns, but also to sharing the knowledge and making sure that it isn't extinguished, that with just a few dozen people in California knowing how to do this, that knowledge base grows?

HANKINS: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think ideally every tribe would have at least, you know, a fire practitioner who's ultimately there to help with their ancestral areas. And, you know, really, you know, for us as Indigenous peoples, it's not about an individual person, but it's a lot of, you know, kind of family engagement. So you have young children at a very early age going out and supporting that burning all the way up to elders and beyond. You know, I often like to think about it that fire in our culture is really something that begins at birth and goes beyond death. And, you know, it's a responsibility that we carry within our communities. And while there may be certain people who are specialists in it, who are the specific knowledge-keepers, there's obviously a lot of the areas of the state of California is needing help, and there's not enough of us to go around. So hopefully, in time, we'll get to that point and bring in the general population along with us.

SHAPIRO: That's Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok fire expert and professor at California State University, Chico. Thanks a lot.

HANKINS: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.