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Earth Notes: The Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, Preserving The Culture Of Fire

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Margo Robbins, Yurok Tribe
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Indigenous peoples of North America have long known the benefits of fire. It’s a vital part of ceremonies and cultural practices, and a key element of keeping landscapes healthy. A group called the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network is working to preserve the culture of fire for future generations.

It’s led by Native American elders and practitioners and supported by The Nature Conservancy. The network began in 2015 with the Karuk, Yurok and Hoopa Tribes in Northern California and now includes the Klamath in Oregon, Ojibwe in Minnesota, and Pueblo peoples of New Mexico. Tribal members meet to share their knowledge and experiences with fire, and engage youth in cultural practices.

Tribes haven’t always had access to the training and resources required to navigate federal restrictions to conduct cultural burning. Historically, the U.S. government suppressed wildfires in Western forests, leaving them overgrown and unhealthy. The Network wants to change to notion that all fire is bad.

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Credit Kiliii Yuyan
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Elizabeth Azzuz blows on an ember of angelica root during a Yurok-led TREX training burn near Weitchpec, California. It will be used to light the burn.

Cultural fire practices vary from place to place. Fire might be used to improve wildlife habitat, or to foster plants used in basket weaving. In the Rio Grande Valley, it’s part of the cycles used in farming communities to promote agriculture and enrich the soil.

John Waconda, a Pueblo tribal member, says fire is a necessary element of nature, just like air and water. Waconda says the goal isn’t just to manage fire, but to coexist with it.

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.