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The Oak Fire, which burned about 20,000 acres west of Yosemite National Park last summer, was devastating to the region’s Native tribes, including the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation. The tribe is headquartered in Mariposa, California, a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, near the national park.
“This really hit our community hard,” said Southern Sierra Miwuk Tribal Council member Tara Fouch-Moore. “We lost 127 households.”
The Oak Fire destroyed more than just property.
“These super fires burn so bright,” said Jazzmyn Gegere Brochini, the tribe’s cultural resource preservation manager. “The Oak Fire disintegrated absolutely everything in its path.”
Climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels has partly exacerbated the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Such catastrophic fires have decimated culturally significant sites and treasures, raising questions about how best to protect them for the future.
This is a situation that the Miwuk of the southern Sierra have had to face.
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Gegere Brochini and Fouch-Moore said traditional plants like elderberry, deer grass and sedge used in indigenous cooking, medicine and basketry were destroyed by the oak fire – along with more physical structures permanent, such as the numerous grinding stations dug into the bedrock by ancestors.
The Miwuk people have used these indentations in rocks to grind traditional medicines and foods like acorns for thousands of years.
“And to think that something that has stood the test of time for millennia can be destroyed by a single fire, is a sign that something is changing and something devastating is happening,” Fouch said -Moore.
Cultural heritage and climate change closely linked
Indigenous communities have long understood that cultural heritage is more than historic buildings and museum objects.
“It’s also knowing how to find food and how to survive or create art,” Fouch-Moore said.
“This is how we coexist with the land and steward it,” said Aanthony Lerma, Southern Sierra Miwuk Stewardship Coordinator. “It’s the indigenous way of life.”
The tribe’s first-hand experience of the impact of climate change on cultural traditions has been compounded by displacement.
Yosemite Valley was once populated by indigenous peoples, particularly from the southern Sierra Miwuk. “In the mid-1800s, as Yosemite began to be ‘discovered’ by settlers, they began to drive out the native tribes,” said Cicely Muldoon, the superintendent of Yosemite National Park.
The federal government designated the area as a national park in 1890 to protect its natural treasures. But the cultural these did not fare very well: Muldoon said the few remaining Aboriginal houses were razed in 1969.
“It was the last permanent occupation of Yosemite’s original inhabitants still living on their ancestral lands,” she said.
Loss of place, loss of culture
The loss of their native lands was accompanied by the loss of their cultural heritage, such as the long tradition of wildfire management.
“One of the first things the government banned was cultural burning,” said Lerma, of southern Sierra Miwuk.
State authorities made this tribal practice of starting small fires illegal in 1850. The years of fire suppression that followed made wildfires worse.
“‘Smokey the Bear’ everywhere,” Fouch-Moore said. “And now our forests are overgrown and unhealthy. And they say, ‘Oh, wait, maybe we should let the Indians do their job.'”
In recent years, the National Park Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) have begun working with indigenous communities to restore traditional burning to the lands.
Members of local tribes helped install prescribed burns in Yosemite National Park, among other forested areas. The process involves rubbing pieces of wood together to generate sparks instead of using modern drip torches.
“Tribal representatives help us identify and protect important cultural sites during a wildfire,” said Gregg Bratcher, deputy chief of CAL FIRE’s prescribed burn program. The agency worked with the Southern Sierra Miwuk and other tribes on cleanup efforts after last year’s Oak Fire. “We are working with them to ensure that these sites are not damaged by firefighting equipment or others,” he said.
Yosemite National Park via
Bratcher said his agency tries to build trust with tribal communities. Gegere Brochini of the Miwuk Nation said she is happy that state firefighters and other agencies are now actively engaging Indigenous people in cleaning up after wildfires. She helped with cleanup efforts after the Oak Fire. “I carried out a spot check of cultural resources to ensure that the remains of ancient villages were protected from bulldozers,” said Gegere Brochini. “Otherwise, they all doze off.”
But Tara Fouch-Moore said the removal of indigenous people from their lands makes it difficult for traditions such as cultural burning to develop, because out of context, these practices lose their meaning.
Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation
“Yes, we can share our songs despite climate change, and yes, we can learn to process acorns,” she said. “But it has to be global and integrated into the landscape to really understand.”
That’s why the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation has worked for years with the National Park Service to rebuild Wahhoga, a tribal village once occupied by Yosemite Valley ancestors. “We’re building our umachas, which are bark houses. We’re building our rotunda and we’re going to have that space to hold our ceremonies and our cultural events,” Fouch-Moore said. She hopes the project will be completed in the next few years.
Fouch-Moore said Wahhoga would allow its people to tell their own story.
“This is how we preserve cultural heritage,” she said. “Making sure people still experience it.”