The Yokut Tribes and Sequoia National Forest Revive Cultural Burning Practices

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Contact(s): Alicia Embrey

As the early morning dew glistened across the Western Divide Ranger District's Long Meadow on December 19, 2023, tribal prayers echoed in the distance and the smell of sage lingered in the air. The Yokuts and Forest Service staff assembled while Tule River Tribal Elder Harold Santos, accompanied by Sequoia National Forest Supervisor Teresa Benson, lit the first Native American cultural burn pile, igniting a tradition that hasn’t been allowed in the Forest for over 100 years.

With the sounds of excited chatter and chainsaws, more than 150 tribal members from the Tule River Indian Tribe, Wukchumni, North Fork Mono Tribe, Tachi Yokuts Tribe and more, along with Forest Service employees collected overgrown willow, grasses, shrubs, trees, dead leaves, and fallen pine needles for the Yokuts Cultural Burn Demonstration.

According to Tribal Relations Specialist William Garfield, Yokuts means People – People means everybody. "We wanted the event to include everyone, not just one tribe. The cultural burn opens the door for the Yokuts to restore the practice while sharing a tribal tradition rich in cultural history.”

In 2022, the Forest Service and Tule River Indian Tribe signed a co-stewardship agreement incorporating tribal practices such as cultural burn techniques into the landscape. "This site has cultural significance to the local tribes dating back thousands of years, stated recently retired Forest Supervisor Teresa Benson. "The agreement will increase the Forest's ecological and traditional tribal knowledge and will help protect culturally significant sites such as Long Meadow."

As environmental archaeologist Christopher Roos explained in 2021, cultural burning links back to the tribal philosophy of fire as medicine. When you prescribe it, you're getting the right dose to maintain the abundance of productivity of all ecosystem services to support the ecology in your culture.

Cultural burn practices have been passed down through generations, spurring the growth of plants for food, medicine, and materials for baskets and shelter. "While some tribes have different reasons for burning, there is a cultural belief that fire and smoke open a spiritual connection with our ancestors who watch over the land. I am happy to see the Sequoia National Forest is open to providing a cultural living space with all tribes around the Forest, and that's what co-stewardship is all about,” Garfield explained. "The cultural burn demonstration in Long Meadow was the first step in restoring cultural fire on ancestral homelands within the National Forest."

Region 5 supports working with Tribes across California to explore opportunities for cultural practices on National Forest System lands. "Forest management along with the tribes prepared a burn plan specifying the cultural area at Long Meadow to conduct the demonstration," Benson added. “Together, Forest and Tribal leadership created a comfort zone for tribal practitioners to share ecological knowledge, culture and technics.”

The Forest Service continues to grow together with the tribes while developing meaningful policy. I think we made some strides today with how that could look," stated Anthony Edwards, Sequoia National Forest Supervisor.

Editor's Note

More than 150 tribal members from the Tule River Reservations, Wukchumni, North Fork Mono tribe, Tachi Yokuts tribe, tribal member throughout California and a tribal member from New Mexico, along with Forest Service employees from various Forests participated in the Yokut Cultural Burn Demonstration in Long Meadow on December 19, 2023.