Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Indigenous Peoples of what would be soon be called California had created one of the most culturally diverse places on earth. Only New Guinea had more languages for a comparable area.
Prehistoric California was so rich in natural resources, especially along the coast, that large, permanent settlements formed. The Chumash village of Helo' on Mescalitan Island in the Goleta Slough had an estimated population of more than 800 people according to Father Crespi who encountered the village in 1769 during the Portola expedition. However, this was more than 200 years after the first contact with Europeans in 1542 when Juan Cabrillo explored the Santa Barbara Channel. Archeological evidence indicates that shortly thereafter, large villages were abandoned and mass burials occurred. This suggests there may have been a significant depopulation event due to the spread of disease the Spanish had left behind.
Chumash pictographs in Painted Cave, Santa Barbara, California.
Most of the art found in such locations was likely created by 'alchuklash (shaman), under the influence of Mother Momoy. For additional details, please see Issue #30 of The Chaparralian that explores the sacred plant, Datura.
A Chumash ceremonial sweatlodge.
The Chumash, as with nearly all Indigenous Peoples of California, were highly skilled hunters and gatherers. They depended upon Nature to provide. To access the riches of Nature, the Chumash built a sophisticated society based on oceanic travel by way of tomol (plank canoe) brotherhoods, fishing and hunting guilds, a monetary/trade system supported by the manufacturing of clam and olivella shell beads, the gathering of protein rich seeds and acorns, and a world view grounded in story.
A deep spiritual foundation of the Chumash culture was supported by respected 'alchuklash (shaman) and embedded ritual, prominent of which was the coming of age ceremony for boys initiated by fasting, drinking of the gifts from Mother Momoy (Datura), and seeking a spirit helper.
Although modern California has begun to recognize Indigenous People, there is yet to be a dedicated location to celebrate cultures like the Chumash. The remains of Mescalitan Island could be one such place - a historical monument to the Chumash People.
The Brotherhood of the Tomol. The Chumash People plied the Santa Barbara Channel connecting the villages on the Channel Islands with the mainland.
Fire and Wilderness
The Indigenous Peoples of California were as diverse as the landscape they lived on. Each undoubtedly used fire in their own special way. Unfortunately, a stereotypical image has been formed over the past decade that has ignored this diversity, creating an oversimplified image of Indigenous Peoples burning everywhere.
The stereotype is exploited by special interests, and enabled by those who do not fully understand the cultural and ecological landscape of California, to promote logging and habitat clearance projects across the state. California Governor Newsom cited Native American burning in an executive order when addressing the wildfire crisis in 2019.
The stereotype is extended into Nature by imagining a historic, managed landscape with park-like forests, open grasslands, and few shrubs, all maintained by burning. This is also the same landscape favored by logging companies, ranchers, clearance contractors, some fire agencies, and even those doing research funded by the same groups. It is imagined, in such an idyllic world, large, high-intensity wildfires would never occur. Therefore, habitat clearance projects are justified in the name of Indigenous People who would shudder at the devastation caused by the chain saws and giant grinding machines.
This, of course, is not the first-time stereotypes of cultural groups have been created by economic interests to achieve their goals.
An equally extreme view holds that California was a pristine landscape, untouched by humans prior to European settlement. This view is understandably seen as an insult by Indigenous Peoples, erasing their past as the dominant culture has been attempting to do for centuries.
This dichotomy of a totally managed landscape and an untouched wilderness is unhelpful in developing successful efforts to respect and preserve Indigenous cultures as well as protecting what wild Nature is still left. In reality, California was both. Some areas were heavily managed to produce the bounty Indigenous Peoples needed. Other areas were rarely, if ever, visited, with whatever human impact left behind was quickly absorbed by Nature.
A more accurate view of "Wilderness" is as a legal term that defines and protects natural landscapes that Euro-American colonists have not been able to exploit and destroy.
The important issue today is to first acknowledge and apologize for the state's role in the horrors of the past, as Governor Newsom did in 2019. It is also critical to recognize that descendants of the Indigenous Peoples who suffered are still very much still here and continue to fight for self-determination. Finally, we need to dispense with the polarizing dichotomy(all land has been modified or not) that is being used by vested interests to once again exploit Indigenous Peoples for economic gain.
What we Know About Indigenous Use of Fire in California
There is significant evidence for fire use by Indigenous Peoples in northern California. However, for central and southern California, Europeans were more effective in their genocidal policies. By the time anthropologists finally took an interest in documenting evidence from surviving native peoples in the early 1900s, several generations had passed since the practice was outlawed in 1792 by Spanish Governor Arrillaga. So, the details of precisely why, where, and how burning was done in central and southern California have been lost.
However, we have been able to glean some information from Spanish journals. Some of the most numerous journal descriptions of fire use come from entries about the Chumash after 1769. There are repeated references to burned grassland areas along the coastal plain in Chumash territory (San Luis Obispo to Malibu).
Based on the journals and what we know about the Chumash diet, fire was definitely used to increase their sources of food. A major portion of their diet consisted of seeds, painstakingly collected every year. To encourage the growth of such seeds, the Chumash likely burned sections of the coastal plain at different intervals. Besides the Spanish journals, there has been interesting archeological evidence suggesting this must have been the case.
Archeologist Phil Orr discovered 12 quarts of red maids seed (Calandrinia spp.), called khutash in Chumash, associated with a 600-year-old burial on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara.
Similar finds have been made on the mainland. Chia (Salvia columbariae) and tarweed (Deinandra fasciculata) seeds were also collected in great volumes. Think about that for a moment - 12 quarts of tiny seeds about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
Such volumes would be impossible to collect today in large part because much of the landscape upon which they grew is now developed. Secondly, the germination of these plants is encouragedby fire. Actively burning the coastal plain would have likely provided the necessary conditions for their abundant growth.
Plants with underground bulbs, corms (Dichelostemma spp.), and tubers that were food sources for the Chumash have explosive post fire blooms, making them easier to locate. According to early 1900s accounts, burning was also done to assist in hunting small game, especially rabbits.
Regarding backcountry chaparral, there is no evidence that the Chumash or other Indigenous People actively burned it on a frequent basis. It would have violated their balanced relationship to the land. The ecological proof for this is the chaparral's continued existence on the landscape - it cannot survive high fire frequencies.
Based on decades of research, the chaparral's Indigenous fire return interval was around 30 to 150 years or more with large fires occurring 2-3 times per century, likely due to accidental ignitions. This existed for thousands of years as Native Americans created a localized relationship with the chaparral - once villages were established and the population reached a dynamic range in line with the environment's carrying capacity, burning activity focused mostly on areas and plant communities already modified.
Since most Indigenous use of fire was near villages along the coastal plain, these once rich landscapes are now under shopping malls, freeways, and housing developments. This concept is rarely appreciated. The colonial attitude that the "natives" lived "out there," and civilization mainly existed in urban areas, has influenced the current discussion about Native American fire use. Today's urban areas are the exact places where Indigenous cultures thrived and where cultural burning occurred. To promote the idea that Native Americans were "out there," ignores the fact that the dominant society has erased the Indigenous population centers of the past, and demeans the high level of achievement accomplished by Indigenous Peoples within their own urban developments.
The natural fire return interval for chaparral, however, prior to the arrival of humans, was likely on the order of centuries in some places. This longer interval is based on the fact that naturally-caused fires are the result of lightning. Most of California has some of the lowest lightning frequencies in North America. As a result, fires, especially large ones, were likely a rare occurrence on the landscape.
After colonialists arrived, fire frequencies were reduced for a time due to the near destruction of the Indigenous way of life. But then, as ranchers started burning to expand grazing land, fire frequencies picked up again, ultimately leading to today's dangerously high rate of fire and loss of fragile, shrubland habitat due to a growing human population and the climate crisis we have caused. Unfortunately, the state of California ignores this threat to native shrublands and is engaged in an effort to add even more fire (and proxies to fire - clearance and herbicides) to these endangered plant communities.
Red maids (Calandrinia ciliata) is a somewhat common, low-growing herbaceous plant in open areas.
Chia (Salvia columbariae) is realtively uncommon until after fires.
Tarweed (Deinandra fasciculata) is a common plant in coastal sage scrub habitat.
For central and southern California, all the historical references refer to Indigenous burning in open, grassland areas (as opposed to chaparral) near villages, usually in late summer. It is highly likely that most of these areas were originally covered by sage scrub prior to the application of repeated fire. Even though sage scrub can tolerate more fire than chaparral, it is still vulnerable to type conversion if enough fire is applied. So, it is important to realize these grasslands were a product of human management, rather than natural plant communities.
These lands served coastal, Indigenous Peoples well until they were rounded up and sent to the missions between 1769 and 1833. During this period and into modern time, the open landscape was attacked by two overwhelming European invaders - livestock and non-native weeds and grasses. Livestock have been allowed to overgraze and consequently destroy native ecosystems. Invasive, non-native weeds have filled the void.
The European agrarian love for pastures and open fields has help foster the misconception that broad grasslands were always present along the coastal valleys and plains of California. In this light, native shrubs are viewed as invaders when in fact they are merely recolonizing areas that had been type converted after hundreds, if not thousands of years of human activity. While grasslands were definitely present, especially in areas with clay soils, many open areas we see today are result of human efforts to manipulate the landscape. It is native shrublands that are under the greatest threat of elimination.
Remnants of sage scrub can be found along the central coast of California. After repeated burning and overgrazing, many of these ecosystems have been eliminated and transformed into non-native weedlands (below).
What were once oak woodlands with an understory of sage scrub are now barely functioning ecosystems, with most oaks decades old. Oak saplings are quickly eaten by cattle.
The lush, green chaparral covered mountains contrast with the grassy, light brown coastal hills and plain of Santa Barbara below. What land hasn't been developed has long been converted to non-native grasslands through burning and over grazing.
Why Appropriating Native American Fire Use
Can be Environmentally Damaging
After nearly every large wildfire, news articles frequently promote the notion that if we just used fire like we think Indigenous Peoples did, we could prevent large wildfires from occurring. To support such a perspective, innaccurate comparisons are often made between California and other areas that have completely different climates and habitats (e.g. the lightning-saturated landscape of subtropical Florida, Southwestern US, Baja California). While such claims serve vested interests, such a logging and biomass companies and government agencies involved in habitat clearance projects, they will ultimately lead to the destruction of the very environments we want to protect. In addition, adding more fire to the landscape will do little to protect communities from devastating, wind-driven wildfires. Here's five reasons why:
1. North America is Not the Same Place it was Thousands of Years Ago.
Euro-American colonials/modern society have radically altered and damaged the North American natural environment. The place would be unrecognizable to past Indigenous Peoples. One of the most significant changes is making the landscape more flammable.
First, highly flammable, non-native grasses and weeds have invaded nearly every corner of California AND are often encouraged to spread by fire. As these invasive species spread, they compromise native habitats and increase the flammability of the landscape.
Secondly, there are now tens of millions of people on the landscape, lighting fires by accident and on purpose. This has dramatically increased fire frequency, threatening many native habitats with extinction.
Finally, human-caused climate change is not only drying the landscape and hence making it more flammable, it's causing shifts in vegetation communities. It is predicted that over the next century most of the chaparral in southern California will be seriously compromised by type conversion. The current sky island conifer forests, like those in the San Bernardino National Forest, will likely no longer exist. Artificially adding more fire to the landscape via prescribed burns will only accelerate the process.
2. Large, High-intensity Wildfires have Always Occurred in California.
There is no evidence that Indigenous Peoples were ever able to prevent large fires through their burning practices. In fact, there is a story once told by a Kumeyaay elder about a tremendous fire in the Laguna Mountains, eastern San Diego County, California, that burned about the time of Columbus. This caused a band of several hundred to migrate into the desert where they ended up living for many generations (Odens 1971).
Large fires are typically driven by drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and wind, not the “fuel.” The same conditions apply to modern societies - clearing habitat through artificial use of fire consistently fails to prevent large, catastrophic wildfires. Please see our It's About the Wind page for additional details.
3. Most Natural Habitats Suffer From Too Much Fire Rather Than Not Enough.
California is one of the world's most biodiverse regions on earth. The variety of habitats is astounding. And each one of these habitats has a unique relationship with fire. Adding more fire to many of these habitats, especially the pacific northwest rain forests, the chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and fragile desert plant communities, will cause significant ecological damage. Research on this subject relating to shrublands is available on our Too Much Fire page.
4. We Don't Know.
For many Indigenous Peoples, Euro-American sponsored genocide was unfortunately effective in extinguishing large amounts of cultural knowledge. This is especially true in southern California. For the most part, when, where, and how the multitude of rich Native cultures used fire has been lost. As a consequence, much of what is claimed is speculation, despite what agencies say when invoking Native American culture to promote their policy objectives.
5. Prescribed Fire - One More Management Abuse Against Nature.
Nearly every action taken in North America to "manage" Nature has been destructive. Yet, regarding artificially adding more fire to the landscape through "prescribed burning," we are told that this time we've got it right.
History is not comforting.
- We justified slaughtering Native Americans because they were "wasting" the land. Genocide was condoned.
- National Park administrators conducted predator control programs to kill every mountain lion, wolf, and grizzly bear they could find to make the
parks safe for visitors. Many species were pushed to near extinction as a result.
- State and Federal agencies pursued an oak tree eradication program in California to open up the land for more "useful" purposes. Flammable,
invasive weeds now fill the void and beloved oak trees are growing increasingly uncommon.
- Native grasses were ripped out of the ground to dry farm millions of acres in and around Oklahoma. The Dustbowl was created.
- Attempts to "reforest" after logging or wildfires have mostly ended up creating mismanaged, highly flammable tree farms. Few naturally functioning forests exist in California
below 8,000 feet in elevation.
And yet again we are told that our latest "management" strategy will work. All we have to do is artificially add fire to the forest, to the land, to solve our wildfire problem. This translates in the media as "everywhere," no matter the relevancy: in Malibu where there are no forests; in chaparral that's already threatened by too much fire; in forests, no matter their natural fire return pattern, to make them park-like as many imagine in their bucolic dreams of the English-like countryside. The fact that the beautiful Sherwood Forest, with dense thickets and huge trees, has long since vanished due to "management," doesn't seem to register.
The important point to remember regarding the use of prescribe fire is what typically happens prior to laying fire on the ground to prepare a site for burning - cutting fire lines, logging, grinding/chipping shrubland habitat, and soil disturbance. This is far from what Native Americans did to the land they cherished.
Learning from past mistakes is not a common trait in the human species.
Considering all the claims about how critical human intervention is when it comes to using fire to keep ecosystems healthy, one question should always come to mind: How did Nature, our forests, our shrublands, ever survive without us?
- Cultural Appropriation -
Invoking Native American Culture to Clear Habitat
After removing Indigenous Peoples from their lands, spreading flammable non-native weeds, overgrazing the landscape, increasing the human population, warming the earth's climate, clear cutting thousands of acres of forest, and igniting more fires than native shrublands can tolerate, the descendants of European settlers have caused significant damage to Nature in California.
To justify further environmental damage in pursuit of economic gain, government agencies and private corporations are now invoking Native American culture to promote habitat clearance, logging, and prescribed burning operations.
Reflecting this effort, the rancher-dominated Santa Barbara County Fish and Game Commission advocated burning the chaparral in the local mountains to, "reduce the fuel levels as the Native Americans did before us."
Nature as "fuel levels?"
Attempting to equate the mechanized destruction of tens of thousands of acres of habitat with the careful tending of local landscapes that Indigenous Peoples once employed to sustain their cultures is an insidious form of cultural appropriation.
Lumping together the rich and diverse Indigenous cultures in California and claiming all engaged in a massive program of habitat clearance is not only a demeaning stereotype, but also disrespects the reverence Native American cultures hold for Nature.
The destruction of habitat under the guise of fire protection. Main photo shows a "brush-crusher" roller that is pulled up and down a slope that destroys all in its path. Upper right, the result of a masticator that has chewed up an old-growth stand of manzanita chaparral. Upper right, a masticator chewing up chaparral habitat. Lower left, a prescribed burn in Cuyamaca State Park that destroyed the rich, pyrogenic habitat of ceanothus and pine saplings to be replaced by plantation trees. Invoking Native Americans to justify such destructive projects defies the respect Indigenous Peoples hold for Nature. Click on photo to enlarge.
State Sponsored Genocide
When investigating the cultures of any Indigenous culture in California, it is critical to take the time to understand the scope California's state sponsored genocide.
In the 1800s, California counties paid settlers $5/head or 50 cents per scalp of any Indigenous person. In 1854 alone, the federal government reimbursed California a million dollars for expense claims from "Indian hunters."
In his 1851 State of the State Address, California’s first Governor Peter Burnett declared “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.”
Ishi, the famous last of the Yahi who walked into Oroville in a state of near starvation in 1911, had seen his group decimated in multiple attacks: 1865 Workman Massacre, 40 Yahi killed; 1865 Silva Massacre, 30 Yahi killed; 1867 Campo Seco Massacre, 45 Yahi killed; 1871 Kingsley Cave Massacre, 30 Yahi killed. Settlers would seek out villages and shoot as many men, women, and children as they could. During the Kingsley Cave Massacre, one killer switched to using a revolver because his rifle, "tore them up so bad."
In 1908, a group of surveyors came upon Ishi and the few surviving members of his family, chased them out of their tiny camp, and collected all their furs, bows, and supplies for souvenirs. In 1911, Ishi was the sole survivor of the Yahi People.
“The history of genocide casts a shadow over California. It hovers over the land of the endless summer, over Disneyland, over the surfers, the Beach Boys, the palm trees, the Hollywood Sign … and yet, there is also a story of California Indian resistance and survival that is miraculous.”
- Benjamin Madley
From, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873.
A terrified Chumash is hunted down and shot
in the hills above the Santa Barbara Mission.
The drawing, "Protecting the Settlers," accompanied an 1861(?)
Harper's New Monthly Magazine article by J.R. Browne that described the massacre of Yuki people at Round Valley, California.
"The report by McWethy et al. 2010 provides incontrovertible evidence that anthropogenic burning transformed temperate forested landscapes on the South Island of New Zealand. They show that Polynesian (Maori) firing commenced shortly after colonization around A.D. 1280 and transformed 40% of the original forest cover of the island to grassland and fern-shrubland."