FIRE AS MEDICINE
Filmed & Edited by Brown Bird
about this film:
Producer/Director/Writer: Tiśina T. Parker - Yosemite Southern Sierra Miwuk, Kutzadika’a Mono Lake Paiute Paiute, Kashia Pomo
Production Assitance/Camera: Elissa Simons - Coast Miwuk
Cinematographer: Matthew J. Falcon
Cultural Ecologist/Consultant: Irene Vasquez - Yosemite Southern Sierra Miwuk, Kutzadika’a Mono Lake Paiute, Yaqui
Production Mentor: Cecilia Shakerley
Cal Fire Tribal Liaison: Len Nielson
Catastrophic wildfires have decimated California for the last decade. In 2020 wildfires in California set records burning 4,397,809 acres in 9,917 fires across the state. This was the largest wildfire season recorded in California’s modern history according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Before European colonization of the Americas, Indigenous people often used controlled, low intensity burns to modify landscape, cultivate plants for food, textiles for basketry and create fertile topsoil. Controlled fires were part of the Indigenous landscapes which helped maintain wildlife habitat and sustained cultures and economies. The myth of the pristine “untouched wilderness” of North America was a lie told by white settlers to fuel the romantic notion of manifest destiny, a land grab, and justify the cultural genocide of First Nations People. Traditionally, Indigenous people across the continent of the Americas had a strong cultural practice of using fire to tend, cultivate and care for the land we intimately interacted with.
A radical disruption of Indigenous burn practices occurred during colonization and persists to the present day. Forced relocation, cultural genocide and social upheaval led to Native people’s severing of ties to their natural landscape. By the 1900’s, impacts of colonization decimated Native populations across North America and fire suppression had become official US federal policy. Traditional practices of cultural burning were no longer, many Native people remained displaced and disconnected from their tribal homelands and no longer were practicing with fire to tend the land.
Wildland ecologists are now widely recognizing the importance of Indigenous practices of tending land with fire. Treating landscapes with fire in a controlled and slow, low intensity way helps to reduce high combustible fuels and reduces the occurrence of catastrophic fire we have seen in California and throughout North America. As an Indigenous practice, cultural burning also re-connects Native people back to our tribal homelands as we remember how to tend the land, grow and cultivate Native food, plant materials and gather to practice spiritual connection with the Earth and each other.
Cultural burn practices, when administered on native plants, yield an abundance of food, textiles for basketry, and healthy habitat for animals. After fire, willow sticks grow straight as an arrow, ideal for constructing baskets. Sourberry bushes burned yearly will also do the same and the carbon deposited from a low intensity fire is great fertilizer for tart berries which are a delicious treat to central Sierra California Natives. After fire, in the next season, elderberries will flourish with fruit. Burning of top duff and debris will help to eradicate insects which may infest acorns on the forest floors, leaving freshly dropped acorns that are tasty for harvest. Cultural burning also helps to control overgrowth of invasive species to make more room for Native plants to flourish and provide for The People.
The cultural importance of Fire As Medicine is a significant part of our collective Indigenous identity. In our reciprocal relationship with land, we are tending, cultivating and caring for our Earth. These practices contribute to the revitalization of our natural landscapes as well as our cultural practices. As Indigenous people, our sacred connection to our homeland is a significant source of spirituality and collective community identity. As we gather together to tend land, work together, burn together we also commune together, eat together, sing songs together, pray together, dance together, laugh together, re-strengthen our communities together and rebuild our culture together.
Fire As Medicine supports, highlights and celebrates the untold stories of California First Nations people in a reciprocal and honorable way. As a filmmaker, community social justice art activist and California Indigenous woman, I honor these relationships with profound respect. My collaborating partner, (Cinematographer/Wildlife Biologist) Matthew J. Falcon and I, participate in community building and authentic cultural engagement with all the Native people represented on and off camera in this production. A substantial part of our project is to work alongside Indigenous fire & culture keepers to build and strengthen communities by cultivating and supporting Native cultural resilience through fire and Indigenous relationship to land.