The Comparative Wests Project is an interdisciplinary collaboration focused on exploring the common histories and shared contemporary issues among Indigenous populations and settler colonialists in Australia, New Zealand, Western South America, the Western United States, Canada, and the Pacific Islands.

Lois Conner Bohna: Acorns, Baskets, Fire, Water, and Learning in California

(Crossposted at Firelighter)

Recently I talked with North Fork Mono/Chukchansi Yokuts basketmaker Lois Conner Bohna at her studio in Coarsegold, California as she worked on a new cooking basket. 

The application of fire to the land is necessary for all the materials Lois uses in her basketry – deergrass, sedge root, redbud, brackenfern root, buckthorn, and sourberry all respond to burning by growing strong, straight shoots or roots – and for the acorns that Lois will cook in her basket (fire and smoke under or near oaks destroy insect pests and parasites). Fire also “cleans up” areas – sedge beds, for instance – by removing thick growth, duff, and dead plants so that basketmakers can access the resources.

What Are Cultural Burns? What Are They For?

Cultural fire is one form of prescribed fire, “the knowledgeable and skillful application of a planned ignition in specific environmental conditions (e.g., fuel moisture, temperature, smoke dispersion, topography etc.) to achieve [specific] resource objectives” (Southern Sierra Nevada Prescribed Fire Council). Cultural fire is not exclusively Indigenous (farmers and ranchers use cultural fire) but Indigenous people have employed cultural fires since time immemorial to sustain ecosystems and their interconnected plant and animal communities, including especially the cultural assets (food and materials as well as aesthetic and spiritual resources) within those systems and communities.

In California, benefits from cultural burns may include that they:

• clear shrubs from an area to make it more livable, facilitate travel, make the movements of people and animals more visible, and make resources more accessible.

• drive or attract game.

• enhance desirable qualities of plant materials used for basketry, clothing, cordage, housing, musical instruments, tools, and weapons.

• fulfill ceremonial purposes.

• increase the diversity and production of bulbs, tubers, fruits, and seeds (such as acorns), thus sustaining the food web for all species and increasing animal diversity.

• maintain firebreaks, reduce fuel levels, and reduce the extent of intense, severe wildfires.

• reduce insect pests and plant parasites.

• sustain meadows, water storage, surface water, spring flow, and stream flow.

Thus, a fire regime of repeated, expertly timed cultural burns of varying extent and intensity – conducted by knowledgeable practitioners – can support suites of resources that are discrete and identifiable, yet inextricable from the whole ecological-epistemological-social system. Sustainment of the benefits of cultural burns requires the sustainment of Indigenous people and their jurisdiction over their homelands. 

The State of the Comparative Wests Project, 2013

Creating countries: mosaic burning in indigenous lands in the Sierra Nevada, California, and the Western Desert, Australia. Photographs by Don Hankins (CSU Chico) and Rebecca Bliege Bird (Stanford).

The Comparative Wests Project (CWP) is a broad interdisciplinary investigation into the dynamics of settler colonial invasion of indigenous countries, and how the legacy of this interaction continues to shape the ecologies and social landscapes of the western United States, Canada, and Australia. The project explores the shared settler colonial histories of these “Wests” by bringing together indigenous leaders, historians, anthropologists, ecologists, literary and legal scholars, art historians, artists, journalists, policymakers, and land managers from Stanford, nearby institutions, and from Canada, Australia, and the Pacific. Since its conception in 2010, the CWP has convened a series of seminars, conferences, and exhibitions at Stanford and Australian institutions, and has provided support for four visiting scholars (from University of New South Wales, La Trobe University, and Prescott College), honors undergraduate research projects, doctoral dissertation fellowships in history and anthropology, and two post-doctoral fellowships at Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. The CWP is now providing a foundation for a new program of multi-disciplinary research supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) focused on land use change and livelihoods among indigenous communities in California and Western Australia, with broad implications for new comparative scholarship and policy across “The Wests.”

Growing Meadows: North Fork Mono Fire and Water Rights

(Reposted from has an excellent classroom lesson, “Growing Prairie,” posted on its Scientific American Frontiers website that I have linked in the Lessons of Our California Land Curriculum (LOCL). In the “Growing Prairie” activity, students learn that fire enhances prairie habitat by opening up the canopy -- the trees and shrubs that shade lower-growing plants -- and thus allowing light and energy to reach the forest floor. One of the purposes of the LOCL curriculum is to show that, just as fire is important in the Great Plains ecosystem, fire is a crucial component of the ecosystems throughout North Fork Mono homelands (map: PDF ).

The dynamics of the forest ecosystem that gold miners, ranchers, and United States military officers, forest rangers, and scientists encountered in the central Sierra Nevada in the nineteenth century were the results of centuries of fires propagated along a complex network of trails by Native American people. From the Native American perspective, these fires were gifts from the people to the land, and the intentional exclusion of fire since 1900 has reduced the gifts -- the food, medicine, and material or cultural resources -- that the land had offered for centuries in return for the people’s offerings.

Acorns, Science, and Burn Bans

This fall, the Two Rivers Tribune published two articles about research that Comparative Wests Project partners Arielle Halpern and Frank Lake are conducting in the Karuk Tribe’s homelands.

Comparative Wests: A Summer of Creating, Restoring, and Maintaining Country

The Comparative Wests Project at Yulpu in Martu Country, Western Desert, Australia, on the morning of August 18, 2012. Pictured are Stanford and Native American participants with Martu Traditional Owners from Parnngurr Aboriginal Community and Rangers from Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa. Photograph: Don Hankins.

While “country” and “nation” are sometimes used synonymously, a country has a sense of home and landscape that often distinguishes it from the more administrative phenomena that define a nation. Today, many countries persist in – sometimes in spite of – the nation states that engulf them. Emblematic among these are the Indigenous lands and societies of Western North America and Australia, where despite common assumptions of collapse, Indigenous countries fluoresce, often beneath the scope and authority of the nations that claim them.

Over the course of August, the Comparative Wests Project at the Bill Lane Center for the American West convened in Australia to initiate a comprehensive exploration of the social and ecological processes through which such countries in Western North America and Western Australia emerge, change, and persist. The project implemented a groundbreaking, multi-disciplinary program of exchange and research – assembling scholars, policy makers, artists, journalists, land managers, curators, Traditional Owners, and First Nations representatives from the American West, Canada, and Australia – to investigate the processes and implications of creating, using, transforming, restoring, and maintaining the “countries” that continue to define the Wests.

Stories, Water, Fire, and Sierra Nevada Meadows

Stream in Reds Meadow, Sierra Nevada

“All right,” said Measuring Worm. “Take your fires off the ground, for I am going up there with the water. I’ll go up in the water.”

So goes an old North Fork Mono story, told in 1918 by North Fork Mono storyteller Molly Kinsman Pimona to the Berkeley anthropologist Edward Winslow Gifford. According to this story, Coyote, Mockingbird, and all others had failed to rescue Prairie Falcon from atop a great rock in the High Sierra. Measuring Worm knew that that after a burn in the forest, surface water and groundwater rise. Needing swift passage from his home in the foothills, Measuring Worm directed the others to take their fires off the ground, and then he rode the rising waters to the higher elevations, “scaled the rock in two steps and brought Prairie Falcon down.”

The Indigenous fire regime of the Sierra Nevada consists of a sophisticated set of interactions — interactions among people, land, and water that took place for innumerable years before the first European set foot here. The fire regime was based on a varied, adaptable rotation of fire frequency and intensity. The results were environmental mosaics – complex, quiltlike environments with multifaceted habitats – teeming with all kinds of food, medicinal, and basketry resources. 

Back in those days, wet meadows, with their finely structured, moist fuels such as sedges, may have acted as firebreaks until late in the season, allowing people to steer and diminish fires by taking advantage of slope, prevailing winds, and fuel characteristics. In turn, these prescribed, cultural fires helped to prevent invasion of meadows by conifers, deciduous trees, and shrubs that desiccate meadow soils by intercepting rainfall.

Photos of Ron Goode's Spring 2012 Burns

Last spring a work crew from Santa Cruz-based American Conservation Experience (ACE) and AmeriCorps helped North Fork Mono Tribal Chairman Ron Goode with a few cultural burns in the Sierra foothills. Also on hand to help were Ron’s nephew, Jesse Valdez, and yours truly. With recently received funding from the National Science Foundation, Goode and Comparative Wests Project researchers will now be able to study the effects of these and subsequent burns on sourberry and oak health and productivity. 


Star-thistle pile burns by ACE and AmeriCorps



At last spring’s Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire and Smoke Symposium in Clovis, California, Nick Goulette of the Hayfork Watershed Research and Training Center shared an excellent website called GoodFIRES, a collaborative project of thirteen state forestry agencies in the southeastern United States. Click through the pages of GoodFIRES for a primer on the theory, practice, and benefits of prescribed burning.

Over the course of the morning at the Clovis symposium the overall message of the speakers — fire scientists, land managers, and air-quality regulatory agency staff — became clear: Fire is good. Smoke is bad. Prescribed fire reduces fuel, the speakers told us. It prevents large, catastrophic wildfires, and it helps animals and plants by keeping their habitats healthy. Smoke, on the other hand, is another matter. The consensus at the symposium seemed to be that smoke is a pernicious nuisance, a pollutant to be controlled and minimized — especially here in the San Joaquin Valley, where weather patterns, topography, and countless sources of pollutants keep Fresno and other Valley cities near the top of the nation’s most-polluted lists.

So went the overriding discussion theme, until North Fork Mono Tribal Chairman Ron Goode rose to make a comment. Our oak trees need smoke to produce good acorns, he said. Maybe we need a broader definition of health, he hinted. His comments reminded me of what North Fork Mono elder Melvin Carmen told me a few years ago: “We’ve got to put smoke on those trees.”

Indigenous fire, land, water, art, and education

Fire, in the hands of the right Indigenous practitioners, brings order to the land. For example, Ron W. Goode, Chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe and a Comparative Wests Project research partner, uses fire to care for a stand of sourberry (Rhus trilobata) on land that his family owns in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Here’s a “before” photo of a tangled, overgrown portion of the sourberry stand prior to burning:

Photo by Jared Dahl Aldern, 2012

After carefully preparing the site with pathways and firebreaks…

Photo by Ron W. Goode, 2012

…Ron conducted a contained burn in the sourberry stand:

Photo by Ron W. Goode, 2012

And here’s an “after” picture. The photo below shows another part of the same sourberry stand, one that Ron burned two years ago:

Sourberry plants burned in 2010. Photo by Jared Dahl Aldern, 2012

Note the long, sparsely branched shoots of the plants in this last photo. After the fire, more light and rainfall reached the soil, resulting in this vigorous regrowth. At this stage of their growth, these plants don’t need to form multiple leafy branches to absorb adequate sunlight, and the canopy stays open. One sign of a healthy landscape for Ron and other Native practitioners is their ability to “see through” its vegetation. ”Seeing through” is a tough criterion to quantify in a scientific sense — it’s more of an aesthetic judgment, a preference for open country and parklike stands of trees and shrubs, for interconnections between earth and sky.

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