Since time immemorial — before the European colonization of what is now known as the United States — tribes of the Pit River Nation have made annual pilgrimages to Medicine Lake in Northern California. The Pit River creation story says that the Creator and his son bathed themselves in the lake after making the Earth. Each year in late July, Pit River tribes return to the sacred region for healing and ceremonial practice. But two byproducts of climate change prevented them from doing so this year: wildfire and drought.
Morning Star Gali, a member of the Ajumawi Band of the Pit River Tribe, said that the fires in the surrounding areas — including the Dixie, Fly, Lava and Beckwourth Complex, which together have burned more than 330,000 acres — have directly affected her tribal relatives and their sacred sites. This July, driving up to Medicine Lake, Gali noticed the dry conditions that precipitate dangerous and fast-spreading wildfires.
Once Gali and her family reached the highlands, she saw the lake’s low water level, which reflected California’s ongoing drought crisis — one that could be the worst in more than 1,000 years. The lake’s low water level meant that Gali wasn’t able to participate in her traditional ceremony of swimming as far out into the lake as possible and taking a full gulp of water. Gali said that the water now tastes like oil, probably from tourists’ motor boats. Between the wildfire smoke, residual motor boat oil and dangerously low water levels, “all of these are contributing factors — in terms of how challenging it is, when we talk about responsibility for land, and repatriation of land, and those traditional practices — those are all cultural barriers to those practices,” Gali said.
Wildfires in Western states have razed structures, displaced residents and altered air quality — and fundamentally changed the relationship between Native women and the land they have historically stewarded. Native and Indigenous women under evacuation orders or who face the potential of a mandate to leave their homes say they are losing access to sacred spaces for the near and long term. For them, the land is integral to their cultural practices.
“Since we’re place-based peoples … our homeland is really where we’re tied to [and] where we’re rooted,” said Samantha Chisholm Hatfield, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the tribal liaison and research associate at the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute. “We don’t just up and find another synagogue or another temple to worship at; our worship is here, in place, so ceremonies can’t exactly be transferred in the same way.”
She continued: “All of those wildfire seasons and that climate change impact affects everything we do and everything we are. … The environment makes up part of our identity.”
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 85 large fires have burned more than 1.6 million acres of land across 13 states this year, with only four of those fires contained. Experts say that the fires will continue to grow and spread, and with many months more of fire season to go, the wildfires have become a significant marker of climate change’s impacts.
This month, tribal nations of the Colville Reservation in Washington and Klamath tribes in Oregon were forced to evacuate their traditional territories.
“The tie to my land is really a strong one and I can't imagine being forced off,” said Chisholm Hatfield, who was not forced to evacuate where she lives near Salem, Ore. “But at the same time, we were only a few miles from the edge of last year’s fire. I had suitcases that were ready to go, things like my regalia [were] packed and old family pictures, the things that were important. That will become a more frequent reality, I guess. It was very disturbing.”
Many Native peoples have for centuries been fighting to preserve their lands. Throughout the colonization of the Western United States, federal and state practices have sought to relocate and terminate Native peoples, severing their relationship with the land. One of the most prominent examples in Northern California was the Gold Rush in the 1850s: As farmers, ranchers and those chasing the promise of the discovery of gold settled more of California’s land, U.S. legal systems stripped Native tribes of access to their own land.
Now, climate change threatens to push Native peoples further from such places. In a report on tribal adaptation to climate change, the Tribes & Climate Change Program (established by the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals out of Northern Arizona University) wrote that “climate change has led to shifts in habitable ranges for a variety of animal and plant species on which tribes rely for subsistence, as well as medicinal and cultural applications.” Tribes’ built infrastructure, too, is at risk because of extreme weather, the report notes. In the past, tribal nations could relocate in response to changes in climate, but ongoing colonization “through treaties and other means, shrunk to a loose patchwork of scattered reservation boundaries that now represent a fraction of those aboriginal lands, making relocation a difficult or entirely infeasible adaptation strategy.”
For many Native and Indigenous women, this is a cruel reality of the federal government’s extractive relationship with the land. And even as they navigate the impact of forced displacement from traditional territories and culturally significant land, state governments are turning to the traditional knowledge of some tribal nations’ burning practices to mitigate wildfires. Indigenous science and knowledge is the basis of the field of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), a specialization that Chisholm Hatfield said is often either politicized or disregarded and rarely offered the same respect as Westernized, non-Native science.
“That traditional fire use is not something that’s new,” Chisholm Hatfield said. “Here in the west side of Oregon, we would burn down the valley. My father still talks about remembering setting fires and having to leave … but knowing how to use fire, knowing how that cleans the land and makes everything new again and sparks that renewal process is really vital.”
Gali added: “We know that when we as Indigenous peoples are not allowed to properly steward the land, when we’re not allowed to traditionally burn, when we’re not allowed to maintain our traditional practices, that this is the result.”
In the West, where wildfire is inextricably tied to drought, Gali said that she’s been preparing for a time when she won’t be able to practice the annual Medicine Lake ceremony. “I recognize that I need to be able to bring my children there right now while I can because … there may not even be water within the next 20 to 25 years within the lake if we are going to continue at the rate that we are,” Gali said.
For Gali, once access to Medicine Lake is gone, it’s gone forever: “There isn’t an alternative for us. There’s not another place like that within our traditional territories for us to go to. … So what does that look like for the continuity of our people?”