What Are Indigenous-Led Fire Practices?

Whitney Greenleaf (Cumberland House Cree Nation member) is a young woman whose family grew up on the Saskatchewan River Delta.

Whitney Greenleaf (kaministikōmināhkoskāk iskonikan ōci), awā iskwēw ōta tipinawe ēki ōpikicihk kisiskāciwāni-sīpiy maskēko askiy
Listen to Cree

This is what Whitney’s family shared with her…

Whitney ōwahkomakana kake pē-acimōstākot…
Listen to Cree

The burning of the lake edges was practiced because if the vegetation got too thick nothing would grow underneath it. Also, burning was a way of saying “hello” to the other trappers, because if you lit up one area another trapper would light up another area, to say “hello” back, we are finished trapping.

ka kasaskamāk cīki sakahikanīk kākētwam anis ē-osamētīk maskēko macipakwa ēkwa ōsam n’mwac oski kīsakīpakāw. ēkwa mina, pasiskēwin kiskēnītāmōwew ōwanikēwāk “tanisi itēw“, ka-ōskipasikēt pēyak asa kōtak ōwanikē can pasiskēw wīsta, “tanisi” itēw kawi, ēkoni kiskēnitāwan e-kīsipanik wanikēwin.
Listen to Cree

Indigenous-led fire practices are based on the worldview and belief systems of Indigenous Peoples. This worldview is different from settler and state-led fire management in that Indigenous-led fire practices are ways of life based on Indigenous laws, management objectives and the inherent right to burn.[1]

Indigenous-led fire practices recognize interrelationships and interdependence of fire, land, people and place.[2] The use of fire is not a time-sensitive, specific event. 

For many Indigenous cultures in northern Saskatchewan and across Canada,

  • fire is a sacred and powerful element that can help on land and in ceremonies.
  • Indigenous-led fire practices support plants, trees and related vegetation on the land.

For more information about Indigenous-led fire stewardship and related fire practices in Canada across the generations, read FireSmart Canada - Blazing the Trail: Celebrating Indigenous Fire Stewardship and Centering Indigenous Voices: The Role of Fire in the Boreal Forest.

So, what do you mean exactly about fire practices (including fire prescriptions) and fire stewardship being “Indigenous-led”?

Well, from Indigenous perspectives, leadership in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities is often complex, intricate and multifaceted.[3], [4]

Many Indigenous leaders are dealing with the effects of colonialism and have become responsible for the tasks of rebuilding, reuniting, reshaping and revitalizing their communities. This process includes navigating within and between different cultures and worldviews which often involves power, privilege, rights and politics related to decision-making on land and associated land-based practices.[5], [6]

Through the navigation within and between different cultures and worldviews, more dialogue is now taking place in Indigenous communities that is rooted in unique bodies of Indigenous knowledge, manifested through oral histories and lived experiences—recognizing the need to invigorate Indigenous leadership practices in self-determination, community development and planning for the health and well-being of their Peoples and communities.[7], [8], [9]

Through cultural resurgence and revitalization of land-based practices carried out by Indigenous Peoples such as uses of fire on the land, there is a new wave of leaders emerging in Indigenous communities in northern Saskatchewan and across Canada. These leaders are thinkers and doers, committed to life-long learning, and have strengths-based interests of their communities at heart. They are strategic thinkers and risk-takers. They do not fear transformative change, but rather embrace the challenges they face, and turn barriers and threats into benefits and opportunities.[10]

While there is much diversity among Indigenous Peoples and communities (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) in terms of languages, lifestyles and teachings, there are also universal connections across Indigenous Peoples which unite Indigenous identities and are sources of resiliency.

Therefore, “Indigenous-led” means embracing core values and resiliency factors that transcend First Nations, Inuit and Métis worldviews:

Indigenous-led fire practices are a form of cultural expression for Indigenous Peoples and their communities.

The use of Indigenous-led fire practices is also an exercise of Indigenous Peoples and their communities’ inherent title and rights in their territories and areas of interest.

Specifically, Indigenous-led fire practices

  • put fire on the land through Indigenous leadership, hands and knowledge;
  • recognize the value of fire and that not all fire is dangerous;
  • use fire on the land to achieve specific cultural objectives, for example, sustaining diverse animal life and plants that serve as food or medicine;
  • are holistic, and typically lead to low to moderate intensity burns at different scales and sizes that meet community objectives;
  • are community-driven and involve comprehensive engagement and guidance from Elders and Indigenous fire practitioners, and recently, are often in partnership with interagency collaborators and allies, for example, wildfire management agencies and local structural fire departments; and
  • engage community members across the generations, from Youth to Elders in (re)educating society on uses of fire on the land.

There is a mosaic of burning occurring in the Saskatchewan River Delta. It is like a quilt where smaller burns being carried out collectively build to a size and scale of landscape-level burning.

papakan pasiskāniyan ota kisiskāciwani-sīpiy maskēko askiy.  mitoni nanātōkokwātew ita apisīs ka pasikatēk poko ka māwacīcikeyāk kitā ositāyak ka īspīcak ēkwa wānawēskamik isko pasikēwin.
Listen to Cree

-Renée Carrière (Canadian; kahministikominahikoskak/Cumberland House; ally of change)

(Muskrats to Moose Project Team Member)

Therefore, the Muskrats to Moose Project Team recognized that Indigenous-led fire practices in the Saskatchewan River Delta meant respecting the oral history, knowledge and lived experiences of the interviewees who participated in our Project and their ways of life and use of fire in the Delta which have been shared with them over the generations.

Who is considered an Indigenous leader in fire stewardship?

Indigenous fire practitioners or cultural burners who use Indigenous-led fire practices on the land are engaging in Indigenous-led fire stewardship.

Indigenous leaders in fire stewardship

  • have specific knowledge and experience about correct times to burn and Indigenous-led fire practices to achieve specific cultural objectives;
  • focus on safety for human and non-human relatives involved in and around the proposed burn area(s);
  • tend their burns closely and monitor the burn before, during and after to determine the effects of fire on site(s) and nearby plants, wildlife, community health and the protection of cultural resources. Their monitoring includes an understanding that values of fire, seasonal and fluid, are not determined by calendar dates but by the needs of the land; and
  • carry and share knowledge about fire behaviour, Indigenous-led fire practices, cultural values, ethics and protocols with future generations.
2022: Michela Carrière sharing local Indigenous fire starting methods during the We are Fire Camp in the Saskatchewan River Delta.

2022: Michela Carrière sharing local Indigenous fire starting methods during the We are Fire Camp in the Saskatchewan River Delta.

The Role of Women and Fire

Indigenous women play a pivotal role in fire practices, providing an important linkage between women, earth and the re-birth of land after a fire.

For example, in the Cree language, the word iskwēwāk (PRONOUNCED: IS-KWĒ-WAK ) meaning “women” connects to the word "iskotēw" (fire) [PRONOUNCED: IS-KŌ-TĒW ]. Iskwēwāk" also has connections to Mother Earth who has fire in her core.

Women are the keepers of our home fires. They keep our homes warm. Many women behave with the warmth of compassion.

They are the first teachers of

  • the natural world,
  • cultural values,
  • land as home (our place and identity), and
  • compassion for the land.

Women can carry life, fire within them.

As the next generation of stewards and keepers of the land and fire, Youth have a significant role in relation to fire.

The Role of Youth and Fire

Youth learn from experienced teachers who share their wisdom and ecological knowledge with the next generation. This sharing about the natural world ensures capacity building and the thriving of fire knowledge and practices across the generations.

This sharing involves understanding the knowledge being shared (kinisitotēn), passing on knowledge to others in an ethical and respectful way and demonstrating to Youth the knowledge being shared—practicing so they may teach others in the future and across the generations.

For example, in ceremonies, Youth are usually the fire keepers. They are provided teachings about sacred fire knowledge. Youth are taught to respect fire as one of the basic elements of life.

The late William Carrière

1961: The late William Carrière, father of Solomon Carrière. William is one of the Indigenous fire practitioners who passed on knowledge and information (kinisitotēn) about the land and water of the Saskatchewan River Delta to future generations.

Photo credit: From Solomon Carrière’s photo collection.

Cache Deschambeault Illustration

The drawing is about a father sharing stories with his son about his [father’s] grandfather who tells about how they use to come out at night like this and tell stories.

The fire burns tall with the smoke going up and connecting with the Northern Lights, which is full of spirits. Even though the grandfather had passed, his spirit still connects with the fire, always being near.

The son never got to see his dad’s grandfather but feels a connection to him with the stories.

The father and grandfather had a connection when they use to share around the fire. Now, the father could have that same connection with his son.

Illustration courtesy Cache Deschambeault.

kinisitotēn

Pronounced [KI-NI-SI-TO-TEN], this Cree term (Swampy Cree dialect) means "do you understand?"

kinisitotēn

  • the information and knowledge passed on about a specific topic, for example, uses of fire on the land.

So, for Indigenous-led uses of fire on the land, kinisitotēn is information on and knowledge about how to set a fire, the importance of the fire, its holistic values and other considerations.

kinisitotēn also prompts you to ask,

  • do I understand the topic so I can carry out this activity on my own? Can I now teach it to others?

kinisitotēn is a learning journey that can happen quickly or over a person’s lifetime.

For more information about kinisitotēn in relation to Indigenous-led uses of fire on the land, refer to the term, “holistic values.”

Cultural Appropriation

Indigenous knowledge of fire is specific to different cultures. It is important to acknowledge where the knowledge and stories of fire are rooted.

In some instances, Indigenous-led fire practices should not be replicated outside their cultural context without permission from the cultural group.

While non-Indigenous allies and strategic partners can learn from Indigenous Peoples, groups and communities about Indigenous-led fire practices, for example, where to burn, when to burn and how to burn to meet specific objectives, Indigenous-led fire practices should not be replicated outside their cultural context. This would be considered cultural appropriation.

Here are some examples of cultural appropriation in Indigenous-led fire practices:

  • When wildfire agencies redefine Indigenous fire use by conducting prescribed burns that do not include Indigenous objectives and do not proactively involve spiritual and cultural systems that govern cultural burning practices.[15], [16]
  • When Indigenous fire stewardship is not being led by Indigenous Nations resulting in a shift of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge away from Indigenous communities and their governance[17]

It is not cultural burning if you remove the practice from the culture it was developed in.

Instead, special ethical considerations are needed to respect and nurture the cultural foundations of Indigenous-led fire practices rooted in people, identity, land and place. These ethical considerations include

When in doubt, seek advice from Elders and Indigenous fire practitioners who have lived experiences with using fire on the land in specific geographic location(s).

[1]Eriksen, C. & Hankins, D. L. (2014). The retention, revival, and subjugation of Indigenous fire knowledge through agency fire fighting in eastern Australia and California. Society and Natural Resources, 27(12), 1288–1303. https://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2275&context=sspapers

[2]Ibid.

[3]Calliou, B. (2008). The significance of building leadership and community capacity to implement self-government. In: Y. Belanger (Ed.), Aboriginal self-government in Canada: Current trends and issues (3rd ed.). Purich.

[4]Calliou, B., & Voyageur, C. (Summer 2007). Aboriginal leadership development: Building capacity for success, 4. 8–10.

[5]Ottmann, J. (2005). First Nations leadership development within a Saskatchewan contexthttps://harvest.usask.ca/bitstream/handle/10388/etd-04262005-094217/Ottmann.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=

[6]Wesley-Esquimaux, C., & Smolewski, M. (2004). Historical trauma and Aboriginal healing. Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

[7]Calliou, B. (2008).

[8]Cowan, D. A. (2008). Profound simplicity of leadership wisdom: Exemplary insight from Miami Nation Chief Floyd Leonard. International Journal of Leadership Studies, 4(1). 51–81.

[9]Warner, L. S., & Grint, K. (2006). American Indian ways of leading and knowing. Leadership, 2(2). 225–244.

[10]Calliou, B. (2008).

[11]Absolon K., & Willet, C. (2005). Putting ourselves forward: Location in Aboriginal research. In L. Brown & S. Strega (Eds.), Research as resistance: Critical, Indigenous, and anti-oppressive approaches. Canadian Scholar’s Press.

[12]Brant Castellano, M. (2000). Updating Aboriginal traditions of knowledge. In G. Sefa Dei & B. Rosenberg (Eds.), Indigenous knowledges in global contexts: Multiple reading of our world. University of Toronto Press.

[13]Hart, M. A. (2010). Indigenous worldviews, knowledge, and research: The development of an Indigenous research paradigm. Journal of Indigenous Voices in Social Work, 1(1), 1–16.

[14]Simpson, L. (2000). Anishinaabe ways of knowing. In J. Oakes, R. Riew, S. Koolage, L. Simpson, & N. Schuster (Eds.), Aboriginal health, identity and resources (pp. 165–185). Native Studies Press.

[15]Hoffman, K. M., Christianson, A. C., Dickson-Hoyle, S., Copes-Gerbitz, K., Nikolakis, W., Diabo, D. A., McLeod, R., Michell, H. J., Mamun, A., Zahara, A., Mauro, N., Gilchrist, J., Myers Ross, R. & Daniels, L. D. (2022). The right to burn: Barriers and opportunities for Indigenous-led fire stewardship in Canada. FACETS, 7, 464–481. https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2021-0062

[16]Marks-Block, T., & Tripp, W. (2021). Facilitating prescribed fire in northern California through Indigenous Governance and interagency partnerships. Fire4(3), 37. MDPI AG. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/fire4030037

[17]Hoffman et al. (2022).