A Native American tribal leader in the Pacific Northwest says wildfires there are getting more intense and destructive, causing renewed efforts to protect Native communities, territories, and traditional homelands.
This July, the Chuweah Creek, and the Bootleg fires blazed through the lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Klamath Tribes. As firefighting agencies work to contain the fires, families have been evacuated from their homes, properties have been destroyed, and flames have engulfed sacred lands.
“[In the past, The Klamath Tribes have] thrived in this area where we have constant lightning strikes…those fires burned at low intensity,” said Chairperson of the Klamath Tribes Don Gentry during an interview. “Now, we have completely destructive fires.”
According to Gentry, the tribe is trying to uphold their traditions while taking precautions to keep members safe.
“There are people who are camping, hunting, and gathering food, but it’s in places that are currently safe,” he said. “We are monitoring the fire and have Tribal Fish and Game Enforcement ready to go out and find folks if the fire starts heading in their direction.”
To support tribal members in exercising their treaty rights outside the fire zone, Gentry and the Tribal Council notified nearby law enforcement and the National Forest Service of their presence.
“We are so tied to the land,” Gentry said, referrring to tribe’s traditional homeland in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. “We still hunt, fish, trap, [and] gather there.”
Today, the Modoc, Klamath, and Yahooskin-Paiute peoples are collectively recognized as the Klamath Tribes. However, the tribe is not federally recognized. This collective signed The Treaty of 1864 with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife that ceded over 20 million acres of the traditional reservation but granted tribal members the rights to fish and hunt there.
According to Gentry, it’s important for the tribe to maintain this right because staples – such as camas, elk, and mule deer – are gathered to supplement their diets and are a part of their spiritual practices.
Oregon’s Bootleg fire started July 15 and is over 400,000 acres, with 53% contained as of July 30. The fire is primarily located in south-central Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest.
The destructive nature of the Bootleg fires is reducing what’s left of the tribe’s ceded lands, leaving less to practice traditions and spiritual activities.
“It’s a heartbreak to me because I have so many memories,” Gentry said, recalling hunting in the Black Hills in the treaty rights area, which is now burned over.
KATU reported that over 150 homes of non-tribal residents and 247 outbuildings have been lost to the Bootleg Fire.
“We feel for those families too,” he said. “We care for everyone in the community.”
Historically, indigenous tribes burned the forest floor to minimize hazardous fuels, recycle soil nutrients, and stimulate plant growth, according to the National Forest Service.
In collaboration with the Forest Service and South Central Oregon Fire Management Partnership, the Klamath Tribe burned areas outside of Chiloquin, Washington, earlier this year. They also are a part of the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network sponsored by The Nature Conservancy.
These efforts are intended to reduce fire hazards and manage the land. Last year, 58,950 reported wildfires burned 10.1 million acres according to the National Interagency Coordination Center. As of July 28, 81 fires have burned 1.6 million acres across 12 states.
On July 12, lightning strikes ignited another fire. The Chuweah Creek Fire near the town of Nespelem, which is part of the federally recognized Colville Reservation, forced locals to scramble resources for the families and tribal members caught in the blaze’s crosshairs.
Brian Namakin is a tribal member who worked to provide donations to tribal and non-tribal locals impacted by the fires.
“We received about 288 food boxes, and are expecting donations of personal items and laundry,” Namakin said.
According to news reports, the Chuweah Creek Fire destroyed a number of structures on the tribal land.
Since the Colville Reservation is federally recognized, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has used $6.4 million (as of July 25) from the Department of the Interior’s Supplemental Allocation fund to support fire suppression, according to the BIA’s public affairs specialist, Robyn Broyles.
The Chuweah Creek fire caused families to temporarily evacuate their homes and commercial businesses to shut down. But the long-term effects of the fires are a loss of traditional homelands, hunting grounds, and natural resources.
The reservation has been continuously struck by wildfires in recent years, such as the 2020 Inchelium Complex Fires which burned 200,000 acres there, according to a press release in the reservation’s newspaper.
As the fires continue, Colville tribal leaders are doing their best to compensate for the loss in previous fires.
“In many areas, the fires burned so hot that they sterilized the soil and created a moonscape,” said the Colville Tribal Chairman Andrew “Badger” Joseph Jr in the press release. “It will take decades for our resources to completely recover in those areas.” About 20% of the tribe’s commercial timber was burned, resulting in a significant loss in revenue for the reservation.
In the same press release, the Colville Tribes announced a lawsuit filed against the United States because “the United States failed to maintain adequate forest health, through measures such as prescribed burning, which led to fires of unprecedented size and intensity”.