Indigenous cultural burn lit for first time in over 100 years in Sequoia National Forest

SEQUOIA NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. (KSEE/KGPE) – After being permitted for over 100 years, a Native American cultural burn pile was ignited in the Sequoia National Forest as part of an indigenous tradition.

In 2022, the Forest Service and Tule River Indian Tribe signed a co-stewardship agreement that would incorporate tribal practices into the landscape.

“This site has cultural significance to the local tribes dating back thousands of years,” stated recently retired Forest Supervisor Teresa Benson. “The agreement will increase the Forest’s ecological and traditional tribal knowledge and will help protect culturally significant sites such as Long Meadow.”

In the early morning of Dec. 19, 2023, tribal prayers echoed in the distance as the smell of sage lingered in the air as Tule River Tribal Elder Harold Santos, accompanied by Benson, ignited the first indigenous cultural burn pile in over 100 years.

More than 150 tribal members from the Tule River Indian Tribe, Wukchumni, North Fork Mono Tribe, Tachi Yokuts Tribe, and more, along with Forest Service employees gathered overgrown willow, grasses, shrubs, and the like for the Yokuts Cultural Burn Demonstration.

Tribal Relations Specialist William Garfield says it was imperative that everyone took part in this practice.

“We wanted the event to include everyone, not just one tribe. The cultural burn opens the door for the Yokuts to restore the practice while sharing a tribal tradition rich in cultural history,” Garfield said.

These cultural burn practices are part of a tradition passed down by generations that spurred the growth of plants for food, medicine, and materials for baskets and shelter.

Officials say that while some tribes may conduct a burn for different reasons, there is a cultural belief that fire and smoke provide a spiritual connection with the people and their ancestors who watch over the land.

“I am happy to see the Sequoia National Forest is open to providing a cultural living space with all tribes around the Forest, and that’s what co-stewardship is all about,” Garfield explained. “The cultural burn demonstration in Long Meadow was the first step in restoring cultural fire on ancestral homelands within the National Forest.”

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