Come Rain or Shine

Cultural Burning in Northern California

June 07, 2023 USDA Southwest Climate Hub & DOI Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center Season 4 Episode 6
Cultural Burning in Northern California
Come Rain or Shine
More Info
Come Rain or Shine
Cultural Burning in Northern California
Jun 07, 2023 Season 4 Episode 6
USDA Southwest Climate Hub & DOI Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center

Traditional burning, also known as cultural burning, is a form of under burning that has been used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years to increase water runoff into streams, create habitats for plants and animals, recycle nutrients, and promote other ecosystem benefits. We interviewed  Diana Almendariz (Maidu/Wintún/Hupa/Yurok), cultural fire practitioner, and Nina Fontana (Ukrainian and Italian), post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, to learn more about "good fire".

Related Links:
Cache Creek Conservancy Tending and Gathering Garden

If you’re enjoying this podcast, please consider rating us and/or leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts, Podcast Addict, or Podchaser Thanks!

Follow us on Twitter @RainShinePod

Never miss an episode! Sign up to get an email alert whenever a new episode publishes!

Have a suggestion for a future episode? Please tell us!

Come Rain or Shine affiliate links:
DOI Southwest CASC:   
USDA Southwest Climate Hub: 
Sustainable Southwest Beef Project (NIFA Grant #2019-69012-29853):  

Show Notes Transcript

Traditional burning, also known as cultural burning, is a form of under burning that has been used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years to increase water runoff into streams, create habitats for plants and animals, recycle nutrients, and promote other ecosystem benefits. We interviewed  Diana Almendariz (Maidu/Wintún/Hupa/Yurok), cultural fire practitioner, and Nina Fontana (Ukrainian and Italian), post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, to learn more about "good fire".

Related Links:
Cache Creek Conservancy Tending and Gathering Garden

If you’re enjoying this podcast, please consider rating us and/or leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts, Podcast Addict, or Podchaser Thanks!

Follow us on Twitter @RainShinePod

Never miss an episode! Sign up to get an email alert whenever a new episode publishes!

Have a suggestion for a future episode? Please tell us!

Come Rain or Shine affiliate links:
DOI Southwest CASC:   
USDA Southwest Climate Hub: 
Sustainable Southwest Beef Project (NIFA Grant #2019-69012-29853):  

Emile Elias: Welcome to Come Rain or Shine Podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub

Sarah LeRoy: and the USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center or Southwest CASC. I'm Sarah LeRoy, Science Applications and Communications Coordinator for the Southwest CASC.

Emile Elias: And I'm Emile Elias, director of the Southwest Climate Hub.

Here we highlight stories to share the most recent advances in climate science, weather, and climate adaptation and innovative practices to support resilient landscapes and communities.

Sarah LeRoy: We believe that sharing some of the most innovative, forward thinking, and creative climate science and adaptation will strengthen our collective ability to respond to even the most challenging impacts of climate change in one of the hottest and driest regions of the world.

The contents of this podcast are for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as endorsement for any of the products, technologies, or strategies discussed.

In recent years, the Southwest has experienced unprecedented wildfires driven in part by a changing climate. Fires in the Southwest have become larger and more intense. There are many opportunities for adaptation, however, including supporting Indigenous traditional burning. Traditional burning, also known as cultural burning, is a form of under burning that has been used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years to increase water runoff into streams, create habitats for plants and animals, recycle nutrients, and promote other ecosystem benefits.

The approach emphasizes people's connection to the land and respect for fire as a life sustaining process. However, decades of fire suppression have made it difficult for native communities to practice cultural fire on their lands. In California, many tribes have found strategies that enable them to revitalize cultural fire practices in their communities.

To learn more about traditional burning practices and about ongoing research shedding light on the benefits and challenges to practicing cultural fire, we are talking with cultural fire practitioners and researchers from California. Diana Almendariz (Maidu/Wintún/Hupa/Yurok), lives and works in Wintún and Maidu territories, which are her homeland territories.

She is a cultural burning practitioner at the Tending and Gathering Garden, a collaborative effort between the local Native American community and the Cache Creek Conservancy. And Nina Fontana (Ukrainian and Italian), is a Southwest CASC post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis.

Welcome Diana and Nina, and thank you so much for joining us here today. I'd like to start with just a little bit of background on cultural burning, and so Diana, I'm wondering if you could kick us off, introduce yourself, and then describe cultural burning and how it's similar or different from other prescribed burning efforts.

Diana Almendariz: Yeah, it's, it's really important to know that prescribed burns is different from cultural burning. Prescribed burns are, you know, it's just like a, a doctor's prescription. You know, go and, and do this and follow the one two threes, or, you know, take the pill twice a day or whatever. You know, it's, it's just a instruction sheet where cultural burning is more related to the types of plants you're burning.

You know, so each plant, each area has a specific type of way of burning. And I live in the, the flat area. You know, mo the tribes that you mentioned, you know, the two Maidu, Wintún, we’re in the flat Sacramento Valley. So our burning is different from the hill and the Yurok. And, you know, we're, it's, I mean, the Hupa and the Yurok where it's ravines and, and such and different plants they use and different calendar times that each plant is on.

You know, so we're, we're not burning just to burn. We're burning for purpose. You know, we're burning for the best quality growth of the plants that we need, plants that we eat as well. So it's for the healthy environment. That's what cultural burning is. So it's not just burning to get rid of the excess fuel.

Excess fuel comes from invasive plants. So ever since I started doing what I'm doing, I've always tried to get people to restore land. Restoration, you know, to restore the native plants so that we have an environment that is not full of a bunch of invasive plants that overgrow everything and create fuel cuz then when they die, they don't grow back, you know, they just grow more fuel and no one's gathering it cuz we don't use it.

So it just creates this big, huge bucket of land fuel that's just sitting there and not being taken care of. It's just being, it's just growing outta control. We never had a word for wild in our culture. There's no words for word for wild place, for definitions and more logic to what we do. It's looking at that, that language and, and why we have words for this and we don't have words for that.

And one thing we don't have a word for is wild. You know, there's no wild spaces. We take care of everything. We tend it. And, and it's not done in square patches, not like Western Society does big square blocks, you know, we don't do that. You know, it, it, and, and a lot of it is according to how the plant wants to grow.

So if a plant doesn't grow in a big square patch, it's gonna grow in a different shape. And so we, we know those things so we'll tend it and, and burn it. And, and it doesn't mean you have to burn it one at a time, you know, a lot of them are on the same calendar. You say you can burn 'em all. And so that's the difference is we're pres, we're, we have a, I guess it can be set as a prescription to each plant and how it needs to be burned.

But then again,

Nina Fontana: There's cultural value.

Diana Almendariz: Yeah, there's a huge cultural value for all these. I mean, California is known for the best basket makers in the world. You know, and that is there because of our tending practices with the native plants. And it's not just one or two native plants, there are many different types and so, and takes many different pieces to make that basket.

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm.

Diana Almendariz: So we're not just talking about just burning of one bush or one plant. We're talking about acres of these plants that needed to be burned so they could come back and grow back. And, and that's good for everything. That's good for everything when it grows back, cuz then you're burning the grasses.

The grasses will grow back. Animals come and eat it. Then you got a good healthy environment. They're eating fresh grass. They're not eating old dried grass. They don't have to search for the grass. They get the fresh grass all the time when we burn, you know? So there's a lot of ways you could look at this and, and how wonderful it when we burn, what it's for the environment, how it's for the environment, how it provides food.

And growth, cuz some plants need to be burned in order for them to break open and start growing. So, our people knew all that. That's why I became a naturalist, you know, because that's where my lifestyle kind of fit into this western society, you know? And a lot of native people feel that way too, is being firemen, you know, that was, they were burners, they came from burn families, you know.

So that's just how our people have, have been and, quite frankly, I've talked a lot about your question, I don’t wanna manipulate, so I'll just stop here for the next question.

Sarah LeRoy: That's perfect, Diana. Nina, do you have anything you'd like to add?

Nina Fontana: I don't know. Diana shared a lot in that answer. I think, I think also just to maybe underline it, that relationship to land, and the continual dialogue. So it's not just you go and you burn and you're like, oh, all the fuel's gone. Lovely. It's about going back and seeing the return, the renewal.

Diana Almendariz: Yeah.

Nina Fontana: And then you're assessing, you're thinking about, okay, what's gonna happen next year?

Diana Almendariz: Yeah.

Nina Fontana: You know, what plants are, are needing fire? What plants can we use for food or medicine or basketry?

So I think that continual assessment, if we wanna use that word, is a big part of cultural burning that is not as present in prescribed burning.

Diana Almendariz: Oh I was just gonna say, yeah, that, that relationship with the land isn't there, you know, it's just taking care of that area and just burning it.

There's no relationship to that, cuz I, I remember they would burn also just by digging up the soil and roughing it up so that nothing would grow back. And all that did was kill a lot of native plants. And it created environment for invasives to come in and take over and cause more extra fuel. So, you know, that relationship come back and say, oh, look what we did.

We need to rethink that. I've never ever heard that. You know, it's, it's always about coming back and returning to the area and seeing how the plants reacted. You know, and, and I, I think a good example for us would be the dogbane.

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm.

Diana Almendariz: Cause I'm like, I don't, I would rather gather a plant that is a wider diameter cuz I have more material if I grow it right. If it's a thinner diameter, I'm just working harder.

Nina Fontana: Hmm.

Diana Almendariz: To get the materials I need. So we put a lot of effort in the soil to make the soil better so that the plant could grow out of it better. Because if it's caked hard pan soil, it's gonna grow thinner. So we worked a lot at, you know, cutting up that soil and adding materials to it just so that it would be more of a a real California soil.

All that hard pan isn't native, isn't natural. So it's working on the soil too. So it's, it's been quite a realization of knowledge, you know, where we need to be at really creating that good environment. And so we're at that point where our dogbane is finally getting thicker. So I'm glad about that and less work for me when it's a bigger diameter.

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm.

Diana Almendariz: So, so that's part of it. Mm-hmm. Reassessing what we did.

Sarah LeRoy: That's great, and I really like how you describe it as a relationship with the land. I think that's amazing. Nina, I wanna switch gears just a little bit and talk about your postdoc fellowship that you have with the Climate Adaptation Science Center Climate Adaptation Program, and that's with the Southwest CASC of course.

Can you explain the research that you're doing as a part of this fellowship?

Nina Fontana: Sure. Yeah. So there is sort of like a regional scope and then a national scope, and they're, they're related to each other. So, I, I'd say working with Diana there's a big educational focus. So thinking about what are the best teaching and learning practices around cultural fire, that's one area.

And then I think another area is developing culturally relevant decision support tools to support cultural fire practitioners. So there's sort of two angles when we think about how can we get cultural fire led by Indigenous practitioners back on the land. So those are the two sort of angles that I'm taking.

And so one of, the educational angle, I spent a lot of time teaching even before graduate school. I was a high school teacher. And then throughout graduate school I taught, you know, it was how I got my funding.

Diana Almendariz: Mm-hmm.

Nina Fontana: And so teaching is a passion of mine and I've, I've learned a lot by hanging out with Diana and the impact of being outside.

Seeing experiential learning on the ground, what active learning looks like. And so I've been assessing some of those practices and the Keepers of the Flame Initiative which is through UC Davis, and it's a collaborative partnership with students and community members and cultural burn practitioners and agencies.

And so when we think about historically underserved students, we know, and data shows that these high impact practices improve student success. And so when we think about education and active learning, these types of educational opportunities are critical for student success. And then the second area is more about the ecology, I would say, and maybe a little bit of policy.

So collaborating with tribal partners to identify and foster sites of climate refugia. So what does that look like? And then how do we create tools that are culturally inclusive. So there's a lot of tools out there. There's thousands of tools out there that look at different aspects of fire, of conservation, but very few of them really look at what are, what environmental justice means.

 What do cultural values from different communities look like? And so that aspect, like we mentioned earlier, the difference between prescribed and cultural burning is that cultural value. And so, that, that part has been really, really challenging and interesting to kind of figure out. 

Emile Elias: Nina, thank you so much for bringing that up and for talking about how your work kind of connects to other pieces. My question is kind of how does your work or and research fit into this very large and broad program designed to conduct a synthesis of changing fire dynamics in the Southwest?

So you have this wonderful niche that you're working in, and I'm wondering about opportunities for connections, and you started to go there, but I'm wondering if there are any others that you'd like to expand upon? 

Nina Fontana: Yeah, so we know that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Council of Environmental Quality issued a memorandum in December of 2022 saying, Hey, you know, Indigenous knowledge is really, really important. And that drive to elevate its role in federal decision making, including scientific and policy processes. So my research tries to attempt to look at, well, what could that look like? So, I, I have been working on some policy recommendations. The National Bipartisan Infrastructure law authorized the Wildland Fire Mitigation Management Commission to develop and deliver a comprehensive set of new policy recommendations to Congress.

And so I proposed two policy recommendations. One is directly funding tribes to create and implement land stewardship initiatives, just because it's really hard to match budget cycles with cultural burning when we think about the ecology of cultural burning. And then to think about the role of NEPA, which is the National Environmental Policy Act and, and those barriers that it presents.

And then my work also looks at, you know, how do we see the future of fire management under climate change? And so working with other postdocs in this postdoc position, there's seven of us total. We're working on a national synthesis and we're centering three management approaches, including wildland fire management, prescribed burning, and my role is to advocate for cultural burning and, and say, Hey, this is a really important aspect when we think about fire regimes changing, not just in California and the Southwest, but across the US and Pacific Islands.

So that's a just a little bit about the work that I'm doing and how it's related to the broader context. 

Emile Elias: Excellent. Thank you. Thanks for that broad context. And in our conversations around a changing climate, we like to ask about adaptation barriers and also solutions to those barriers.

So Diana, as a cultural fire practitioner, what are some of the barriers or challenges to practicing cultural fire today? 

Diana Almendariz: The, well, the barriers is that the education isn't there on what we are, who we are, especially in California. And I, I do wanna kind of expand a little bit on that because, you know, we've got 200 different languages in California, you know, with six different language stocks, you know, so we were all very comfortable and living in smaller areas within California, and we didn't need to interact with each other that much, you know, unless it came to breeding.

Then of course we'd have our ceremonies or you have people meet each other and they might move, but, but the thing is, is you know, you had these, all these separate lifestyles within California with all these different life zones. So that's what makes it a lot different here. But again, that was a big challenge because we all have our unique needs for the land and how to grow things.

Some plants grow all the way through California, like sedge and willow that are really important. And they grow all through California. So the burning techniques on those could be the same. All through the Central Valley we had tule, the burning technique would be the same, you know, but it, it doesn't grow there anymore.

But, you know, it's challenging. You can probably hear that in my voice. You know, these are all really important plants, you know, and it's hard to find them for many. So when you look at California now, it's not, there's a lot of forestry land, still a lot of woodlands still, but we don't have control of it.

And there's laws that prevented us. I would say now we have more ability to work with others and that's what they want. That's what they always ask now, is, we would like this to be burned. How would, how could we do this? And so it now it's, it's, it's a lot, a lot to try to do. And also with the fact that you did have this, this genocide that broke up our knowledge.

You know, it's, that's another barrier. And so one person might have, like the Hupa and the Yurok have a great control of it cuz they've been doing it anyway, even though it's been against the law. They would still burn, they would still make sure they did it in a, a calmer manner, you know, and so that they could take care of their environment.

So they really kept on it, not in a huge way, but in a secret kind of way. You know, it's not illegal now, so they're learning it really well. So, that's, that was a challenge before to just even keep the knowledge. And with people like that, with people like Ron. Ron Goode. You know, by having this area that they took care of under the eyes of knowledge under the universities, you know, they were able to maintain a strong group of people who can continue doing this and, and then teach.

So that's where we're at. But again the different areas require different techniques. You know, so teaching people this, we've got a great group of people right now in, in California who wanna learn these things. And you know what, over 200 at the last one. 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm. 

Diana Almendariz: And the, we got a lot done and now they're being specific. We're being specific to certain plants like sourberry up there. 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm. 

Diana Almendariz: You know, so it's really wonderful to just think of one plant and start that relationship again. So the people that are working with them, with the basket weavers up in Mono, Miwok territory up in that area, they're getting a good group of people that'll be able to take care of many different pieces of land up there.

And same here when it comes to working with the Deergrass and what we do in the Tending Garden, they're getting, and tule - yeah, that was a fun one cuz like I told them, it burns hot and it burns fast and they didn't really know how hot and fast they could do that. It does. So anyway, but it was the idea of knowing these plants see they burn different too, you know?

So I, I would say it's, that's, that was the big challenge. And it's, it's also learning as we go. And again, you know how the words are and that these talk about Alaskans and about ice, different words for snow. You, you know, that's what I'm starting to find in our, the Wintún culture and our Wintún language.

It's like all kinds of different ways to use that word fire. And I was just kind of like, wow, I'm, am I finding that in here, in this language here, different ways to use the word fire, so many different ways that, am I using it inaccurate, you know? 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm.

Diana Almendariz: So we just start simple with Leok Po, good fire, you know?

So we just started it that way. And again, the development of learning more just by being in the language too. And so it's a, it's a good thing to know that native people all over California are starting to dig into their languages and teach to their kids and try to stick with the, and, and I would say one good thing is that they did go through with a bunch of linguists.

They went through California and tried to take down a lot of languages and write 'em all out. And we just gotta figure out what they wrote sometimes. You know, there's, they use many different linguistical styles, which I don't like. You know, and so you have to figure out each linguistical style they use and it's like hard, but, you know, I like my favorite Spanish vowels and using English consonants seems easier to figure out that way, and it's this good standard.

But another, I think a challenge would be using all the fuels. Gas and stuff. I, I really don't like that when they burn. And so at the, the last burn we did, I challenged them by using my native plants to use the fire using hearth plate and drill to start the fire, create coal, and we did a passing the coal type of, I would call it like a personal ceremony between me and my family, where the first fire was started with the hearth plate, and I got the whole field going with that hearth plate coal.

No, no gas, no fuel, no nothing. That was our fuel. And then we started a fire that way, and then whatever was in that fire, if there was a coal in there, we got it and took it to the next place and started, and then took the bigger coals there to the next place and started, you know, so we were able to pass the coal with, from my generation to my daughter and to her, my great-granddaughter.

And we just started this good fire. And we tried to continue it. You know, but we did run out of enough coals being at the right time at the right place. So we're working on it next time. 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm.

Diana Almendariz: We're gonna try to make sure it's all fuel less. So, those are, those are challenges. And it, it's also would be very hard for prescribed burn people to do something without fire. That's that, without fuel.

Nina Fontana: Without fuel, yeah. 

Diana Almendariz: Yeah. And that was always my, oh, if we gotta do this right, if we're gonna do this, we gotta do this right. And that's just kind of how I feel. And I know other native people are, have firemen units, fire units within their own tribal lands. And again, those are probably, I like to call 'em Casino Indians.

It's not really fair, maybe they, they got rich another way, you know. But they have enough money to, and the first thing they would do is make a fire department. You know, that's how important fire is to native people. You know, so they all have their fire engines and everything, and just crack me up how they, that's the first thing they get.

Fire department. And then, but the problem is, is you have, like me, I'm not a Casino Indian. I don't, I don't have any money. I'm not even recognized, but I'm a recognized State California Indian, you know, but I'm not recognized by the government. So no matter what I do, you know, they're not gonna, I'm, I'm just working like anybody, I'm living in poverty, I'm working like anybody else, you know, in the environment and within the, within the world.

And so I, I don't have that advantage, you know? And so my, the knowledge that I can share is secondhand. I mean, with me, I learned from my native people, but people that I teach are secondhand learners that are taking it to those other people that recognize them as being the authorities in fire.

You know? So they recognize the authorities in fire, but not me. And they'll learn from them. And so what they're doing is they're getting a, a secondhand knowledge of what they're doing. So they might not know about what I just told you about dogbane you know, about wanting to have a bigger diameter.

They, they may not think like that, where, you know, that's big challenge.

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm. 

Diana Almendariz: Because our native people have been taken away from the culture by, through genocide, been separated. So not everybody can be in that same place of knowledge when it comes to having that relationship with plants. But I want them to, and I think this is a time where we could create that.

So that's why I'm still here working with that. And when our class, we work with our class Keepers of the Flame, we have all dynamics of professionals. 

 Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm. 

Diana Almendariz: And that's the great thing is this class isn't just, doesn't just contain environmentalists. It's, it will have lawyers in it, it'll have Indian education people in it, you know, it'll have agriculturalists in it.

It's like a network. It's like this class itself of Keepers of Flame is creating our own network with people to be able to understand it more and then spread it, you know, spread this knowledge in a, in a good way. In a Leok Po way. 

Nina Fontana: And that was the name of the workshop that, that Cache Creek created in, in collaboration with CAL FIRE. And there were various tribal nations there as well. 

Diana Almendariz: Yeah. 

Nina Fontana: And Keepers of the Flame and state and federal, there was more state representation and it was, it was a really successful collaboration. And it was Indigenous led. You know, it was, that was you and Melinda Adams and a lot of folks working together to, to put Leok Po on the ground.

Diana Almendariz: Yeah. 

Sarah LeRoy: That's great. Thank you. So Diana, you've mentioned, and we've mentioned the Tending and Gathering Garden in Yolo County, California. And so I'm wondering if you could describe the tending and gathering garden for our listeners and the, the type of burning that you do there. 

Diana Almendariz: Oh, okay. It's it's actually a created site.

It's not natural. It's well the type of growing that's going on there is, we're using the native plants of the area, but it is within an aggregate mine where they, they dig out the aggregate to make streets, roads, infrastructure of buildings and stuff.

And so what it does is it depletes the height. It takes out all the gravel, and so it got lower and lower, 25 feet down is the law right now. But what it did was it made a big hole in the area. And so what we did to try to bring it back was brought soil in and then made a higher part in it and then put soil in it. And we planted 15 types of native plants that the elder Bertha Mitchell wanted in there for medicine, for basketry, for anything she could think of.

Those were the plants she wanted in it that were all native to the area, so all Indigenous plants. And so this has been growing for 20 years. This two acres of native plants. For, and it's got water in it, so we got tule in it, also, cattail all growing in there and it, it's just all native plants that we could use and harvest and like I said, two acres - it's not really enough to make a full basket in there, but it's a variety of native plants that give you the idea of what this native Indigenous plant diversity was and what it looked like. So they're all grown in a way which is healthy for them and, and it, like I said, it's tucked in a gr mine, an aggregate mine, 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm.

Diana Almendariz: so it's a good, safe place to burn. So in, in order for us to teach it really made it a, a good place to teach because you're, you're down low and the fire can't get above the levy to, to go out and start other fires. We're, we're more safe to be in there. You know, to start fires and get good at it. So we've been burning for a while, but we've gotten really comfortable with it now 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm.

Diana Almendariz: for the past few years. And it's been really good that way. Like I said, it's been growing for 20 years. Tending and Gathering Garden, you know, to tend, which is part of the fire, and, and to garden it. Gar gather it. We gather it, and then it's a big, huge, nice native Indigenous garden. So, I think one thing also is it gives us the ability to go standing in and teach about fire itself.

And, and I, I like to really tell people how important fire, how strong fire is. And we didn't feel any kind of bad thing about fire, like hellfire, you know, that wasn't in our, in our belief system at all. Fire to us is always good, you know? You just have to learn that how bad, how it could get outta control.

And a big part of using fire is being able to control it and put it in the right places and not cause damage. So, Tending and Gathering Garden was that place that we can work on that, you know, for me to start the bundles and light 'em and see how they burn. You know, it was, cuz that's what I do. I started doing tule bundles to, to burn the grass without take using gas.

We're taking the bundles out and using coals to start 'em. The way our people would carry that with them when they went out in the environment to gather or hunt, they needed fire too. So they would carry, carry coal with them to use to light wherever they went. And that's what I got this from, was to use that to carry the coal around the area.

And that's what the tending garden is. You know, it was a place where we can actually function. Natively, you know, within that environment and watch the animals and how they relate to everything. So our first fire, it was animals running in it and rolling in it. You know, rolling in the fire, the smoke, they, they want all that ash, they want all that on their skin, you know, they wanna eat that fresh grass, you know, those are the things we notice.

So, It's been a very important laboratory, I would say. I've been calling it the laboratory. 

Nina Fontana: Yeah, the lab.

Diana Almendariz: Because we're doing that and making all these tests and we, we've got all the students from the Keepers of the Flame who are studying it in different ways, where they're gonna study an animal, they're gonna focus on one particular plant, they're gonna focus on the fire. 

Nina Fontana: Or the soil.

Diana Almendariz: The soil. Yeah. That's, that's what's happening there. It's become this big laboratory, you know, and it was just our living the way we lived. And so, that's pretty much what the Tending and Gathering Garden is, you know. 

Nina Fontana: No big deal. 

Diana Almendariz: I'm like the scientist. I'm like the evil scientist. 

Nina Fontana: Definitely not evil. 

Diana Almendariz: Not evil.

Sarah LeRoy: Well, it sounds like a very beautiful place, and I know that some folks here at the Southwest CASC have attended some workshops at the Tending and Gathering Garden, and I've seen pictures and it just, it looks amazing and I hope I can make it there someday too. 

And speaking of those cultural fire workshops, and Nina, you've mentioned these, too. I was wondering if you could describe some of those workshops and kind of, you know, what they look like, who attends that type of thing. 

Nina Fontana: Yeah. So the two that come to mind that we mentioned throughout the, our, our discussion are the one in Mariposa with Ron Goode. And then the number of workshops that have been at the Tending and Gathering Garden.

And I think what makes it really powerful for students is community engagement. So people tend to kinda get into little cliques. It doesn't matter what kind of workspace you're in, right? You kind of find a clique of people and that's, those are the people you hang out with, and these spaces really disrupt that cliquiness.

So you have, you know, state agencies, maybe some ecologists, you have activists, you have, you know, Indigenous fire departments, you have CAL FIRE! Yeah. It's, it's intergenerational. It's interdisciplinary. It's intercultural. 

Diana Almendariz: Intertribal, yeah.

Nina Fontana: Intertribal. So I think it's for, for people who haven't experienced before, I, I always see their faces as kind of like, whoa, like I gotta take this in for a second.

There's like a sense of you know, this is a really special space to learn and interact and to listen. And so I've always enjoyed and, and kind of had like the excitement before celebration vibe before you go to these, these events where you're like, oh gosh, it's gonna be,

Diana Almendariz: Mm-hmm. 

Nina Fontana: You know, we're gonna go and it's gonna be this, this really special learning opportunity. And you get energy from it. 

Diana Almendariz: Mm-hmm. Oh yeah. Since, since we're burning in the tending garden and it's all native plants, that's one thing I noticed is I've got asthma and it's never bugged me in the Tending and Gathering Garden. And so I just kind of remember the idea that some of these plants are used for medicine.

Some of these plants are used for smudging, so it's like, that's why I feel like I'm walking in a smudge bowl, you know? Like I've got the abalone shell right here and I'm just walking in it cuz it's all soothing types of, of burns, of material that are not conducive to, you know, sickness. 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm.

Diana Almendariz: They don't activate my asthma or allergies or, I don't know. It just was really magical to me was every time. 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm.

Diana Almendariz: I'm walking away feeling all powerful and, and giddy before. 

Nina Fontana: Yeah. We're always like laughing. I mean, there, it's an all day event. You know, people who, you, you make friends. I mean, I think there's just a lot of really valuable discussion and learning that goes into those community events where folks who do prescribed burning understand better what cultural burning looks like. And you have to be on the land in order to learn the land. 

Diana Almendariz: And I would say even maybe within a native plant environment too. So you can, and you need to know that too.

And like, like in your area, I think of prairie grass and, you know, getting prairie grass growing out there for the buffalo so the buffalo can roll in it and get healthy. That's kinda like what I picture when I picture the Midwest and everything. 

Nina Fontana: Yeah, definitely the Midwest. Yeah. 

Diana Almendariz: Yeah. 

Emile Elias: Yeah. Thank you. So I'm curious for other communities, do you have any advice for other tribes in California or other states or regions that are just getting started and hoping to bring back good fire to their lands? Where, where to start? And Diana, we'll start with you. 

Diana Almendariz: Yeah, I think I was just kind of tapping on it a little bit. It's like, what's important, what's the most important thing is the food source and water. You know, and so I'm like at a place where you need to take care of those creeks, you know, find your water sources, take care of them, you know, make sure they're clean on both sides, you know, following that because you're gonna find if one area is growing, it's probably cuz it has a water source on it, and start planning restoration of those sites.

You know, and then what happens is you've got good roots that will hold everything in, create less flooding. You know, that's where we need to be. You know, is using our restoration on all our different areas. Study your native plants. If you're growing crops, well then put the native plants around 'em.

I know when I talked to the southwest people at one time, they were growing the old corn seed around the corn crops. And what, what is that corn seed called again? Is to, oh,

Nina Fontana: I definitely don't know.

Diana Almendariz: Ko something. It's a the original corn where the emperor of maize, you know, started it. 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm. 

Diana Almendariz: You know, grew it and grew the corn from that seed, you know, and so they were telling me, the New Mexico people I knew, that they were using that seed to plant that corn around the edges, and it started helping them grow better. Because that strength of that original, I guess DNA 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm. 

Diana Almendariz: Was getting back into their corn and so making it a healthier, more productive material. So I'm, I'm just thinking that that was one way that they looked at their native plants and made it healthier for them. So I can't really know exactly, you know, what plants for them to, to look at.

It's the, the culture themselves that they have that to, to research and find, and, find that knowledge. And I know sometimes at times it takes a lot of digging, but they need support, you know, support to find those things. 

Nina Fontana: Do you think language plays a role? 

Diana Almendariz: Language plays a big role in it, yeah. And but the only problem with that is botanists weren't botanists then. Self-acclaims, you know what I mean?

It was like the native plant over here threw them for a loop. When they came here, they, a lot of these plants were unrecognized, where they didn't know what they were. 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm. 

Diana Almendariz: And so for a native person to tell 'em, you know what they call the plant and they don't even know what the plant is. Things got lost in the mix, you know, so it's, it's a, it's kind of a, when you look through language 

Nina Fontana: Mmm

Diana Almendariz: It's kind of trying to look for certain things and, you know, really spend time studying the language. I had that opportunity because I worked at a place that wanted me to type in all the words. Cause I was good at typing, so I type in all the words in all their books that they accumulated with language.

So I was able to really get into these books and type everything in and see them and have 'em in my head and type 'em out and type 'em out in a way where you say 'em correctly. So it was a lot of effort going into me working with the Wintún language, you know, typing 'em all correctly. And so for me to share it with them and share it with other native, native people I have in Bertha Mitchell.

I, I was very lucky spot to be in because Bertha Mitchell was a person who was born speaking her native language. She didn't learn English until she got older, went to school. So her first language was Wintún and she was familiar with the dialects. So she would definitely tell me, “Well, your people would say it like this.”

You know, and then I would be, wow, that sounds similar, a little different. Now, that word was completely different, you know? So that was the kind of conversations we'd have. So, yeah, it, it has a lot to do with language too, but that, the thing is, is that money's there. I mean, like, people who are linguists would take this class too.

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm. 

Diana Almendariz: Keepers of the Flame. You know, those people are out there, you know, and that kind of draws. We, how, you know, how you go to a fire if you're cold, you come close to fire. So maybe that's like what fire's doing right now. 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm. 

 Diana Almendariz: You know, 

Nina Fontana: We're drawing people in.

Diana Almendariz: Just drawing. Yeah. It really does draw people in from different walks of life and we're doing the good fire and these are people who aren't, who are learning how to use fire in a correct manner, in a safe manner, in a healthy manner, you know, and not afraid of it, you know, not putting it on a level saying, you know, fire's bad.

I never say that, you know, I just say it's stronger than us. Fire is stronger than we are as humans, and we gotta recognize that. And I sure, after the fires in California, and other, other places around America too, we, everybody got firsthand knowledge of what that was like, how powerful it is. And so that's brings us here.

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm. 

 Diana Almendariz: You know, and we knew it was the fuel, the excess fuel, the invasive plants that grow out of control and yeah, we just gotta be able to teach to, to grow correctly, you know. Not bring certain plants here that are gonna grow out of control like eucalyptus. I know, I'm not trying to be prejudice against eucalyptus.

Nina Fontana: No, we go on drives. It's like if we see eucalyptus, it is war.

Emile Elias: So it's, I hear you saying that it's definitely location specific, place-based, history-based, that there's a lot, lot of information in a specific location for people to think about and to start with. And as we kind of wind up our conversation, we really like to ask the experts that we get to speak with, what gives them hope for the future. So now we'd like to ask you both what gives you hope? And Nina, we'll go ahead and start with you. 

Diana Almendariz: Hope. I have hope. We, we have hope. 

Nina Fontana: Yeah. We, I, I definitely have hope and I'm trying to provide you with like a, an all-encompassing answer. I, I…

Diana Almendariz: What gives me hope is people like Nina. 

Nina Fontana: Oh. I was gonna say, you! I was also gonna try to like, make it all, all encompassing. Yeah. What gives me hope is the, the relationship, the, the fact that people want to build relationships with, with what they don't know. That there's an openness, that there's a desire to make the world a healthier place.

Which I know sounds kind of trite, but it's actually kind of what motivates me to get in the get up in the morning is to know that I have community, I have support, I want to support others, and that this work is impactful, not, not just ecologically, but also for the health of people. 

Diana Almendariz: Mm-hmm. Mentally too.

Nina Fontana: Yeah. There, there's like a, a really deep health component when we think about stewardship, you know. This, this falls into stewardship broadly. 

Diana Almendariz: Yeah, yeah. And so I would, I would say that too is like, ditto. But, but again, you know, it it's, it's at a good place right now. We're, I just wanna reiterate, I do have hope and I do know we're going in the right direction.

And I do know that working with people and having a, and a voice that's helping as well to just get in there and remind. Remind, remind, and, and also knowing the fact that with the thing like the Keepers of the Flame class, it, it draws different people from different areas, you know? And then what that does is that it kind of puts us back in the place where the culture of our people was the economy. 

How we operated on land was our economy. And we all had our places within it. And we did our jobs. And, and that was the part of the economy. And so, things that that happen right now are thought, in the sense of, of money and economy, but at the same time, when you can take care of things and see what that does, maybe we focus less on money, you know, and we're focusing more on getting things taken care of.

And that's where I can, I can see the hope going is that the, it's kind of going in the right way right now. And so we just need to keep working at it and, and keep teaching, you know, keep teaching and, and I'll still do the passing of the coal, you know, I'll still 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm. 

Diana Almendariz: Have people realize that that's where I wanna be.

I really don't wanna use coal the fuels all the time. I wanna use coal. I've taught at the tech program seven, seven students there are right now doing, like teenagers are now making fire with hearth plate and drill. You know, because they got the proper teachers, you know, Danny Manning 

 Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm. 

Diana Almendariz: came out, and working with me supporting them, and I, I used to make fire three times a day at a program I did at a nature center.

And so I used the hearth plate and drill, started the fire every class that way. And so I know that it's part of my life skill, you know, I don't... So anyway I just think, many people, many native people in many places are deciding to do this kind of thing, create places to burn and, and do this. So I'm, I'm seeing that growth and I'm supported and I wanna be out there teaching 'em still and doing all these things and, and yeah. You're a big part of it, Nina. 

Nina Fontana: I feel so lucky. 

Diana Almendariz: You guys too. 

Nina Fontana: Yeah. We're all in it together. 

Diana Almendariz: Yes. 

Emile Elias: Absolutely. We're all in it together. My very last question for you today for this conversation is what if, if people can only remember one thing from this conversation, what is the one thing that you'd like people to remember and take away with them?

Diana Almendariz: You know, just sticking in my head, is Leok Po, good fire. 

Nina Fontana: Yeah. 

Diana Almendariz: You know, and that's in our language. And that just comes to mind because that's every, everywhere I wanna be all the time is with good fire. You know, I wanna have good fire. And even when it comes to my plants in my pot, I think, should I burn this plant in my pot when it's done?

Nina Fontana: Is it ready? 

Diana Almendariz: Yeah. Is it ready? No. I don't wanna burn in my pot, but I, but I will use the soil, the plants, and put it in the soil. Then I re-enter it and it's a constant circle of my soil where I live, you know? So just good treatment of land. 

Nina Fontana: Yeah. I think for folks who maybe are non-Indigenous like myself and maybe don't have that cultural link to fire, is thinking broadly about their connection to the land that they're on, and to maybe think about the Indigenous stewards of that land and how they can be supportive of that. What does stewardship look like in the place that you're in? 

Diana Almendariz: Yeah. And what, yeah, what does stewardship look like? And also, I think the other thing is rematriate. Rematriating the land, putting it back in the hands of the mothers, you know, to treat land and, you know, like, like, it's like you gotta treat it a certain way for it grows, right. You know, just like a child, you, you wanna treat it a certain way so it grows right. You know, well, the land is the same way. You've gotta take care of it and, and, you know, and maintain it and steward it. Repair is the main word, so that it grows right. You know, we're rematriating the land and to embrace that knowledge, to embrace that word, you know, and to to be in that space of not expecting, not looking at it as resources to take it apart and do stuff with, but to take care of it. Not just take it apart. 

Nina Fontana: Mm-hmm.

Emile Elias: Excellent. Diana Almendariz and Nina Fontana, thank you so much for speaking with us about Good Fire. 

Nina Fontana: Thank you.

Emile Elias: Thanks for listening to Come Rain or Shine, podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub 

Sarah LeRoy: and the USGS Southwest CASC. If you liked this podcast, don't forget to rate or review it and subscribe for more great episodes. A special thanks to our production crew, Skye Aney and Reanna Burnett. If you want more information, have any questions for the speakers or would like to offer feedback, please reach out to us via our websites.