Decolonizing California’s Wildfire Zone

Today, in an agreement with the city of Chico, the Mechoopda tribe manages Verbena Fields. It’s an emerging model of what decolonizing land can look like, supported by partnerships between Native and non-Native communities.

This story was originally published by Yes! Magazine and is republished here with permission. We carefully select only high quality articles that we believe will be of deep benefit to our readers for republication at Shasta Scout. We hope you enjoy. 

On a rainy December day in 2021, volunteers in Paradise, California, moved along a creek, planting c’ipa/willow and l’yli/redbud. Charred snags of tó:ni/gray pine and other dead trees stood above them on the slope. They were working in the Sierra Nevada foothills, an area devastated by the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and destroyed over 18,000 homes and other structures. Mechoopda Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) master teacher Ali Meders-Knight and native-plant expert Raphael DiGenova guided these volunteer efforts to replant the burned-over foothills of Paradise.

Much of the Camp Fire burn scar is in the Mechoopda Tribe’s ancestral homelands. The Mechoopda are a federally recognized tribe and a subdivision of the Northwestern or Konkow Maidu. Meders-Knight launched the Chico Traditional Ecological Stewardship Program in response to the Camp Fire and has run a number of TEK workshops for both Native and non-Native students since then. 

One of the ways in which such efforts are distinct is that wildfire destruction is contextualized in history. For example, Meders-Knight opened the Paradise TEK seed workshop with a primer on decolonization to help participants understand the role of seeds within California’s history of genocide and ecocide.

Seeding a landscape claimed by European American settlers during the California Gold Rush, Meders-Knight repopulates this land with native plants and Indigenous land tending. As she puts it, “Giving back to the plants is like giving reparations to the tribe.” Calling plants by their Maidu names expresses ancient relationships tied to specific ecosystems. 

For non-Native participants, restoration work is an act of reversing colonization and supporting Mechoopda sovereignty. Every week, Meders-Knight teaches Native and non-Native volunteers how to give back to plants at Verbena Fields, a restoration site in nearby Chico, where many of the seeds for the Paradise workshop were gathered. By using Native plant names, knowledge, and burning practices, TEK practitioners such as Meders-Knight are connecting with their ancestral past and trying to create a viable future for their children and grandchildren.

At her workshops and during volunteer work days, Meders-Knight teaches participants what Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer calls Indigenous people’s “grammar of animacy.” This approach means referring to plants and animals as family members and treating them respectfully. During the Paradise seed workshop, Meders-Knight encouraged volunteers to make a gift to the land by offering prayers, or dedicating seeds to those who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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“Mechoopda” means “when the snow melts, the land gets wet,” according to Meders-Knight. The tribe’s name ties it to the particular valley and foothills where snowmelt is essential to restoring waterways and wetlands. 

At the heart of Verbena Fields is a gathering circle and ceramic tile display of a Mechoopda creation story that Meders-Knight and a group of Native youth created in 2009. In the artwork, Earth Maker and Turtle appear, as does an oak tree with acorns. Turtle helped Earth Maker by diving down under the waters and bringing up dirt in its claws. Earth Maker then shaped the dirt into the Earth and used c’ipa (willow) sticks to create humans, so the story goes.

The beautiful open vistas and bountiful plants and animals described by early European explorers were not an untouched wilderness in which humans played no role. Geographer Meleiza Figueroa, who works with Meders-Knight at Chico Traditional Ecological Stewardship Program, explains that Native people created the landscape that Europeans encountered: “Lands adapted to them as they adapted to landscapes.” Throughout what is now California, Indigenous people developed cultural beliefs and land-tending practices over millennia of belonging to specific ecosystems.

Fires, many of them intentionally set, also shaped much of California’s vegetation before European colonization. Meders-Knight wants to bring back traditional burning practices because, as she says, “fire lives here.” According to her, each tribe had a fire story about “a bird or animal that takes the fire back, because fire is power.” 

For Meders-Knight, Mechoopda are like the animals in these stories, helping to “steal the fire back.” She makes a clear distinction between “good” and “bad” fire. Good fire is carefully tended and set during appropriate weather conditions. It has “white plumes,” while catastrophic wildfires have smoke that is brown and purple, “like a bruise.” 

Pyrogeographer Don Hankins (Plains Miwok) observes that in Native Californian stories, knowledge of fire goes back to “the beginning of time.” Native communities treated fire as an ally to increase biodiversity, improve basket materials, encourage healthier berries, control pests and diseases, enhance the growth of grasses and bulbs, germinate seeds, encourage mushroom growth, and reduce the chances of high-intensity fires. As North Fork Mono Tribal Chairman Ron Goode claims in a film about tending the land, “Fire has spirit, this land has spirit, and when we’re burning, they come alive.” 

According to Hankins and other experts, Western methods of fire suppression are largely to blame for California’s catastrophic fires that are becoming increasingly common every summer. The removal of Indigenous people and their land-tending practices, such as intentional burning, went hand in hand with misguided fire-suppression policies. 

But Indigenous cultural burning is starting to return. In 2003, the Mechoopda tribe acquired 650 acres of land south of Chico, where it has conducted cultural burns as part of a larger restoration project to heal the land. In October 2020, the Amah Mutsun conducted a cultural burn in the San Vicente Redwoods Preserve in Santa Cruz County. In 2019, in northwestern California, members of the KarukYurok, and other tribes started a cultural burn with wormwood torches, as reported by the Guardian

In the aftermath of the Camp Fire, Indigenous artifacts were found under collapsed buildings and debris in Paradise and other towns that flourished during the Gold Rush. In a presentation on decolonization in Paradise, one year after the Camp Fire, Meders-Knight declared, “For generations we were not allowed or invited back on this land. … For generations, White people in Paradise were finding our pestles and mortars and displaying them in their homes. After the fire, often the only things left were these mortars and pestles.” A sign of resilience, these ancient objects also pointed to the history of genocide and ecocide that created the conditions (fire-starved forests) that led to the Camp Fire. 

Meders-Knight told participants at the same TEK seed workshop in Paradise last December that Native people are especially well-positioned to confront climate change because they already “know how to survive the end of the world.” The Gold Rush and its accompanying massacres were her people’s apocalypse. 

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Beginning in 1848, the Gold Rush precipitated violent and catastrophic change for Mechoopda people as well as for the ecosystems on which they depended. Many Mechoopda, in what is now the Camp Fire burn scar, were killed by settlers. Others were removed from the land during the tragic 1863 Nome Cult Walk or Konkow Trail of Tears. 

Meders-Knight’s work at Verbena Fields is a response to the destructive displacement of people, plants, and animals in Northern California. After gold mining, massacres, forced removal of Mechoopda, and construction of Army Corps of Engineers dams, Verbena Fields became a dumping ground for construction projects. 

Neat suburban homes with manicured lawns sit on both sides of the park. When these subdivisions were constructed during the second half of the 20th century, builders dumped their waste materials in the creek’s channel. 

In 2009, when Meders-Knight started her work, bulldozers had removed the hazardous construction waste, leaving nothing but dirt at the site. It is Meders-Knight’s artistic vision, expressed in her paintings and restoration plans, that imagines what was once here and will be again: a fire-resilient native garden, full of food and medicine.

Today, in an agreement with the city of Chico, the Mechoopda tribe manages Verbena Fields. As part of that effort, Meders-Knight has been working there for more than 12 years, coppicing c’ipa/willow, saving and dispersing seeds, and removing star thistle, mustard, Scotch broom, Himalayan blackberry, and other invasive non-native plants. Every Friday morning, anywhere from 5 to 25 volunteers show up to put their hands on the land and learn from Meders-Knight and DiGenova, the native-plant expert. 

On a plant walk at Verbena Fields during the winter of 2021, Meders-Knight and DiGenova, who lead monthly tours of the park together, pointed to a flourishing patch of wedakdaka/Indian lettuce (otherwise known as “miner’s lettuce”) where a year ago there had been far less. Waji/“Indian potatoes” that they planted a couple of years earlier were pushing through the soil in tiny shoots. 

Verbena Fields is an emerging model of what decolonizing land can look like, supported by partnerships between Native and non-Native communities. DiGenova, who uses they/them pronouns, has been an essential collaborator with Meders-Knight for the past couple of years by contributing their extensive knowledge of native-plant propagation. For them, Verbena Fields is an example of what land around Chico might have looked like before colonization. As they see it, “There aren’t that many things in the world that really make a difference, but planting and tending to native plants does. We’ve seen a restored forest, that it works.” 

Yet the return of native plants and Native people to Verbena Fields is not without conflict. One Friday workday in 2021, Meders-Knight arrived at Verbena Fields to find that vandals had chopped down some trees, including a favorite t’at’am c’a/alder. She felt like a “12-year-old friend died … before its time.” The following week, a large group assembled to work on the fallen trees. While peeling t’at’am c’a/alder bark, Figueroa, the geographer, explained that in this way they could “honor” the t’at’am c’a by putting it to use. 

For many volunteers, working at Verbena Fields is a way of coping with the shame and guilt that descendants of settlers feel for all that has been lost. Restoration rites offer reparations for a colonial past that had terrible consequences for both the Indigenous people of California and the animal and plant communities with which they lived. For DiGenova, working at Verbena Fields became a therapeutic response to grief about what was lost, as well as something to do in the face of impending climate change. As they explained it, “I just recognized that if I came here, I could have a taste of being more fully human.” Being more fully human came about because of their connection to the land that they used to grieve, that they thought was gone. But even “in the story of it being so devastating, there’s a shred of hope in it being so much better than I thought it could have been. … It’s too soon to give up.” 

Land restoration and decolonization are not quick fixes. Meders-Knight says she wants to “create restorative places and ecosystems for the next 100 years.” Until then, it will be hard to know the full fruits of her labor. As she put it in an interview on the radio show Cultivating Place, “I will be visiting and tending these places in spirit form.” 

Sarah M. Pike teaches at California State University, Chico. She has written books and articles on contemporary Paganism, ritual, New Age, Burning Man, spiritual dance, ancestral skills, environmentalism, and climate protests. Her most recent book is For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism. Her current research focuses on ritualized relationships with landscapes after wildfires. She is a member of the American Academy of Religion.

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