Co-produced by KCETLink Media Group and the Autry Museum, Tending the Wild, a six-part multimedia series, displays the traditional environmental knowledge of Indigenous people across California by exploring their methods of shaping and caretaking the land for millennia.
Tending the Wild began airing in October 2016 on KCET, commencing with the first episode, “Cultural Burning,” which shows how Native people practice cultural burns that help to sustain meadows, coastal prairies, and grasslands. The inaugural episode is focused on the area just south of Yosemite National Park where the North Fork Mono and the Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians tribes conduct the practice. “Cultural Burning” opens with slow panning shots of the aftermath of a wildfire at the Kaweah Oaks Preserve in Tulare County, California, overlaid by a traditional song sang by Tribal Chairman of the North Folk Mono, Ron W. Goode, as embers flurry and smoke winds from trees and charred earth.
“You have to know how to work with fire,” Goode says, shown seated among the brush at Mariposa Ranch in Clovis, California. “I take my young ones out—smell the smoke. Smell it!” He continues as a hint of his song lingers in the background, “That’s grass fire. Smell the smoke! That’s a house burning. Smell the smoke! That’s tires burning. That’s a wood fireplace burning. You should be able to smell every different kind of smoke. The animals teach their young to do that and if there’s no fire, they can’t teach them to do that. That’s why we have to burn. That’s why we have to keep the fires going.”
Walking the area with tribal council member Jesse Valdez (North Fork Mono), Goode explains how the careful application of fire can increase fruit and seed production from bushes and promote new tree and bush growth with naturally enhanced resources for making baskets and medicine.
But today’s fire suppression methods have been detrimental to cultural burning efforts, resulting in dense forest situations with high tree mortality due to disease, insect infestations, and large-scale wildfires, Goode says.
“You need to be able to see through the trees,” Goode says. “The concept we are bringing forth when we work out on the land is this open concept.” He then says, pointing to the weaving of a baby basket, “When the baby is inside the basket, look through the basket. See the world! See through the basket to the outer world. See through the forest. See through from this world to the next world. Always the ability to see through.”
Jared Dahl Aldern, Ph.D. EPA Program Manager, Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians, dates current modern forest service and CalFire fire suppression policies back to the times of Spanish conquest in the Americas. He says during the episode that the Spanish view of Indigenous cultural burning was one of recklessness by “primitive” people. “Fire suppression is very much tied up with social and political oppression of Native American people.” He continues, saying that the forest service wanted to maximize the amount of trees per acre, changing the landscape by placing thin trees in the wide spaces that had been maintained for thousands of years by Indigenous fires. “By suppressing fire and keeping people from lighting cultural burns, you’ve built up the fuel over time, and that’s what has led to a situation today where the forest is full of trees, but really closely packed and ready for that spark and for a huge wildfire to start at any time.”
Aldern’s comment segues the remainder of the segment into the California wildfire issue, introducing Abran Lopez (Amah Mutson) of the Amah Mutson Native American Stewardship Corps, who emphasizes, as he analyzes shells and other cultural burn material at UC Berkeley’s Department of Anthropology, that proactive prescribed burns are the key to mitigating the massive, virtually uncontrollable super fires that serve only to sterilize the land. Near the end of the episode, Aldern speaks about the necessary collaboration between the forest service, fire suppression agencies, and Indigenous people to tend the land for the benefit of all parties involved.
Subsequent episodes apply similar narrative style and filmmaking devices and successfully merge both documentary-style interviews with moving cinematic expression and heartfelt narrative all under 25 minutes.