Applying traditional fire to dry grass on Yunesit’in traditional territory in western Canada. (Supplied: Josh Neufeld/Gathering Voices Society)
In a clearing surrounded by burnt pine forest in western Canada, a match is dropped into a patch of tinder-dry grass.
- Australian Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen is working with traditional owners in Canada
- He is working them to share knowledge of traditional burning practices for land management and protection
- Indigenous communities in Canada used similar practises for generations but much of the knowledge has been lost but is now being reinvigorated
Australian Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen is in Tsilhqot’in territory on the invitation of the Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in communities, part of the Tsilhqot’in Nation.
“Indigenous burning is activating the landscape to bring it back to life,” Mr Steffensen said as he watched the match burn, “to look after biodiversity and stop the country burning to nothing”.
In 2017, just three years after the Tsilhqot’in Nation won Aboriginal title to a vast area of their traditional homeland in a landmark ruling of the Canadian Supreme Court, large areas of Tsilhqot’in territory were destroyed in the largest wildfires in the region’s history.
“I don’t know if people realise that no one living will see this land recover to its full potential,” Mr Steffensen said.
“But the interesting part for me is how to we speed up that recovery through Indigenous knowledge.”
Bridging Indigenous knowledge across the world
Mr Steffensen has spent over 20 years working with Indigenous communities in Australia to recover their traditional fire practices, work he started with two Kuku-Thayapn elders from Cape York in far north Queensland.
His trips to Canada mark the second time he has worked with traditional owners, on country with fire, outside Australia.
“It’s not about going to peoples’ country and saying ‘this is how you burn’. It’s about bridging principles and trying to recover their knowledge from their own country,” he said.
Australian Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen in Yunesit’in traditional territory in western Canada. (Supplied: Ngaio Hotte/Gathering Voices Society)
Through the support of the Gathering Voices Society, a Vancouver-based charitable foundation, Mr Steffensen spent time on country in November 2018, observing and talking to the Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in people.
“When I first went over there it was totally alien to me. There’s snow, all different species of pine and other trees,” Mr Steffensen said.
“So it was all about working with the traditional owners there to learn the country. It was like starting all over again, except this time I had a better understanding from our own knowledge and experiences.
“I was able to learn the trees, see the similarities in the soils and even similarities in the cultural uses, and their response to fire.”
In April 2019, Victor returned to Tsilhqot’in country with Dr William Nikolakis, the executive director of Gathering Voices Society, and the first fire was lit.
“Lighting that first match in the grass, you didn’t know what to expect,” said Russell Myers Ross, chief of the Yunesit’in Government.
“And then when you see that yellow dry grass dissipate and the lush grass survive you realise that fire is meant to be here.
“This is something that’s been done for generations on generations, and something that’s been suppressed. We are just trying to reinvigorate something that was always within us.”
Victor Steffensen conducting a traditional burn with Russell Myers Ross, chief of the Yunesit’in Government. (Supplied: Ngaio Hotte/Gathering Voices Society)
“It was a quick flash fire, but it sure brought out the green,” said Yunesit’in fire practitioner Duane Hink.
“And then, right around the corner after we burnt yesterday and this today, we had deer coming in. So in a way their instincts are showing.
“When I was small, running around, there were berries everywhere. Every single gully you could pick a raspberry. In my short time, I’ve seen the land change a lot.”
For chief Russell Myers Ross, reviving traditional fire keeping practice is not just about healing land, but healing people.
“Having a landscape that is in constant turmoil or stress, not knowing that plants are replenishing themselves, it’s hard on our community,” Mr Ross said.
“We’re in flux trying to understand our own landscape and how to provide for ourselves.
“The goal is different, it’s not just protecting forests but it’s trying to put a different light on our way of life and how we should be treating the land from year to year, season to season.”
Yunesit’in fire practitioner Duane Hink working with Australian Victor Steffensen. (Supplied: Josh Neufeld/Gathering Voices Society)
Facing a global climate crisis
The role of Indigenous knowledge systems in mitigating and adapting to climate change was recognised in the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement.
Two years later, at the 23rd Climate Conference in Bonn, a pilot project of the International Savanna Fire Management Initiative was announced, harnessing Australian traditional Indigenous fire knowledge and led by the Kimberley Land Council.
In May 2019, rangers from Kimberley Land Council travelled to Botswana to apply fire to the landscape using traditional Indigenous methods from both countries.
The initiative is backed by the Australian Government with funding of up to $3.87 million over four years and potential implementation in savanna ecosystems in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Its aim is to reduce the number and extent of high-intensity wildfires and associated carbon emissions.
Mr Steffensen is due to return to Canada with the support of the Gathering Voices Society in April to continue his work with Tsilhqot’in communities to rebuild the practice of fire keeping.
Gathering Voices Society staff are working with experts to develop a recognised carbon methodology to measure carbon emissions and generate carbon credits available for sale under the Verified Carbon Standard.
“The fact that we can demonstrate bridging knowledge from one place to another demonstrates how we can use Indigenous knowledge,” Mr Steffensen said.
“People ask ‘how does Indigenous knowledge help?’ Well this is how it helps, by drawing knowledge out of landscapes and finding solutions.
“I’m not saying the solutions are the same, the methods in reviving knowledge are similar.”
A traditional burn on Yunesit’in land in western Canada. (Supplied: Josh Neufeld/Gathering Voices Society)
For Mr Steffensen it will take many generations to heal sick landscapes, but he believes it is crucial that those living today take the first step.
“The urgency has passed. There are animals that are already extinct, our elders have already passed, knowledge already gone to the grave,” he said.
“There’s devastating fires all around the world, there’s sickness within landscape. What more can I say? We need to start acting now.
“We’re past our due date, but I believe that there’s still time.”
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