Tradition and the new timber meet in Plumas National Forest
Members and employees of the Greenville Indian Rancheria, including honored elders in the larger Mountain Maidu community, have been working to combine traditional ecological knowledge with modern forestry and firefighting practices in conjunction with the Forest Service.
The Rancheria has fledged a firefighting crew, with members who have trained extensively with help from Bureau of Indian Affairs instructor Arnold DeGarmo.
They are dispatched to wildland fire incidents and work on habitat enhancement projects, including hazardous fuel reduction, prescription burns and other activities.
One recent project was a cultural burn on the forest near Canyon Dam.
They wished to improve the bear grass there, a natural resource that has been used for basket weaving by the local Mountain Maidu for centuries.
The project was planned and framed according to Forest Service protocol, yet with flexibility to accommodate the Maidu beliefs and practices.
Rancheria crewmembers, and honored elder Franklin “Frenchie” Mullen, were among those who gathered at the site early, for a traditional blessing of the ground using sage.
When Forest Service personnel arrived, it was time to talk about how to actually start the burn.
The modern gas or propane-fired torch was not an acceptable method due to concern for the basket weavers, who must later put bear grass in their mouths to soften it.
Different methods were attempted, and the fire eventually did successfully ignite, with help from crewmembers who knelt to blow on hot embers.
The project actually began nine years ago with help from former Forest Service archaeologist Marsha Ackerman.
Larry Craggs, now retired from the Plumas National Forest, recognized the crew in August 2010 for its professionalism, outstanding commitment to safety and exceptional effort while suppressing the Bar Fire.
It operates under a memorandum of understanding, which is a government-to-government protocol agreement.
While both parties have similar interests in fuels management and habitat enhancement, the Maidu have added cultural interests.
Text from a similar memorandum they hope to make with the Lassen National Forest explains their goals:
“Protecting cultural resources while providing a fire management environment which fosters focused attention to safety, incident objectives and firefighting fundamentals, will be furthered when all parties work together to understand one another’s priorities and responsibilities.”
Assistant Fire Chief Danny Manning helped recruit Rancheria crewmembers, all but one of who represent several different tribes.
They enjoyed teaching children and youths about modern fire prevention as well as the cultural uses of fire during the annual summer camp hosted by the Roundhouse Council, a Native American education center based in Greenville.
Crewmembers have also worked in the forest north of Greenville, where they tended the ground according to both traditional and Forest Service specifications.
When they came to a spot of cultural significance and did not want to disturb it, they would just note it and move on.
While there, Manning found a medicinal herb. He plucked a bit and poked it down into his plastic bottle of water.
He let it steep for a while in the sun, and then drank the tea.
He also found a perfect limb to begin a cradleboard with — one his future son will rest in.
There was a dying cedar they asked to cut down, even though it was not part of the current slate of work.
They wished to harvest the wood for carving and heating, and the bark for the construction of a traditional Maidu house.
Crewmembers were allowed to keep some smaller trees, as well, which would be used for poles in the construction.
“I was surprised it was so waterproof,” Manning said of the bark house.
Being able to gather a few useful items is another benefit to this new meeting between the tradition of California Indians and the practices of the modern Forest Service.