The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



Restoring habitats and justice for indigenous peoples

| Friday, February 25, 2022

As a Californian, I have borne witness to the ever-growing climate crisis in many forms, but none are more concerning to me than the rampant wildfires plaguing my home region. While we are out of the wildfire season for the time being, it is important now more than ever to reflect on the shades of complexity that this issue deals with, especially as it relates to the intersection of climate and social justice issues. 

When we look at solutions for the wildfire problem, we look to the experiences of Native communities who have dealt with fires in the region for generations. My ancestors experienced similar issues of property rights and wrongdoing. With the fires affecting my family personally, this growing issue weighs heavily on me.

Northern California tribes like the Yurok and Karuk viewed controlled, deliberate burns on their lands as vital. This practice not only helped protect habitats from more dangerous fires, but it also helped control invasive species spread and aided in native plant reproduction, among other environmental benefits. These cultural controlled burns have also aided in the marketplaces of tribes like these, particularly for craft practices. 

But development and migration in the modern wildlife-urban interface, combined with centuries of blatant disrespect for indigenous land, have led to disallowing this sustainable practice. This result is not only a matter of cultural erasure, it is quite literally a matter of life and death for some.

Needless to say, the stakes are quite high for a matter such as this one. 

It is imperative that these native lands and practices be reinstated so that restorative justice can take place and nature can begin to heal. Wildfire prevention techniques are interwoven into the cultural heritage and practices of tribes that have been run out of their lands, Native Americans whose rights historically have been grossly violated. Now, in a turn of events, the populations not native to these fire-vulnerable areas must also turn back to the expertise of those who came before them. 

To further investigate and to take steps in solving the issues of climate change-related wildfires, we must look to sustainable solutions and to do that, we must first reckon with the historical acts of injustice committed against indigenous peoples in these areas and beyond. We must restore and repair what has been done to transform these areas, and we must sacrifice some modern comforts for the greater good of fire-prone areas. 

We must embrace two aspects of life in these areas that we have for too long ignored or stifled. We must shift our thinking on controlled burns, a form of “preventative medicine” for wildfires as well as on Indigenous rights. First, the idea that this land is meant to be occupied in a commercially palatable way, serving market and consumer interests alone is a system of thinking that is not working out. We must recognize and adapt our wildlife-urban interface to match the needs of the ecosystems at play. Second, we must right the wrongs of the land in question and restore its ownership. 

Alexa Schlaerth is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame pursuing degrees in Chinese and philosophy. As an Angeleno, Alexa enjoys shopping at Erewhon Market, drinking kombucha and complaining about traffic because it’s “like, totally lame.” Alexa can be reached at [email protected] over email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Tags: , ,

About Alexa Schlaerth

Contact Alexa