Indigenous Knowledge Trees & Forests

2023 February Indigenous Plant Wisdom

Image from BC Greenhouse Builders.

An Indigenous reservation has a novel way to grow food – below the earth’s surface

A fascinating article by Hallie Golden highlights how members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota are improving food security and community resilience in the face of climate change. Underground greenhouses, called walipini are helping the people to take back control of their nutrition and ease farming amid the climate crisis, which has seen floods, high winds and hailstorms destroy outdoor crops and regular greenhouses. See also, this earlier article from the BBC about similar technologies being used in Bolivia: Farming underground in a fight against climate change.

A new study led by SMU suggests “cultural burning” could potentially weaken the role of climate in triggering today’s wildfires. Credit: Chris Guiterman

For 400 years, Indigenous tribes buffered climate’s impact on wildfires in the American Southwest

Adding to a growing body of evidence, new research from Southern Methodist University suggests bringing “good fire” back to the U.S. and other wildfire fire-prone areas, as Native Americans once did, could potentially blunt the role of climate in triggering today’s wildfires. The age-old Native American tradition of “cultural burning” appears to have previously weakened—though not entirely eliminated—the link between climate conditions and fire activity for roughly 400 years in the southwestern United States. Studying a network of 4,824 fire-scarred trees in Arizona and New Mexico, where the Apache, Navajo and Jemez tribes lived, SMU fire anthropologist Christopher Roos and other researchers found that the typical climate-fire pattern from 1500 to 1900 reflected one to three years of above-average rainfall—allowing vegetation to grow—followed by a fire-fueling year of significant drought. But the pattern was broken when Native American tribes performed traditional burning practices, according to the group’s study published in Science Advances.

See also:

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

Forests in protected Indigenous lands are healthier, scientists find

Over the last two centuries, human actions have resulted in rising temperatures, a massive carbon imbalance, and tremendous biodiversity loss. However, there are cases in which human stewardship seems to help remediate this damage. Researchers publishing in the journal Current Biology examined tropical forests across Asia, Africa and the Americas and found that the forests located on protected Indigenous lands were the healthiest, highest functioning, most diverse, and most ecologically resilient. Understanding how Indigenous management leads to better outcomes is key to a more equitable approach to conservation. Sze hopes that she and her colleagues can continue to understand how Indigenous land rights and management fit into our conservation policy. “My research is very much inspired by what decolonial climate movements are trying to achieve, in trying to have Indigenous communities and local communities have more autonomy over these spaces,” she says.

Arborist Steve Houser examines the California Crossing tree, a pecan with a bent trunk that points to a low-water crossing in Dallas. Photo by: Michael Amador.

If These Trees Could Talk

No historical marker indicates that this particular pecan tree near the grounds of the Texas National Guard Armory in northwest Dallas is special—just the fact that its trunk grows along the ground for about 25 feet before turning upward. Sometimes natural forces, such as ice storms, can bend trees into strange shapes like this. But for this pecan, its shape is no accident. Steve Houser, a local arborist and founding member of the Texas Historic Tree Coalition, traces his fingers over scars on the tree’s trunk, signs indicating humans may have lashed down the trunk with yucca rope some 150 years ago, when it was a flexible sapling. The bent tree, known as the California Crossing marker tree, points to a low-water crossing on the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, offering valuable information to those who would have recognized it as a marker tree. “The typical settler would go right by,” says Houser, chairman of the coalition’s Indian Marker Tree Committee. “A Comanche would see it and follow it. Trees told them where to go to.” He has been studying marker trees for more than 20 years and last year released a book on the topic, Comanche Marker Trees of Texas, co-authored with Jimmy W. Arterberry, the Comanche Nation tribal administrator, and Linda Pelon, a Waco anthropologist. With the extra publicity of the book, members of the public have come forward with many more posibilities. Houser now has a list of 176 potential marker trees. The article goes on to note that marker trees must be at least 150 years old, are usually long-lived native species, like bur oaks or pecans, and may be scarred where they were deliberately altered or tied down. The presence of arrowheads near the trees can help to bolster the case.

Indigenous Knowledge

Food Sovereignty in Wabanaki Communities

Fruit and nut tree program aims to promote food sovereignty in Wabanaki communities: A U.S.-based Indigenous non-profit is trying to help Wabanaki communities have access to sustainable foods by distributing fruit and nut trees.

Nibezun is based in Passadumkeag, Maine, roughly 50 kilometres northeast of Bangor, and is offering up to 300 beach plum, elderberry or American hazelnut trees to interested community members.

The Wabanaki Confederacy consists of the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqey, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Abenaki nations. Kassidy Bernard is L’nu (Mi’kmaw for person of the land) from We’koqma’q First Nation, about 240 kilometres northeast of Halifax, and uses they/them pronouns.

Bernard was thrilled to learn about the food security initiative because they want to implement a food sharing program in their community. “Having that, to rely on each other and to sustain ourselves for such a basic need, it’s such a big reassurance to me,” said Bernard.