Chapter 1: “Management is Culture:” Traditional Ecological Knowledge and
the Practice of Traditional Management

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Picking up tan oak acorns before a Fall burn, October 2015. Photo: Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative

The exceptional biological diversity of the Klamath River region Northern California and Southern Oregon has emerged in conjunction with sophisticated Karuk land management practices, including the regulation of the fisheries through ceremony and the management of the forest through fire. Together Karuk traditional ecological knowledge and management practices have created the ecological system of the middle Klamath region as it exists today (Karuk Tribe ECRMP 2012, Hillman and Salter 1997, Andersen 2006). Karuk practices of tending, burning, and harvesting have fundamentally shaped species abundance and diversity. Furthermore, the practice of traditional management and knowledge are themselves essential expressions of Karuk culture. Traditional knowledge organizes a system of caring for and responding to the natural world that has been ongoing on the mid- Klamath since time immemorial. Indeed, the species abundance and diversity of this region cannot be understood outside the Karuk knowledge and management activities that produced them (Agee and Skinner 2005, Andersen, 2002). This chapter begins with descriptions of some management activities that Karuk people have conducted in the mid-Klamath region, giving examples of both particular species that are managed and utilized, as well as a range of the kinds of activities that constitute traditional management.

Karuk Practices of Caring for the Land: Tending, Burning, Ceremony
Indigenous peoples have been pigeonholed by social scientists into one of two categories, “Hunter-gatherer” or “agriculturalist,” obscuring the ancient role of many indigenous peoples as wildland managers and limiting their use of and impacts on nature to the two extremes of human intervention. The images evoked by the term hunter-gatherer is of a wanderer or nomad, plucking berries and pinching greens and living a hand-to-mouth existence; agriculturalist, at the other extreme, refers to one who completely transforms wildland environments, saves and sows seed, and clears engulfing vegetation by means of fire and hand weeding. This dichotomous view of nature-human interactions has shut out the fact that Indian groups across California practiced many diverse approaches to land use, and it has led to a focus on domestication as the only way humans can influence plans and animals and shape natural environments.
Kat Andersen, Tending the Wild, 2006, p. 125

Although this third model of “wildland managers” located between “hunter- gatherer” and “agriculturalist” is now generally understood, the full implications of the notion that people have “tended” California landscapes for a long time remains difficult for non-Indian academics or natural resource practitioners to grasp. From a practical standpoint, this knowledge makes clear that rather than the concept of an “untouched” wilderness that European settlers had assumed, California landscapes were more akin to carefully tended gardens. What natural scientists have described as “nature” and “natural history” is in fact a human-natural history. For example, fire records in California clearly indicates that Native land management system have significantly shaped the evolutionary course of plant species and communities for at least twelve thousand years for which there are records. Traditional management through fire has influenced the size, extent, pattern, structure and composition of the flora and fauna of numerous vegetation types throughout the state (Andersen, 2006).

In the mid-Klamath region, the distribution and abundance of species has been fundamentally shaped by the Karuk use of fire. Skinner et al. (2006) write that “Native people of the Klamath Mountains used fire in many ways: (1) to promote production of plants for food (e.g., acorns, berries, roots) and fiber (e.g., basket materials); (2) for ceremonial purposes; and (3) to improve hunting conditions” (176). The Karuk Tribe Draft Eco-Cultural Resources Management Plan notes that “Fire caused by natural and human ignitions affects the distribution, abundance, composition, structure and morphology of trees, shrubs, forbs, and grasses” (4, 2010).

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Bear grass harvested and ready for weaving after having been burned. Photo: Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative

People burned to facilitate forest quality for food species like elk, deer, acorns, mushrooms, and lilies. They burned for basketry materials such as hazel and willow, and also to keep open travel routes. Karuk people managed for their own foods and uses, but their activities created abundance that benefited other species on their own terms. In the words of Dr. Frank Lake Karuk Descendant and USDA Forest Service research ecologist, in describing what he was taught and learned of Karuk culture: “as a human, you have a caretaking responsibility. And so you managed areas to share acorns, to share mushrooms, to share berries to share grass seeds.”


Although the impact of fire on the ecology of forest species are most immediately apparent, burning also affects inputs to riparian systems. The Karuk Draft Eco-Cultural Management Plan outlines how “Certain trees and shrubs utilize water more than others, fire affects this relationship (Fiteset et al. 2006). The distribution of forests, shrubs, and grasslands, affects the process of infiltration from precipitation and resultant levels of evaporation with how those plants utilized water (DeBano et al. 1998). The balance of water in and water out, leading to the amount of moisture in the soil and the quantity and quality of springs is influenced by fire (Biswell 1999:157).” Karuk fisheries biologist and spiritual leader Kenneth Brink describes this relationship:

We did our fire management, which enabled to put more water into the tribs (tributaries), say like on a drought year, you take all your understory out, like all these blackberries and stuff would never be here. These alders would not be all big. There might be one or two big ones making a shade instead on all these little suckers. I mean, you didn’t see the alder, and didn’t see willow trees, you saw willow brush. I mean a lot of this foliage takes up a lot of water.

In the mid-Klamath the practice of burning created good conditions for the growth of many important Karuk food and cultural use species, from Tan Oaks, huckleberries and Manzanita to deer, elk and mushroom species, see Figure 1 below. Over three quarters of Karuk traditional food and cultural use species are enhanced by fire (Personal communication, Tripp 2013 intergenerational TEK). Furthermore, forest stands that had been burned were open enough for people to access them in order to gather. As Karuk Eco-Cultural Restoration Specialist and spiritual leader Bill Tripp describes

They used to roll logs off the top of Offield Mountain as part of the World Renewal Ceremony in September, right in the height of fire season so that whole mountain was in a condition to where it wouldn’t burn hot. It would burn around to some rocky areas and go out. It would burn slow. Creep down the hill over a matter of days until it just finally went out. When it rained it would go out and that’s what we wanted it to do.

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Not only has the longstanding record of indigenous management in California now been corroborated by Western Science, academics and historians alike concur as to the extraordinary effectiveness of these systems:

No country in the world was as well supplied by Nature, with food for man, as California, when first discovered by the Spaniards. Every one of its early visitors has left records to this effect – they all found its hills, valleys and plains filled with elk, deer, hares, rabbits, quail and other animals fit for food; its rivers and lakes swarming with salmon, trout, and other fish, their beds and banks covered with mussels, clams, and other edible mollusca; the rocks on its sea shores crowded with seal and otter; and its forests full of trees and plants, bearing acorns, nuts, seeds and berries.

 Titus Fey Cronise, The Natural Wealth of California, 1868 cited in Andersen Tending the Wild, 2005, p. 15

This profound ecological abundance was created through coordinated management between forest and fisheries, and amongst multiple tribal communities. Karuk people and their neighbors had the technology to overexploit the resource (e.g. in the form of weirs), but chose not to. For example, on the Klamath through coordinated ceremonial regulation and custom, tribal fishery management for centuries sustained an annual harvest of salmon equal to the peak of the harvest achieved by white settlers in only one year (House 1999; McEvoy 1986: 23). Under tribal management weirs were built by Karuk at Red Cap Creek and by Yurok further down the Klamath River below Pecwan, but no one began harvesting fish until a priest and his assistants performed a 10-day ceremony to catch the first salmon of the year at Ameekyáaraam.

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Coho Salmon. Photo: Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative

According to Karuk Ceremonial Leader and Director of the Department of Natural Resources Leaf Hillman, “Because the first fish [was] caught at Ameekyáaraam, they say the ‘fish medicine’ was made there.” After the first fish was caught, it was not consumed, but was ceremoniously offered on an altar. Only after this ceremony was completed were the Tribes along the mid and lower Klamath River permitted to fish. According to Hillman, the, “ceremony is the respect, up and down the river, for that system of management that allows for…adequate spawning or escapement…meeting the needs of the resource first, prior to thinking about the needs of your own folks.” A similar ritual took place for the Fall Chinook run.

Rituals such as these fused together both religious meaning and economic practice. They limited harvests so all tribes were able to depend on salmon as a primary food source. The survival of the salmon and the people were phenomena that mutually reinforced the ideological premise for this system, since, if the salmon kept returning in bountiful numbers, then reverence to the salmon (as seen in the practice of limiting the harvest of salmon so they can reproduce) was rewarded.[1]

Unfortunately the invasion of Karuk territory by non-Native setters disrupted these ceremonies and cultural systems. In addition, the exclusion of fire began as official policy in the early 1900s with the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service as the official land manager of the region, and increased in intensity during the period following World War II. Studies of the Klamath mountain region note “two periods with distinctly different fire regimes: (1) the Native American period, which usually includes both the pre-historic and European settlement period, and (2) the fire suppression period” (Skinner et al 2006, 176). The authors also note that

Over the 400 years prior to effective fire suppression, there are no comparable fire-free periods when large landscapes experienced decades without fires simultaneously across the bioregion (Agee 1991; Wills and Stuart 1994; Taylor and Skinner 1998, 2003; Stuart and Salazar 2000; Skinner 2003a, 2003b). Along with these changes in the fire regimes are changes in landscape vegetation patterns. Before fire suppression, fires of higher spatial complexity created openings of variable size within a matrix of forest that was generally more open than today (Taylor and Skinner 1998). This heterogeneous pattern has been replaced by a more homogenous pattern of smaller openings in a matrix of denser forests (Skinner 1995a). Thus, spatial complexity has been reduced (178-179).

Across the Western United States a similar pattern of altered ecology in the absence of traditional management occurs. As noted in the 2012 Final Report of Phase II of the Wildland Fire Cohesive Management Strategy

“Practices such as pruning, burning and coppicing at regular intervals once contributed significantly to historic landscape resiliency and community livelihood. Access to abundant and quality hunting, fishing, and gathering areas as well as other traditional, ceremonial, or religious fire use factors have experienced significant decline following fire exclusion” (USDA, 2012, 30).

Western Science and Traditional Knowledge As Distinct Cosmologies

Today there is a new and unique opportunity in the emergent interest in the use and application of traditional Karuk knowledge by Western scientists and non-Native land management agencies.

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Huckleberries burning, October 2015. Photo: Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative

For Tribes within the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative such as the Karuk where significant knowledge of traditional management practices is intact, but where all or part of ancestral lands are managed by other agencies, it is important that the implementation of management take place in a manner that promotes rather than hinders tribal sovereignty and tribal trust. In the past there have been instances in which the USFS and other agencies have employed or attempted to employ management techniques derived from Karuk management (e.g. concerning prescribed burning), but these efforts have been carried out improperly and without proper credit to the Tribe. Leaf Hillman describes the frustration of these different perspectives:

“You do a paper on TEK and we talk about specific practices, you write them down on a piece of paper and then the Forest Service thinks that they can take that. “Okay, we paid for this under a contract for you guys to develop this, so now we are going to take this and apply it.” Just the notion that they can apply those things, within their structure — within the boxes that they have — as if they just knew what they were. “Tell us what they are, and if you describe them well enough then we can apply those things.” But they can’t just apply those concepts, because what they require is cultural practices of a land-based people. They must be used by people who are on the land, not people who are separate from the land as part of a government agency. Government agencies still don’t see themselves as part of the land. They don’t see themselves that way, and they shouldn’t see themselves that way because they are not!”

In other cases the lack of clear protections and process regarding tribal knowledge has inadvertently resulted in cultural appropriation.[2]

The very concept of “traditional ecological knowledge” as a stand-alone phrase implies that Karuk “knowledge” is a discrete entity. The Western scientific cosmology presumes that the world can be categorized into “facts,” that knowledge exists in the abstract outside particular contexts, and observers are interchangeable. However the kind of knowledge that has co-created the mid-Klamath ecosystem of today, is situated and embedded in specific ecological and cultural context. Thus, agency practitioners and western scientists have assumed that this “knowledge” of how to burn the forest or how to manage the fisheries can be described by Karuk people, shared in various agency processes and then applied by multiple actors in different contexts. Underlying this assumption are two very different understandings about the nature of knowledge. While the non-Native world sees “people” as separate from “nature,” and “knowledge” as an abstraction that can be transferred across generic landscapes or multiple “users,” Karuk knowledge of the landscape is inseparable from the practice of Karuk culture. For Karuk knowledge is embedded in and emerges from the practice of traditional management. Knowledge and management are about culture. Part of understanding why knowledge cannot be readily “picked up and used” by other agencies has to do with the nature of indigenous knowledge not as a static, one size fits all rulebook or recipe book for actions on the landscape, but rather how that knowledge is generated through an ongoing process that involves not only observations and actions over time, but moral and spiritual components as well as ‘social license’ of knowledge practitioners. The practices that generate Karuk TEK are organized around the economic, cultural, social needs of particular communities, which in turn create accountability as a mechanism underscoring its ultimate sustainability. Thus, traditional methods literally could not work if they are under non-traditional goals. Not only is a true understanding of what Karuk knowledge actually prescribes impossible for scientists to gain in a short time because it is encoded in Karuk language and cultural life in ways that only someone who spent years learning about Karuk could even come close to understanding, traditional knowledge is often underlined by standards of ethical treatment of nonhumans that rule out many scientific methods that would violate these standards.

There are other “practical” ways that Karuk and Western knowledge systems are organized that prohibit the kind of “sharing” that many non-Native agency practitioners might envision. As Citizen Potawatomi Philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte points out, in many cases traditional knowledge systems cannot be used by scientists or agency staff because the scientists and agency staff do not have the family structures and social systems to truly implement particular traditional practices such as fire regimes given the fact that there are no children in most federal agencies to do the activities designated for children. And from an ethical level, often knowledge cannot or should not be shared because it imposes unique risks on Karuk traditional practitioners (e.g. risks that scientists do not have to bear). Sharing knowledge could for example disclose a sacred place or hunting ground that should not go public. In the context of recent aggressive University copyright practices the risks to traditional practitioners from sharing traditional knowledge are even greater.

At the end of the day, it is important for everyone to realize that attempts to try to separate Karuk TEK from the context of traditional management, and in turn to extricate traditional management out of the cultural, spiritual and social context is a form of extraction. Even the notion of “traditional ecological knowledge” as a “stand alone” concept can only be conceptualized as a result of a deep commitment to the belief that humans are separate from the earth. This formulation of a divide between nature and culture is directly opposite from that which is actually occurring. Furthermore, to imagine that “traditional knowledge” could be thus separated or removed is on the one hand a negation of the human experiences and needs of the Karuk community.

Management Is Culture: The Integration of Ecological, Economic, Cultural and Health Outcomes of Traditional Management

 Too frequently, the significance of American Indian relationships with the natural world are at best lost in over glamorized and essentialized characterizations of Noble Savages, or at worst, entirely invisible. To comprehend and acknowledge Karuk relationships with knowledge, management and other species requires non-Indians to recognize not only the depth of the human scale of Native American genocide, but the fact that this genocide has also been an assault on a spiritual order that nourished and governed an entire field of ecological relationships.

Not only is Karuk traditional knowledge inseparable from its ecological and cultural context in the mid-Klamath, there are multiple benefits to both people and the landscape from this ongoing system of human-landscape interactions. This report describes the ecological, social, political, psychological and economic impacts of denied access to participation in traditional management for the Karuk community as fundamentally interconnected. As Karuk Cultural Biologist, dipnet fisherman and spiritual leader Ron Reed explains:

Without fire the landscape changes dramatically. And in that process the traditional foods that we need for a sustainable lifestyle become unavailable after a certain point. So what that does to the tribal community, the reason we are going back to that landscape is no longer there. So the spiritual connection to the landscape is altered significantly. When there is no food, when there is no food for regalia species, that we depend upon for food and fiber, when they aren’t around because there is no food for them, then there is no reason to go there. When we don’t go back to places that we are used to, accustomed to, part of our lifestyle is curtailed dramatically. So you have health consequences. Your mental aspect of life is severed from the spiritual relationship with the earth, with the Great Creator. So we’re not getting the nutrition that we need, we’re not getting the exercise that we need, and we’re not replenishing the spiritual balance that creates harmony and diversity throughout the landscape.

Well-meaning attempts to use particular ideas or practices by non-Native agencies have cued into the ecological benefits of traditional management, but have followed Western assumptions about the both the nature of knowledge and the separation of nature and culture. In so doing they fail to see the fundamental interconnections between the ecological and the social. When non-Tribal agencies and organizations use their (often) greater institutional capacity to attempt to adopt and use elements of Karuk TEK (e.g. burning) these actions becomes a form of cultural appropriation and deprive the Karuk community of the opportunity to carry out their own culture. Non-Tribal actors outside the Karuk Tribe are very much needed to work alongside the Karuk Tribe to communicate the message of the importance of Tribal management and especially to implement policies to enact that management.

The bulk of this Social Impact Assessment is directed towards addressing the multiple social, economic, and health benefits that come to the Karuk community from participation in the process of traditional knowledge generation and its application through management. Indeed Karuk culture, economy, spirituality and social relations have in turn been fundamentally impacted by the loss of knowledge sovereignty and the resulting altered ecology on the Klamath. Ten Bear ElkTake for example, one ecological change such as the reduction of foraging habitat for elk as described in the passage above. This encroachment of brush means fewer opportunities for successful hunting, that in turn affects diet, food supply, the ability to engage in barter and trade, fewer social activities associated with hunting, the ability to properly conduct ceremonies, and overall cultural identity. Individuals who are unable to provide for their families and communities experience role stress and threats to their identity as Karuk people, or as men when they are unable to fulfill prescribed roles as hunters and providers with fewer elk to hunt. On a larger scale the Karuk Tribe faces political challenges concerning the potential erosion of tribal sovereignty in the face of continued lack of recognition of land title and taking of resources by Federal and State agencies. Chapter Two will address the issue of explicit criminalization of Karuk knowledge and cultural practice. Criminalization of cultural practice matters for sovereignty because it directly prohibits the enactment of practices needed for the regeneration of knowledge. Karuk culture and ecological knowledge are lost when the actions of the state deny Karuk people access to the land and food resources needed to sustain culture and livelihood. Chapters Three, Four and Five will address each component of these fundamentally interconnected economic, social and health impacts.

[1] Such sustainable ecological systems are not unique to the Karuk. See e.g. Trosper 1995, Trosper 2002.

[2] Note that ethically speaking, appropriation of knowledge, even in cases where one party gains and the other party is not foreseably harmed is still a form of exploitation. This is so because the party that remains the same has not consented to someone’s using something of theirs for their own benefit. This is clearly established in the recently published Federal Guidelines on Traditional Knowledges guidelines acknowledged by DOI: http://climatetkw.wordpress.com/

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