SFEI collaboration with local Tribe: Reintroducing Native Fire to the Pinnacles

Grass is burned to study Indian culture

Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2011

A smoke-signal-like plume rose up as flames rolled through 2 acres of deergrass at the Pinnacles National Monument to the delight of Indian tribal leaders who lit the blaze and naturalists who monitored it.

The fire was small, but it loomed very large for the American Indian community in California.

The prescribed burn last week was part of a project by the National Park Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and the Amah Mutsun tribal band to learn more about the traditional Indian uses of fire in Central California before European contact.

Deergrass, known scientifically as Mulenbergia rigens, was historically used by California Indian tribes to weave baskets. The preparation of the grasses for use in weaving apparently required regular burning, a process that caused the plant to flower and grow straighter stocks, which make better baskets.

"For us as a tribe, this is a hugely significant event," said Chuck Striplen, a member of the Amah Mutsun tribe and an associate environmental scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute. "This is the first time in well over 100 years that we have been able to deliberately start a cultural burn anywhere on our territory."
Fire ceremony

The burn was on a 2,700-acre site that was recently acquired by the National Park Service on the east side of the Pinnacles, about 30 miles outside of Hollister (San Benito County). The fire was lit using flint by a tribal representative, who then joined a group of American Indians in a ceremonial song, accompanied by the rhythmic beat of clapper sticks.

The 2-acre plot of burned deergrass will be studied over the next few years to see how the grassland habitat reacts to fire. It is adjacent to land thick with root sedge, or Carex barbarae, another plant traditionally used in basket weaving. The sedge will also be thinned out and managed, but not burned, officials said. The health of the two plots will then be compared.

"The Europeans who first arrived in California weren't looking at pristine untouched land. These lands had been managed for some time before them," said Brent Johnson, a botanist for the Pinnacles National Monument. "Our objective is to collect some data and see how these traditional management practices affect native plant populations."
Quiroste village

The burn project, which received $245,000 from the Joint Fire Science Program of the Bureau of Land Management, is an extension of a study the Amah Mutsun band started several years ago at the Quiroste Indian village site in Año Nuevo State Park.

The Quiroste village is where the sick and exhausted members of the expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá rested in 1769. A few days later, the expedition climbed Sweeney Ridge and became the first Europeans to spot San Francisco Bay.

It was another Indian group - the Chalon band - that lived in the Pinnacles area before Europeans arrived, Striplen said. The Chalon and Quiroste were among many small bands scattered throughout Northern and Central California, which was one of the most densely populated areas in the Western Hemisphere before colonization. At the time, eight languages and many dialects were spoken by Indians just between what became San Francisco and Monterey.
Cultures vanish

By 1805, less than half a century after European contact, almost all of the Indian cultures in the region had been absorbed into the Spanish missions, with only a few scattered bands hiding in the hills.

The Amah Mutsun are documented descendants of the Indians from Mission San Juan Bautista and Mission Santa Cruz, where most of the surviving Indians in the area ended up.

Striplen said the fire history of Año Nuevo and the Pinnacles site will be analyzed using, among other things, tree ring data and other biological and chemical techniques.

The burning will give researchers a chance to study the effect of fire on plant fitness and biology, invasive species, wildlife habitat, groundwater and soil nutrients.

"The idea is not to restore the landscape to what we had in 1769, but to understand it better so that we can manage the land better," Striplen said. "We're spending a lot of money on restoration these days, and there is still a question about what we should restore it to. We're looking at how Native Americans managed their cultural resources and how that information is pertinent to contemporary land-use restoration."
Relearning traditions

It is important, Johnson said, because California will need to know how best to manage the land as the ecosystem changes as a result of climate change. It is also important for American Indians, many of whom are trying to relearn their cultural traditions.

"Certainly the information we come up with will be shared and certainly could be used by other tribes and other land managers." Johnson said. "Native Americans used to burn almost every year, and then one day it stopped and it never happened again. What we're hoping to do is bring back that process that has all but disappeared in California. That, to me, is moving."