Episode 5 - A Necessary Disturbance: Cultural Fire on Washoe Tribal Lands in Lake Tahoe

October 8th, 2021

Fire was an integral part of life for the Washoe people and had many applications. Warmth, protection, food preparation, drying materials, and land management being some of them. On episode 5 of the Living With Fire Podcast, environmental specialists Rhiana Jones and Helen Fillmore of the Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada discuss the history of fire on Washoe ancestral lands and how, by using a combination of indigenous and modern land management practices, the tribe is implementing the MÁYALA WÁTA Restoration Project at Meeks Meadow in Tahoe, a culturally important site to the Washoe people.

The Washoe tribe managed the land at Meeks Meadow before the discovery of the “Comstock Lode” in Virginia City in 1859, one of the richest silver mines in American history. They migrated seasonally, living in the Carson Valley during the Winter, and moving up to Tahoe for the Summer. There, they would hunt, fish, and gather food and medicinal plants that grew in the meadow.

“So, this happened for thousands and thousands of years, and then after the Comstock era, they cut it all down for timber, and the meadow, I believe was used for cattle grazing, so it just completely changed the ecosystem, and Washoe’s were driven out of Lake Tahoe. They weren’t allowed to continue their seasonal migration to and from Lake Tahoe, for their summer camps. So, they stopped, essentially, managing the land,” said Jones.

According to Fillmore, studying the history of fire ecology is helping to shed light on how the forced removal of Washoe people and their practices from the land has impacted ecosystems. "Fire is a disturbance, but it's a necessary disturbance. Our gathering practices are a disturbance, but they're a necessary disturbance. Our cooking practices are a disturbance, but a necessary disturbance that these ecosystems have also adapted to. So, when you remove a disturbance, just like when you remove an apex predator from the ecosystem, it totally changes that ecosystem and the health of that ecosystem,” said Fillmore.

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