Bridging Knowledge Systems: Indigenous Fire Stewardship Practices Within Western Fire Management

Lead image: We Are Fire project team. Image courtesy of B/W Photo

Wildfires occur across the world every year. Whether caused by a lightning strike or human activity, fire is inevitable. While it can be destructive, it is also natural, historical, and essential for the health of many plants, wildlife, and ecosystems. 

At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive that a fire, capable of burning plant life and endangering animals, could promote ecological health and be intricately tied to Indigenous cultural practices. However, many plants, animals and even entire ecosystems have evolved to depend on fire. It can help to clear away dead vegetation, open space for new growth, and recycle nutrients back into the soil, fostering regeneration. 

Fire as a land management practice is not a new concept. Indigenous Peoples around the world have been using fire to shape landscapes since time immemorial. In Canada, processes of colonization suppressed this traditional practice, leading to a loss of culture and an increased risk of wildfires. 

As wildfires become increasingly severe and destructive, British Columbia, and other parts of the world, are working to embrace more holistic forest management strategies including the use of fire as a management tool. This comes with an increased respect for Indigenous fire stewardship and a desire for First Nations to take a leadership role in fire management once again.

Uniting Indigenous traditional fire knowledge into Western fire management practices was a topic at the May 2023 Wildfire Resiliency and Training Summit, organized by FireSmart BC. The event brought together wildfire practitioners, including First Nations and Métis Peoples from across BC and beyond to share knowledge, best practices, and innovative approaches to mitigate the impact of wildfires on communities and homelands. 

One of the presentations that highlighted the importance of harmonizing Indigenous fire practices with settler and state-led fire management was led by Renée and Solomon Carrière, and Cliff Buettner (Director of Forestry and Emergency Protective Services, Prince Albert Grand Council) who presented on the Muskrats to Moose Project in the Saskatchewan River Delta. 

Case Study: The Muskrats to Moose Project 

The Muskrats to Moose Project is an Indigenous-led initiative focused on reviving traditional land stewardship practices and restoring balance to ecosystems by bringing “good fire” back to the land in the Saskatchewan River Delta. The project draws upon the collective expertise of its team members in cross-cultural relationship building, education and land-based learning, expressive arts, forestry, Indigenous and intergovernmental relations, natural resource management, public policy and administration, water resource management and wildfire science (Indigenous-led fire practices and settler and state-led fire management).

A graphic of a group of people in canoes

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Illustration by Tanya Gadsby, Fuselight Creative, from the We Are Fire toolkit 

It all began with Renée and Solomon Carrière and their daughter, Michela Carrière, who are passionate advocates for traditional land stewardship practices and ecosystem restoration. Hailing from the village of Cumberland House on Treaty 5 Territory and Métis homeland in Northern Saskatchewan, they have been fire practitioners for over 40 years. Solomon shared his experience growing up in the Saskatchewan River Delta: 

“I have lived here in this area my whole life. Something that my parents instilled in me from a very young age is that fire is a tool to manage the land. When I was a kid, it was so rich with life. My father taught me these methods of trying to give back to the land by burning unwanted weeds so we could try to bring back the good plants that muskrats and moose and elk need. Now we don’t have the intricate systems of Indigenous People on managing and planning fires.”

Solomon Carrière (Muskrats to Moose Project Co-Lead) wearing fire safety gear 

The Saskatchewan River Delta is located near the border of Northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba and connects Treaties 5, 6, & 10. Some sources indicate Indigenous Peoples have lived in this region for more than 7,000 years, while others suggest they/we have been here since time immemorial. The total area of the Saskatchewan River Delta is 970,586 hectares, making it the largest inland river delta in North America fed by both the North and South Saskatchewan River and is part of a watershed that spans across Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Forming various wetlands, shallow lakes, river channels, and forests, it represents one of the most unique landscapes in the world, home to hundreds of species of plant, in addition to lichens, birds, fish, and mammal species.

Issues with the River Delta began in the 1970s due to habitat degradation. With three dams in the region, they disrupted the natural flow of sediment, leading to a depletion of nutrients essential for vegetation growth. Consequently, the ecosystem suffered as submerged vegetation struggled to grow, wetlands became stagnant, and habitat and spawning areas diminished. For example, on species impact, the Delta area used to be the highest population density of moose in Canada. Due to decades of habitat degradation, it is hard to find moose, and other species of insects, fish, birds, and muskrats local to the area. With invasive species weakening the natural habitat, it aggravated the problem, and has disrupted the traditional way of life for the communities of plants, animals, and humans in the area. 

Indigenous-led burning practices brings new vegetation for all animals, from the muskrats to the moose. However, as fire suppression grew, animals in the area started to decrease, creating a cascading effect to the ecosystem and community of Cumberland House. Solomon vividly describes the importance of this fire practice and the impact it had:

“In our territory, the land users in the springtime would go out and harvest muskrats. It is a key species in the area. Records show in the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, there were 750,000 muskrats harvested annually through sustainable and traditional land practices by Indigenous Peoples in the Saskatchewan River Delta. A handful of people would harvest muskrats, process the meat and use the fur – it’s a real delicacy. The value of the landscape was embedded in everyone’s day-to-day living. At the end of the season, land users would burn the landscape to make sure that it was good for muskrats all the way to moose. The land was taken care of.” 

A group of people in red uniforms

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Muskrats to Moose project team assessing the land post burn 

Government policies in the 1980s prioritized fire suppression and discouraged traditional Indigenous burning practices. Many Indigenous communities respected this out of fear of being fined or incarcerated. The lack of fire on the landscape had visible consequences that were observed by community members of Cumberland House; as time went on, land users noticed that there were hardly any muskrats to be seen. 

This is when the Muskrats to Moose Project was born. Driven by curiosity, Renée, Solomon and their daughter Michela and students of Ministik Community School, wondered what had happened to the muskrats who had previously inhabited the Saskatchewan River Delta. They began to conduct their own scientific study at the suggestion of their colleague, Dr. Tim Jardine from the University of Saskatchewan. That initial study put them on the path toward a research journey that would ultimately grow into a much bigger initiative than they could have imagined. 

A bird flying in the air

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Muskrat and Moose illustration from the We Are Fire website

Combining Western science methods with traditional Indigenous knowledge, the project team divided the lakes into burned and unburned sections, documenting the vegetation and the weight of muskrats harvested in each area. Solomon and Renée conducted the first burn on their own; however, historically, there were many trappers in the area that burned each spring. For the data collection and research, Solomon and Renée looked at their own trapline and selected four lakes. They went out and left one half of the lake unburned, while they burned the other half in the spring. Then, they went out the following fall and collected 80 random grid samples from the four lakes—both the burned and non-burned sides. Solomon and Renée weighed and itemized all the plant types. Then, in the following spring, they went out and harvested muskrats from the burned and non-burned sides. They weighed and measured the muskrats from both sides and all four lakes. With assistance from Dr. Tim Jardine, Solomon and Renée collated the findings. 

The results showed that the burned areas had healthier plant growth and significantly heavier muskrats, indicating the positive impact of controlled burning on the ecosystem. Within one season, there were visible differences in how big the muskrats were, supporting the conclusion that traditional practices needed to be revitalized.

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Representation of the muskrats on unburned and burned land.

The project team has faced barriers and challenges along their journey, including conflicting policies and a lack of recognition and acceptance of Indigenous-led fire practices. As a result, they have made advocacy for legislative, and policy change a central part of the project. They continue this advocacy, highlighting the value of knowledge sharing and true engagement with local communities, youth and other partners to build strong relationships and alliances. 

In collaboration with project colleagues, Alex Zahara, Amy Cardinal Christianson, Chris Dallyn, David Young, Donald McKay, Graham Strickert, Laura Chaboyer, Madeline Walker, Natasha Caverley, Tanya Gadsby, and Tom Spetter, the project has produced valuable resources to support the use of fire as a tool for revitalizing the land. 

During their presentation at the FireSmart Summit, Renée noted that “North America was shaped by the fires that Indigenous People laid on the landscape. It was shaped and all research and data show that.” 

The project emphasizes co-developing new knowledge, revitalizing cultural practices, and fostering reconciliation between Indigenous and Western approaches to land management. To support this work, the team developed the We Are Fire online toolkit, which provides resources for applying Indigenous knowledge and fire practices to support Western fire management techniques.

“We need to be sharing this knowledge, and building new knowledge and not have First Nations knowledge or Métis knowledge put on a side note. It needs to be included and built upon and we have to work together to create new knowledge” Renée explains, reflecting on the project’s impact. This toolkit is a holistic perspective based on ecological, spiritual, socio-cultural, and economic dimensions to understand and appreciate uses of fire on the land. 

The Muskrats to Moose Project exemplifies the power of collaboration, knowledge sharing, and the revitalization of traditional practices. Michela shared how she has “seen it work today when lighting the torch and burning the grasses. It felt like carrying on the torch of my ancestors. It is a powerful moment to take this ancient system, this ancient knowledge, and apply it to the land.” 

Michela Carrière (Muskrats to Moose Project Team Member) with fire. Image courtesy of B/W Photo

As the project team continues their journey, their dedication serves as a reminder of the potential for positive change when different perspectives come together in pursuit of a shared goal: the wellbeing of the land, and all its users. 

For more information on the Muskrats to Moose Project and the We Are Fire Toolkit, please visit: 

*Funding for the Muskrats to Moose/We are Fire Project was provided by Natural Resources Canada – Emergency Management Strategy – Wildland Fire Resilience Initiative.

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