Burning Territory: Indigenous Fire Stewardship

Landscapes in Motion has a mission to understand the fire history of Alberta’s southwest Rockies, which includes looking at pre-industrial fire and landscape patterns and seeing how they’ve changed. There are a lot of reasons that the nature and frequency of fire has changed in this region, and one very important reason was the suppression of Indigenous burning practices by European settlers and the Canadian government. We are honoured to present the following guest post by Amy Cardinal Christianson, a Métis/Cree woman raised in Treaty 8 territory and currently a fire scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.

I want to thank the Landscapes in Motion team for inviting me to do a guest blog for them on a topic that is very important to me, Indigenous Fire Stewardship.

For our Nations, it is very important to first state where you are from, to help better understand your perspective. I am a Métis/Cree woman who was raised in Treaty 8, from the Cardinal and Laboucane families. My family’s band signed onto Treaty 6, and they helped to lead and participated in the Northwest Rebellion in 1885.

The day after the rebellion leader, Louis Riel, was executed, my family withdrew from Treaty as punishment and took scrip. This essentially meant they were given land to give up their treaty rights. However, the land was soon taken back by the Crown anyways, because my family wasn’t ‘farming it right’. Their band, Peeaysis 129, ‘disappeared’ according to the government. My family continued to practice Woodland Cree and Métis traditions and maintained an active role in Indigenous communities in both the Lac La Biche and Fort McMurray areas.


My great grandparents Julian Cardinal & Eliza Ladoceur, and my Uncle Modest Cardinal (Courtesy of Lac La Biche Historical Society) .

The Right to Burn

Because of this history, land ownership, stewardship, and self-determination are very important to me. One way Indigenous groups worldwide have exercised all three of these principles is through the use of fires on their territories. From burning savannahs to improve hunting conditions in Brazil to burning tropical wet-dry grasslands in Africa for livestock, Indigenous cultures have shared a tradition of carefully modifying landscapes using fire. (For a deeper exploration of this topic I invite you to read an article I wrote on the subject back in 2015.)

Importantly, Indigenous burning is very different from wildfires or agency prescribed burning. Wildfires, whether caused naturally (e.g., by lightning) or by humans (e.g., an unattended campfire), usually burn in the summer months or other times when very dry vegetation is likely to burn—and they can burn out of control. Agency prescribed burning generally results in high-intensity fires that burn a lot quickly. In contrast, cultural burns are timed during low risk conditions, like the early spring or late fall. The people starting these fires have specific objectives in mind, and they have knowledge and experience of how fire behaves and how to control it. The fires are generally low intensity and move slowly through the understory. Fires that are too hot may kill important cultural plants.

Indigenous fire knowledge is often underestimated in Alberta. However, due to burning knowledge and many Indigenous people being employed as seasonal firefighters for the last 50 years, the Nations in Alberta are experienced and knowledgeable.


Burn on Treaty 6 territory. Photo by Amy Cardinal Christianson.

A Cultural Tool

In Treaty 8 territory where I was raised, Dr. Henry Lewis did a series of interviews with Indigenous Elders back in the 1970s to better understand cultural burning practices. He released a short book[i] and film[ii] from these interviews, as well as numerous journal articles. Dr. Lewis found that fire was considered a tool to achieve subsistence and cultural objectives, and that there were numerous reasons for burning, including:

  • Maintaining meadows and opening up grasslands,

  • burning deadwood and obtaining firewood,

  • improving settlements, trails and campsite areas,

  • risk reduction,

  • opening up animal habitat and increasing berry production,

  • reducing pests,

  • religious reasons,

  • and aesthetic benefits.

The most important resources were the early successional species that appear soon after a fire, such as bison, moose, deer, elk, rabbits, grouse, grass seeds, legumes, berries, and bulbs. Spring fires also increased the growing season, by warming the soils and melting the frost, thus allowing the growing season of plants to begin earlier.


Indigenous peoples demonstrating a prairie fire start in 1903 (from the Provincial Archives of Alberta, Edmonton).

Studies in the 1970s documented interviews with First Nations and Métis people about their cultural burning practices, highlighting pragmatic and deliberate approaches to burning. As one Elder commented, “I didn’t set the forest on fire just for the sake of burning, but so that I could return to hunt the next year and live”.[iii]

In a different study, two years earlier[iv], a participant commented: “Fires had to be controlled. You couldn’t just start a fire anywhere, anytime. Fire can do a lot of harm or a lot of good. You have to know how to control it”. A common theme of these interviews is that forests in Alberta were much more open 100 years ago. A settler in Slave Lake noted that as a young man in 1912, he remembered seeing “hundreds of fires” in the area that the Indigenous people had set to burn off meadows and that the area was much more open.[iv]

I’ve heard the same from First Nations and Métis people throughout Alberta: At Peavine Métis Settlement, an Elder told me that when they were born, they could see for miles because of the frequent low-intensity fires.


Youth from Peavine Metis Settlement standing in a fuel treatment. Photo by Amy Cardinal Christianson.

Suppression of More than Wildfire

Indigenous peoples were often blamed for starting high hazard wildfires. As one surveyor for the Geological Survey of Canada noted, people were quick to blame Indigenous peoples for fires that did occur, yet he was more inclined to blame young white men: “A stump of a cigar dropped on the prairie is much more dangerous than an Indian fire”.[v]

In Canada, burning was outlawed and replaced with a centralised system that aimed to suppress all forest fires to initially protect watersheds and timber values.[vi] The first known record of a fire suppression campaign by a government in Canada was in 1610 in Newfoundland, where it was declared that ‘No person shall set fire in the woods’.[vii] Fire suppression campaigns in Alberta targeted Indigenous peoples, with notices translated and distributed across traditional territories. Burning practices of Indigenous peoples in the province continued hidden in the background, but never at their previous scale.


An example of a notice prohibiting deliberate burning, written in Cree syllabics and posted throughout Cree territory.[viii]


Reviving our Traditions

My family burns on our land, currently in Treaty 6 (Métis Local 845). We generally do low intensity burns in the fall to encourage berries, reduce dead grass, and remove rodent habitat. I believe as Indigenous Peoples in Canada, it is our right through UNDRIP (the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) to manage our traditional territories for cultural reasons. One of these ways is through burning. Our mental and physical health is tied to the health of the land, and ‘good fire’ can be used to look after Mother Earth as is our responsibility.

Teaching my daughter to use and respect fire, during the start of our fall burn this year. Photo by Amy Cardinal Christianson.

There are many factors that complicate the return of cultural burning. Among these factors, there has been concern about climate change, increased risk from overloaded forests, and smoke. There are also jurisdictional issues that arise about who can burn and where, with many burners fearing that they will be heavily fined or jailed for burning ‘crown land’. There are Nations in Canada working to reclaim their cultural burning practices and to get fire back out on the land, such as the Xwisten Nation near Lillooet, BC An Elder here told me through tears that he will be incredibly proud to see fire return to their territory, ‘like his daddy used to do’.

We are now working towards this vision together through a collaborative research project aimed at integrating Indigenous cultural burning practices into a community burn plan framework. This project is an important example of work led by the Nation and its knowledge keepers, alongside an all Indigenous team including the First Nations Emergency Services Society and Turtle Island Consulting.

Working as Partners

Working with Indigenous peoples on cultural burning needs to be done in a respectful way by non-Indigenous allies. There is concern among Nations that agencies who are interested in Indigenous fire knowledge may want to capture and use the knowledge on their own, excluding Indigenous peoples because they may not have the ‘western’ certification or education required by the agency. Because the knowledge belongs to the specific Nation and the cultural objectives obtained benefit the Nation, Indigenous peoples should instead be looked at as partners for getting fire back on the landscape. In particular, more research on Indigenous fire stewardship on the eastern slopes of the Rockies is needed, as there is little in the western literature about cultural burning in this region. This work should be led by the Nations to whom the knowledge belongs.

If you are interested in Indigenous burning practices in your area, first find out what Nation(s)’s territory you are in. Then, it is important to build relationships over the long-term. Examples of how this can be done include attending cultural events, volunteering, and sitting on boards with common interests; most Nations have a resource manager who could help you to start. You may also find that you have colleagues who have already built relationships who may introduce you. It is critical to ensure that any of your work has a long-term outcome that involves the Nation in it. For example, if you want to learn to apply cultural burning practices, how are you going to ensure that you also give folks from the Nation the opportunity to burn?

Want to Learn More?

For some interesting resources to look at how Indigenous Nations in other countries are using fire, check out:

Amy Cardinal Christianson is a Fire Research Scientist with the Canadian Forest Service and lives in a forest on Treaty 6 territory. You can follow her on twitter at @ChristiansonAmy.

Every member of our team sees the world a little bit differently, which is one of the strengths of this project.Each blog posted to the Landscapes in Motion website represents the personal experiences, perspectives, and opinions of the author(s) and not of the team, project, or Healthy Landscapes Program.

[i] Lewis, H.T. (1978b) Traditional Uses of Fire by Indians in Northern Alberta. Current Anthropology, 19(2): 401-402.

[ii] Lewis, H.T. (1978a) Fire of Spring [motion picture], Canada, pp. 32 min, 30 sec.

[iii] Ferguson, T.A. (1979) Productivity and Predictability of Resource Yield: Aboriginal Controlled Burning in the Boreal Forest, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, 145 pp.

[iv] Lewis, H.T. (1977) Maskuta: The Ecology of Indian Fires in Northern Alberta. The Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology, 7(1): 15-52.

[v] John Macoun of the Geological Survey of Canada (1882, as quoted in Holt 1998, pp. 21–22). As quoted in Holt 1998 [Holt FR (1998) ‘Out of the Flames: Fires and Fire Fighting on the Canadian Prairies.’ (Fifth House Ltd: Calgary, AB)]

[vi] Pyne SJ (2007) ‘Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada.’ (UBC Press: Vancouver, BC)

[vii] Apsey, T.M. (2003) Canadians and their forest: Development of the National Forest Strategy. Forestry Chronicle, 79(4): 757-760.

[viii] Murphy, P.J. (1985) History of Forest and Prairie Fire Control Policy in Alberta. Alberta Energy and Natural Resources, Edmonton, 408 pp.