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“Tending the Wild:” Implications of land management by Native Americans in California

January 30, 2015

In our last post we told our readers about the usefulness of non-native plants which are closely associated with human civilization and are therefore found everywhere, but are considered weeds.  We don’t wish to leave our readers with the impression that native plants are not at least equally useful, so we will counter-balance our last post with this report based on a book about California Native Americans:  Tending the Wild:  Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. (1)  The author, M. Kat Anderson, is the national ethnoecologist of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and an Associate in the Department of Plant Science at UC Davis.

Aboriginal societies have been categorized by anthropologists as either hunter-gatherer or agricultural societies.  California Native Americans were considered hunter-gatherer societies because they were not sedentary, tied to a specific site where they tilled the land to grow crops, and they had no domesticated animals.  Tending the Wild challenges this categorization based on an exhaustive survey of the land management practices of California Native Americans.  The author proposes a middle-ground between the dichotomous categories to reflect the many ways in which Native Americans essentially gardened wild plants to produce their food and other utilitarian objects, while also acknowledging the seasonal mobility of Native American society.

Karok basket maker, 1894.  Smithsonian photo archive

Karok basket maker, 1894. Smithsonian photo archive

Fire was the essential tool

Million Trees has reported many times that California Native Americans intentionally set fires, but until reading Tending the Wild we did not appreciate how essential fires were to their culture, nor did we understand the many purposes for which fires were set.  Here is an incomplete list of the many reasons why Native Americans set fires:

  • Fires maintained grassland by eliminating shrubs that naturally encroach on grassland in the absence of fire.
  • In the absence of fire, thatch of dried grass accumulates when grasses die back during the dry season. This thatch retards the germination of a new crop of young grass.
  • Young grass which sprouts after a fire is attractive to grazing animals which were hunted. Young grass was also preferable for basket-making because it is straight and pliable.
  • Fire reduces shrub vegetation which competes with grasses for light and water. Land cleared by fires was then seeded with the plants most useful to Native Americans.
  • Fire recycles nutrients in the soil.
  • Fire was used to smoke small mammals from their burrows.
  • Fires were used to corral grasshoppers and other insects considered edible for harvesting.
  • Fire was used to reduce insect populations that feed on the plants eaten by Native Americans. For example, the duff beneath oaks was burned before acorns fell so that acorns were not eaten by insects.
  • Fire was used to germinate seeds of the many species of native plants that require fire for germination.
  • Periodic fire was considered a means of preventing wildfires fueled by accumulated dead vegetation.

Other land management methods

Pomo gathering seeds, 1924.  Smithsonian photo archive

Pomo gathering seeds, 1924. Smithsonian photo archive

Fire was one of many management methods used by California Native Americans to foster the plants that were most useful to them.  In some cases, these practices maximized their food sources and in others they produced useful materials such as those needed to make baskets or plants thought to have medicinal properties.

Tending the Wild reports that 60-70% of the diet of California Native Americans was from plants.  Miwoks report using 48 species of plants for fresh greens compared to just a dozen salad greens typically found in a modern market.  California Native Americans ate 15 of 31 native clover species. Clover seed was broadcast-seeded onto burned ground because it improved the fertility of the soil by restoring nitrogen to the burned soil.

Miwok mortars where seeds and nuts were ground.  Smithsonian archive

Miwok mortars where seeds and nuts were ground. Smithsonian archive

Baskets were equally important to their culture.  Every family typically had 22 different types of baskets for a variety of purposes such as storage, food gathering, beating seeds from plants, cooking, water storage and transport, fish traps, small-animal traps, etc.  Seventy-eight plant species were used by California Native Americans to make these baskets.

Here is an incomplete list of the methods used to foster the plants most useful to California Native Americans:

  • The seeds of favorite plants were planted to be available close to living quarters. Native tobacco is an example of a plant found around Native American settlements, presumably planted there.
  • The seeds, bulbs, corms, rhizomes etc., of favorite plants were collected and transplanted close to settlements.
  • Bulbs, corms, roots, rhizomes were harvested selectively to preserve the plants which were stimulated by the thinning of the plant.
  • Fields of useful plants were weeded to create monocultures that made harvesting more efficient.
  • Plants were pruned and coppiced to maximize fruit production.
  • Plants were pruned to produce the straight twigs and grasses useful to make baskets and arrow shafts.
  • Plants were irrigated to promote growth and maximize fruit production.
  • Plants were treated by cooking, soaking, etc., to remove toxins so they could be safely eaten.

Impact on the landscape

Over the thousands of years that California Native Americans practiced these land management practices, the landscape was altered by them:

  • Plants that did not tolerate frequent fires died out, creating a landscape that is dominated by plants that are adapted to fire. Jon Keeley (USGS) informs us that over 200 native plant species are “fire endemics,” requiring fire to germinate and dying out within a few years after a fire. (2)
  • The Europeans arriving at the end of the 18th Century found a landscape dominated by grassland because repeated fires prevented succession to shrubs and forests. The absence of shade produced a landscape of native plant species that require full sun.
  • Forests were open and park-like with little understory, which had been repeatedly cleared by frequent fires.
  • The plants which were most useful to Native Americans were more likely to survive than those that were not useful because they were tended and competing vegetation burned or weeded.
  • The natural ranges of the plants which were useful were altered by the land management practices of Native Americans. They were transplanted and grown from seed where they were accessible to the community.

What are the implications for ecological “restorations?”

The landscape selected by native plant advocates as the goal of ecological “restorations” is the landscape that existed in 1769 when Europeans first laid eyes on San Francisco Bay.  Now we know that it was a landscape that had been altered by thousands of years of occupation and cultivation by California Native Americans.  There are at least two major flaws in the selection of this landscape as the goal of “restoration:”

  • Native ranges reflect the choices made by the Native Americans. They do not necessarily reflect the forces of nature.  The modern obsession with “where plants belong” is based on a fantasy of why plants were found where they were when Europeans arrived in California.
  • The land management practices of Native Americans are no longer being practiced, which means that the plants they preferred are no longer receiving the care that ensured their survival in the past. Humans no longer set fire to the landscape every year.  Therefore, the landscape has changed and will continue to change to correspond to changed practices:

The relationship between humans and nature has changed since California was occupied solely by Native Americans.  Consequently, nature has changed in ways that reflect how humans now use the land.  The author of Tending the Wild acknowledges that her book conflicts with the goals of ecological “restoration:”

“If restoration is aimed at returning ecosystems to the condition in which they existed before Western settlement degraded them, then that condition is surely not an entirely natural one.  As we now know, many of the classic landscapes of California—coastal prairies, majestic valley oak groves, montane meadows, the oak-meadow mosaic of Yosemite Valley—were in fact shaped by the unremitting labor of generations of native people.  Moreover, these and other communities were managed intensively and regularly by these people, and that many have disappeared or changed radically in the absence of management shows they were not self-sustaining.” (1)

In our next post, we will think about how our relationship with nature has changed and what that means for the future of the management of our remaining open spaces. Given this revised understanding of the “native” landscape, how must we revise our goals for ecological “restoration?”


  1. M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, University of California Press, 2005 (This is the source of most of the information in this article.)
  2. Jon Keeley, et. al., Fire in Mediterranean Ecosystems, Cambridge University Press, 2012
10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2015 10:52 am

    I would note, too, that the tender green new grasses produce high levels of vitamins in dairy and meat. Meats and dairy products of grassfed animals are found to be higher in vitamins generally than meats and dairy products of primarily grain-fed animals. Butter of animals which have been eating new grasses are sought after and those eating for health pay big bucks for such butter.

  2. January 30, 2015 12:02 pm

    Native Australians, were very good managers of forest by selective low level burning. Most forests were originally browsed by megafauna until human arrival. Without the browse, forests and grasslands natural production builds up until there is a huge fuel burden. At that point, any fire, from natural causes such as lightening .becomes a vast catastrophic wildfire.
    Invasion biology prevents natural management of wildlands by denying surrogate (non-native) browse or aboriginal .burning and so destroys biodiversity.

  3. Don E permalink
    January 30, 2015 3:34 pm

    I think this illustrates the fact that there are no “natural areas” if natural means unaffected by humans. Ever since man domesticated fire we have been altering the landscape for economic purposes. We have always favored some species over others.

    What is interesting is the evolvement of fire tolerate plants and the plans to introduce Manzanita San Francisco. Fire tolerant plants are also fire prone. The problem with Manzanita in SF is our moist and cool climate making fires less frequent allowing fuel buildup. By planting Manzanita and not periodically burning it like the Indians did, the natural areas program is creating a fire hazard. As I recall, there were brush fires on Mt. San Bruno that burned very hot and were difficult to control.

    When Europeans arrived they found Ponderosa Pine in park like forests. Today forests have several times the density making fire prone pine forest a fire hazard. The assumption was that pine burned naturally every 30 years or more which kept the forest less dense and the fuel level low. This article raises the possibility that these fires were man made not natural. The Indians burned down forest to create grassland and thinned forest with fire for better access and other purposes.

    • January 30, 2015 3:54 pm

      In 2003 State park employees lost control of a prescribed burn on San Bruno Mountain. It very nearly burned down homes on the perimeter of the park. The California Native Plant Society was delighted with that fire because it germinated many of their native plants that had not been seen for years. Those who tend San Bruno Mountain (as volunteers and as employees) are fighting a losing battle. They want and need grassland to support the rare butterflies for which the Mountain has been preserved. The grassland is being “invaded” by coyote brush, which is a native shrub. This is the natural succession which native plant “restorations” are trying, unsuccessfully to prevent.

  4. February 1, 2015 11:15 am

    I’m suspicious of any declaration by people with invested interest in saying how much First Nations people burned and controlled the environment because that theory is being used as an excuse to burn, maintain grazing (which damages the land more than native ruminants), and cut down trees. We have no idea what it was like in California before the Spanish came and killed most of the people and enslaved as many as they could in their missions. After hearing someone on a recent nature event insist she knew what it was like here because she grew up seeing the bare hills with a few trees and that she’d seen photographs of how First Nations people tended the land. (She was about my age and certainly not in her hundreds.)

    Even these photos of Indigenous women show how they are dressing according to the missionary rules all these years later. (The same influence can be seen in Hawai’ian “native” clothes for women and the “native” singing clearly showing missionary interference.)

    As we see with the nativist fanatics, a myth is told and spread with authority, and most people believe it and repeat it.

    One thing that we know that people did in many places was to set aside enormous areas of wilderness that people did not live in and would visit rarely, to keep that land safe and sacred.

    This wonderful blog is a rare questioning of what does not make sense for those who want to save as many trees and plants as possible with the native animals who depend on them.

    So much money is involved in the “restorations” that we cannot expect “experts” to be unbiased. We just need to use common sense, but it’s terrible to see the damage people are doing in our parks and we can’t stop them. EBRP now has ugly billboards in Tilden declaring they are killing trees for our own good (the myth of fire prevention). At the EBRP native Botanical Gardens in Tilden, I found out that they cut down their only two species of beautiful native pines — Grey/Ghost/Foothill Pinus Sabiniana and Coulter Pine. These two mature magnificent trees provided a way to identify their differences and to see them without having to travel a distance away. I always looked for them and was horrified to see them gone. The EBRP person I asked about them was very apologetic and gave an explanation that made no real sense. The one was near the road but healthy. (That Pinus Sabiniana had been there for decades.) The Coulter Pine had lost lower branches so they thought it wasn’t an attractive specimen. It was also healthy and the only example I know of in our local parks. I can’t help but think these two special trees were killed as part of the focus of the EBRP to kill trees.

    There was a law in Oakland to have to declare a healthy tree that someone wanted to kill and then for people to be able to try to protect it. Anyone know if that is being ignored when these agencies are involved?

    • February 1, 2015 12:54 pm

      I suggest you read Tending the Wild and decide for yourself if you find it credible. The author describes her sources in detail. She interviewed many Native Americans who are still living a traditional lifestyle, to the extent that they can. She also used historical sources that describe the landscape found by Europeans on arrival as well as the practices of Native Americans that they observed. Some of these historical documents are extensive interviews with Native Americans done in the distant past. I can understand that you would be suspicious of those sources.

      However, there is also a substantial physical historical record of fires on the land and in the trees that cannot be fabricated. The frequency of those fires indicates that the fires had to be set by humans on the Coast of California because we do not have fires that are ignited by lightening. Many other scientists have said the same. Jon Keeley of the USGS has published studies which also report that the pre-settlement landscape in Northern California was the result of fires set by Native Americans that prevented natural succession to shrubs and forest.

      There is an ordinance in Oakland that protects native trees. Non-native trees are specifically excluded from this ordinance.

  5. February 2, 2015 9:34 am

    VERY interesting!

  6. February 20, 2015 5:08 pm

    With so many herbicides used to restore the natural balance (?) I wonder when pesticide chemical companies will be awarded some sort of recognition as stewards of the environment by the restorationists.

    Just as a minor “correction”: fire is used in some restoration projects although I wonder at its usefulness in destroying non-native/introduced plants. After all, if an introduced plant is growing in a fire-dependent grassland is it not possible that in its original home it too may have been burned periodically? Cheat grass comes to mind.

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