Frank Kanawha Lake: Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge Can Save Our Ecosystems

For centuries, Indigenous Peoples learned to master a symbiotic relationship with the world around them. Their deep understanding of diverse ecosystems—and ability to coexist with them—is a wealth of knowledge embedded with practical solutions for fighting the climate crisis today.

Frank Kanawha Lake is an Indigenous research ecologist who specializes in fire and fuels. Growing up along the rivers and forests of northwest California, his tribal community instilled in him a connection with the land and trainings on fire and watershed ecology. Now, with a career in the USDA Forest Service, he is using that traditional ecological knowledge to guide government agencies toward more regenerative land stewardship practices.

Following is a conversation Senior Producer Stephanie Welch had with Frank, edited for length and clarity, where he discusses his lifelong connection with the land, why traditional ecological knowledge matters, how federal agencies can foster healthier relationships with local Indigenous communities, and more.

Frank Lake

FRANK – I’m mixed blood Native American, Mexican American, and White. I’m part Karuk, Seneca, and Cherokee, and I was raised primarily with my northwest California cultural beliefs and knowledge systems of the Karuk and the Yurok. I’m a Karuk descendant, but I have half-siblings that are Yurok tribal members, and that’s important as that reflects on my work as a federal research scientist. I’m a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, in the fire and fuels program of the Pacific Southwest Research Station. For me, a valuable part of my work is looking at the science support needs and researchable questions of tribal communities, particularly related to wildland fires, fuels management, and now climate change.

BIONEERS: Did you grow up with a strong connection to the land?

I didn’t realize the significance of my teachings until I was older, and I’m actually more academically trained as an ecologist. As part of the tribal community, my family was very involved in the ceremonies, substance practices, and healing traditions around medicinal plants. It was just a way of life for me as a child. We had our seasonal opportunity to fish with my Yurok family, to gather acorns and huckleberries, and other forest resources. My father and my stepmom were healers, so we relied a lot upon medicinal plants, and we understood the teachings of how to access them around different times of the year and along the oceans, forests, rivers and mountains.

And then we spent often a lot of our late summers up in the Siskiyou wilderness, which a lot of the local tribes there — the Karuk, Yurok and Hoopa — call the “high country.” Being up there, in the wilderness area at our sacred sites, was where I’ve had my most unique and significant training. We got to explore these sacred springs, rock outcroppings, meadows and old growth forests in that area of the Siskiyou wilderness.

There were two really significant events that shaped why I chose to become an environmental scientist. As a young adult and activist, I lived through the complexities of a proposed road called the Gasket Orleans Road, called a “GO road.” It was one of the founding cases of American Indian religious freedom rights involving the Forest Service, timber industry, and tribal community values around sacred site protection.

So, as a child by the Siskou Wilderness, having seen that road being constructed, and seeing that development around logging interests actually impacting the spiritual practitioners around me, that made me want to work toward natural resource management stewardship and land tenure around native rights.

Around that same period, the Yurok tribe was being reinstated as a Tribal Government and exercising their traditional fishing rights. My step-uncles and cousins that were traditional fishermen, yet they were being told to limit their fishery because of commercial interests for offshore fisheries. That burden of conservation fell on the tribes, on my family, and really on me as an individual growing up within the Yurok fish camp.

So I had this duality of seeing natural resource and political issues, not only around river fisheries conservation, but also around forests and biodiversity and sacred sites. These interests of conservation heavily influenced me as a young person, because I saw those struggles and those dynamics and started looking for a solution.

Part of my training at those sacred sites was: I’m inheriting knowledge, but with that knowledge is a responsibility to family, land and waters, and community. Both the human and biological community.

As a young person then — I was probably 10 to 15 years old at the time — I wasn’t really aware that’s what happens around resource extraction and community economics and traditional rights of Indigenous Peoples. I didn’t understand the complexities.

As a tribal community and family, we have these medicine people and families that pray to sacred sites; they pay for the forests; they pray for the water; they pray for the animals; they pray for all the things in that environment. Yet, it was actually the environmental recognition of the proposed road activity that was upheld in court, not so much the native spirituality or religious practices about trying to maintain that relationship to pray for those things. It was an unfortunate duality that the Indigenous rights weren’t being formally recognized in the court system, but the legal and environmental implications were closely intertwined.

BIONEERS: Can you tell us about how these federal agencies have evolved over time, especially in relation with Indigenous communities?

I think early on, both within academic institutions and those institutions that train natural resource professionals (who become the leadership within federal agencies), there was this invisibility of tribal communities. So for me, one of the obstacles was understanding that these institutions have to learn about Indigenous People. They have to understand, both as an instructor or as a land manager, that these are living communities who depend upon the river, the forest, the biodiversity — all of which we now call “ecosystem services” — to perpetuate their traditions. A tribal trust resource is also in the best interest of society as a public trust resource.

After 1994, the Forest Service had a big change in the Northwest with the Northwest Forest Plan. That was a big shift to help us look more broadly at biodiversity, ecosystem services, and public and local tribal values in the interests of national forest and natural resource management.

BIONEERS: Can you explain more about traditional fire knowledge, and how that fits into the broader scope of traditional ecological knowledge?

Well, traditional ecological knowledge is a cumulative body of knowledge and belief systems in regards to how Indigenous Peoples utilize their resources, both historically, in the present, and even in the future. That knowledge is always adaptive to the circumstances — social-politically, social-culturally, economically, and even environmentally — around how these tribes’ knowledge systems and social institutions operate.

So traditional fire knowledge is really a subset of that traditional ecological knowledge. There are different elements of that, from how you understand fire effects, to fire behavior, or even to the tribe’s relationship with fire. The best way I understand it or describe it is if you’re a forest-dependent people or fire-adapted culture (e.g. Fire Dependent Culture), where every aspect of your culture relies upon fire in some beneficial way, then you have a depth of knowledge that spans all the biophysical with the metaphysical. Those physical elements and the spiritual or ceremonial aspects are really combined.

I grew up with those teachings in my Karuk and Yurok families, and saw how important fire was to us as a culture. And historically it was used against these tribes. That includes the fire suppression policies of the early 1900s to protect logging and timber industries, but it even goes back to when the Spanish were colonizing California. The first law enacted in Alta, California, was by a mission to prevent the natives from burning. They took away that energetically efficient tool to manage the resources as a way to subjugate them, remove them from the land, and bring them into the missions. When California joined the Union, there was that same kind of colonial settlement to remove tribal people from their arena of managing those natural resources and bringing them into the reservations. In that way, fire governance was one of the main leveraging tools that made American settlement of the West successful.

BIONEERS: How can fire actually be beneficial?

Not only are those fire-dependent or fire-adapted Indigenous communities, but traditionally, fire serves as a biodiversity component and burning can help with many resource objectives. Fire actually helps to reduce a hazardous build-up of fuels that lead to larger, non-desired, catastrophic fires. But naturally, if lightning strikes and burns an area, tribal people know that those areas can be more productive, have more diversity of plants and animals, yield more water, and help to manage the land. This happened in diverse ecosystems among diverse tribal communities in California. Tribes literally used fire from the coast to the highest alpine meadows.

And part of that, which people often didn’t associate, was it was both that natural and cultural fire use that led to a lot of the diversity that was marveled at and seen as part of the pristine West.

BIONEERS: What happens after fire?

This ties back to the traditional fire knowledge, and how you perceive the effects of fire. If you see fire as medicine — as a good thing for the landscape and for your family health — you could consistently prescribe it at the right intensity. This means you’re managing a lot of diversity from materials that, from a tribal cultural perspective, provide your foods, medicines, and materials (e.g. basketry). Your landscape is then really linked to fire as your pharmacy, your supermarket, your hardware store, and for some sacred places, your church.

If you think of those “ecosystem services,” fire is the main leveraging thing to help you get the right dose of them. If you want to have healthy food as medicine, and you need to have access to clean water, fire can provide that. Fire is a thinning agent that reduces competition and helps optimize those resources. Fire is also a renewal agent that recycles nutrients and makes those nutrients available. It’s an essential socio-cultural and ecological process.

BIONEERS: How has policy changed over the years?

Policy has changed. Wildland fire agencies are beginning to ecologically understand the importance of fire and how it relates to biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Now, under the National Cohesive Strategy for Wildland Fire Management, there are three components we look at: resilient landscapes, fire-adapted communities, and wildland fire response. That last one is about looking at each ignition as a fire starts, whether it’s anthropogenic or natural, and thinking: Is it burning in a way that is going to meet our broader resource management objectives and goals, and what kind of threat does it pose to life, property and resources?

Now, under that guidance of the National Cohesive Strategy, this mindset tiers to the state level. In California, wildland fire managers have the ability to look at each fire event and say: “How can we manage this fire for resource benefit?” We might need to suppress it on one side because it threatens life and property, but on this other side, we could allow it to burn because less resources or value will be affected. Allowing it to burn means allowing it to have that ecological and social service of cleaning up fuels, rejuvenating biodiversity, and renewing the ecosystem services that are part of a functional fire regime.

BIONEERS: What does the relationship now look like between tribes and agencies?

It’s at various degrees. The Forest Service is structured to manage the national forest systems. For example, the Forest Service Management that I’m working with is the Six Rivers National Forest and Klamath National Forest. They have a fire management agreement with the Karuk tribe and local Yurok tribe, so we (the Forest Service) consult and collaborate with them about how to respond in the best interest of the agency, the community, and the tribes.

Other places are still trying to formulate these agreements. Sometimes there are federally recognized and non-federally recognized or acknowledge tribes, and those tribes might have to work a bit harder with different government authorities and agreements to actually determine what happens within their traditional, aboriginal/ancestral territory that happens to now be national forest land.

An example I’m most familiar with, including the Karuk and Yurok, is a big collaborative project called the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership. It’s been facilitated by the Nature Conservancy, who brings these interested parties together — like federal agencies, local tribes, local watershed organizations, and even industry and environmental groups — who all say, “We’re interested in this landscape. We have diversified yet similar, overlapping interests (i.e. values) about how we’re going to do landscape restoration and implement wildland fire management strategies to help us adapt to climate change threats and stressors.” So that partnership is an example of an agreement, where the community comes together around shared values to protect their land. That “all lands, all hands” approach has to happen everywhere.

BIONEERS: What is your vision for the future of ecosystem restoration and conservation, especially with traditional ecological knowledge in the picture?

Where I see a lot of promise is in these landscape restoration collaboratives, which look at national policy and authorities that help bring people together on private, tribal, and federal or state lands. All lands, all hands across jurisdictions. We have different forms of information, from the social scientists and fire scientists informing us about community and social values, and how we should think about resource management. Using those integrative knowledge systems, by bringing people together, we can try different strategies and learn to become fire adapted.

A lot of the national programs talk about fire-adapted communities. That’s just not fire mitigation or reducing hazardous fuels around your home. It comes back to the original part of my talk about how, if you’re a fire-dependent culture or family or individual, then you’re looking at fire and thinking about what good it will do instead of how bad it will be.

When we change this perception as a community and society, we can move toward being more fire adapted and dependent, as a broader society and even as local communities. We must learn to live with fire, see it as beneficial, and just not try to suppress it in the ways we think is in our construct of safety and security. It’s about learning to live with our environment and fire being a part of that.

Tribes are here and living amongst us today. They’re part of our community. We can learn from the old ways that have contemporary importance, and integrate that into our broader societal approach to fire.

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