NEW! Reimplementing TEK in Post-wildfire Ecosystems

NEW RESEARCH! Examining abiotic and biotic factors influencing specimen black oaks (Quercus kelloggii) in northern California to reimplement traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and promote ecosystem resilience post-wildfire

Ecology and Society, Spring 2022 |

Cory J. O’Gorman, Lisa Patrick Bentley, Kylie M. Everly (Sonoma State University Department of Biology), Clint McKay (Native Advisory Council at Pepperwood), and Margaret Purser (Sonoma State University Department of Anthropology)

Find the full publication in the Ecology and Society Journal, here.

INTRODUCTION:California black oak (Quercus kelloggii) has the widest distribution and altitudinal range of all the oaks in the western U.S., extending over approximately 780 miles from Eugene, Oregon to Baja California (McDonald et al. 1990). Black oak is a keystone species that provides numerous ecosystem services (Crotteau et al. 2015, Long et al. 2017). In California oak woodlands, over 330 species of animals depend on support from oaks for at least one life stage (Barrett 1980).

Black oaks are considered to be a “cultural keystone” species for their role in Indigenous peoples’ diet, ceremonial practices, and daily life (Garibaldi and Turner 2004, Long et al. 2016, 2017). As a food source, black oak acorns are highly desired for their flavor, high oil content, ease to pound and grind, as well as their storability (Lee 1998, Long et al. 2016; M. K. Anderson 1993, unpublished report). The act of gathering acorns is vital for cultural transmission and remains an important social activity for many Tribal members (Anderson 2005, Long et al. 2016). Black oak acorns are incorporated into dances, rituals, and ceremonies and the species appears in Native mythology (Long et al. 2016). Because of their cultural importance, Native peoples throughout present day California use traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to create ecological conditions that favor black oak survival and persistence while treating the ecosystem as a whole (Anderson 2005, Lake et al. 2017, Long et al. 2017). TEK has been described as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (Berkes et al. 2000:1252). These cultural practices are much more than land stewardship techniques, but rather, integral pieces of Indigenous culture that reflect a reciprocal relationship with the land.

Despite its vast range, drought adaptability, and cultural significance, black oaks are threatened by altered approaches to land management. Colonization and the forced removal from and cessation of Native engagement with the land resulted in large ecological shifts in California including habitat reduction for many native plants (Kimmerer and Lake 2001, Anderson 2005, Codding and Bird 2013). California Tribal communities have been dispossessed of their traditional lands and their ability to maintain cultural practices and autonomy stifled through subjugation of racist land use laws, as well as outright genocide (Fenelon and Trafzer 2014, Norgaard 2014, Madley 2016). Indigenous peoples’ ability to practice their culture depends on access to the land and the continued resilience of the plants and plant communities on which they have depended for millennia (Berkes et al. 2000, Anderson 2005, Garibaldi and Turner 2004, Long et al. 2016, 2017). Native peoples create intimate multi-generational relationships with individual specimen black oak trees that include burning, tending, nurturing, and gathering (Anderson 2005). In Sonoma County, California at Pepperwood Preserve, the Native Advisory Council of Pepperwood wishes to return these practices to the land. Pepperwood Preserve is located on the traditional ancestral territory of the Wappo (Milliken 2007). Black oak holds a position of great cultural importance and is the Wappo tribe’s preferred acorn for eating. As such, this project was developed as one of the initial steps in facilitating the reimplementation of these reciprocal stewardship practices. Our research was a collaboration between Pepperwood’s Native Advisory Council, Clint McKay (Wappo/ Pomo/ Wintun), Chair, Lucy McKay (Pomo and Northern Sierra Miwok), Dr. Brenda Flyswithhawks (Tsalági), Tek Tekh Gabaldon (Mishewal Wappo), and L. Frank Manriquez, (Tongva and Ajachemem and Rarámuri), Pepperwood’s management team, and researchers at Sonoma State University.

In meetings with Sonoma State researchers and the Pepperwood management team, Pepperwood’s Native Advisory Council expressed concerns regarding the presence and regeneration of specimen black oaks on the preserve, not just the abundance of the black oak species. Specimen oaks have been defined as large, old, healthy trees with broad low crowns (Long et al. 2017). The Native Advisory Council explained that this growth habit makes it easier to gather acorns and also supports other culturally significant understory plants. These trees provide a disproportionate number of ecocultural services when compared to smaller black oaks (Long et al. 2017). Clint McKay explained the following:

[A] specimen oak does not come with age. It comes with the overall health of the tree and the tree’s ability to take its rightful place within our natural world in the spirit of reciprocity. The specimen oak benefits from its microenvironment and in return can reciprocate its bounty to the natural world; humans, animals and other plant communities. Overcrowding or densification causes the trees to not reach their full potential. We get small, spindly trees that lack strength and the ability to produce the quality and quantity of acorns needed to support other life forms. Like numerous Indigenous groups around the world, Sonoma County Tribal communities have difficulty accessing the plants necessary for cultural practices, such as basket weaving and maintaining a traditional diet, because of public land gathering prohibitions, the cessation of cultural burns, limited access to land, and habitat destruction (Garibaldi and Turner 2004, Anderson 2005, Shebitz et al. 2009, Long et al. 2017).

A very limited amount of land in Sonoma County is under Tribal jurisdiction. As a result, Tribal communities cannot possibly sustain themselves on such limited land resources alone. Traditional gathering places beyond Tribal lands are not always accessible, which further restricts the traditional foods and cultural resources contained therein. Lack of access to traditional foods and the use of pesticides and herbicides on adjacent agricultural lands directly affect both overall Tribal health and the conditions of the few gathering places that remain open to Tribal peoples. Policies, such as gathering restrictions on abalone and salmon, also affect Native peoples (Clint McKay, personal communication). Despite all the challenges, Tribal communities continue to practice their cultural traditions and pass knowledge through the generations. This cultural resilience is expressed in many ways including efforts to revitalize language and traditional thereby increasing the chance of top kill in a fire event, and unintended injury to mature oaks during prescribed fires (Long et al. 2018, Nemens et al. 2019; Fig. 1).

Black oaks rely on frequent, low intensity fires and this fire regime supports the development and proliferation of old, large black oaks with broad, low crowns (Skinner et al. 2006, Cocking et al. 2012, Long et al. 2016, Hammett et al. 2017). The Native Advisory Council and other cultural practitioners within California have expressed the cultural and ecological importance of these specimen oaks and the ecocultural services they provide (Cocking et al. 2012, Long et al. 2016, 2017, Crotteau et al. 2015). Fire suppression and its effects, including forest densification, place existing specimen oaks at risk and discourage the regeneration and development of future generations of legacy trees (Cocking et al. 2012, Long et al. 2016, 2017, Nemens et al. 2018).

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