Oppression and justice

December 10th, 2019

Medicinal fire

In the last few years, wildfires in California and throughout the West have become a regular part of the news cycle. According to a recent article by climate and environment reporter Susie Cagle in The Guardian, for the past 100 years or so, government agencies have combated forest fires using traditional firefighting techniques and other land management strategies. While these strategies look like they’re conserving nature, they instead choke the land with vegetation that’s more than ready to burn, especially as the climate grows hotter and drier. This undergrowth becomes the fuel that feeds many of these wildfires.

However, a growing strategy to reduce wildfires utilizes the Native American practice of “light-burning,” a traditional approach used by the Yurok, Karuk, Hupa, Miwok and Chumash tribes for more than 13,000 years to manage the land in what’s now California. These small, intentional burns create better animal habitats and reduce the fuel for future wildfires while also bringing additional benefits by renewing local food as well as medicinal and cultural resources.

The U.S. government banned light-burning in 1850, considering it primitive and harmful to the forests; but more than 100 years later, the National Park Service discerned that there were no new giant sequoias growing in these unburned forests in California and began to rethink the ban. Eventually the ban was reversed, and many state agencies began to follow suit. Today, the state of California intentionally burns 125,000 acres per year, creating healthier forests and “a culture where fire is a tool, not a threat,” as quoted in the Guardian article. It’s also important to note that none of these controlled burns have led to a fire that required fighting.

These Native practices are deeply ingrained in the cultures from which they arose and connect the people to the land and their Creator. As Cagle describes it in The Guardian, one can see the profound connection between the people and an ancient cultural practice. Revitalizing the practice energizes members of the tribes while at the same time providing hope for those suffering from the fear of the debilitating wildfires in California and throughout the West. Though neither the tribes nor skeptics believe that it’s possible to burn our way out of the climate and wildfire crisis, it’s certainly a cause for hope. “Prescribed fire is medicine,” said Frank Lake, an ecologist with a Native heritage. “Traditional burning today has benefits to society as well as supporting what the tribes need.” 


Oppression is a word that’s often used and rarely defined, but at its core oppression is the use of power in a cruel or unjust way. This power may come from the law, or it may come from social and cultural ideas like the widespread use of harmful stereotypes. No matter the definition, the history of the Native people in America is undoubtedly one filled with oppression.

According to The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, 2016, two Christian doctrines were intrinsic to the early oppression of Native Americans. The first was the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex of 1452 by Pope Nicholas V, which declared war against all non-Christians throughout the world and in so doing created a path towards conquest and eventually exploitation. The second was the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, which stems from a Supreme Court ruling in 1823 that Christian European nations had “assumed dominion over the lands of America, and upon discovery, Native American Indians had lost their rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations and retained a mere right of occupancy in their lands.” In other words, the ruling said that Native Americans lost the right to own and rule the lands that they had occupied for thousands of years.

The problems of Native peoples are well-documented. According to the National Congress of American Indians website, the poverty rate among Native Americans is at a staggeringly high 37 percent, and Native peoples suffer from high rates of unemployment. A 2008 Associated Press article reported that one in ten Native American deaths was related to alcohol abuse. All of this comes in addition to the erosion of their culture.

The silencing of people’s voices is one of the consequences of oppression. When voices aren’t heard, their concerns are ignored. In a video titled “Reclaiming Native Truth Intro,” several speakers put a human face on the costs of this oppression. Kaana Watchman (of the Diné tribe) says that the culture at-large has certain expectations and stereotypes of Native peoples, explaining, “They expect you to fit into this form that they would like, and when you don’t, they silence your voice.” These stereotypes include highly sexualized female imagery, savagery and magic talk. Steve Judd (of the Kiowa & Choctaw tribes) notes the ways in which Native people are portrayed: “You never see a Native person portrayed as a human, a normal human, and you never meet one. Two percent of the people are Native. Every time I see them, they’re on TV talking magic talk, then you don’t see them as human. It’s easier to perform a crime on someone that you think is not human.” 


In his book Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, theologian Miroslav Volf makes a case that while the overlapping of cultures always brings disagreement, it also provides the possibility of a blessing. As we come into contact with other cultures, we partially inhabit one another’s traditions and way of life and can come to share one another’s commitments. This “double vision,” as he calls it, enables us to “enlarge our thinking by letting the voices and perspectives of others, especially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them to help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed, readjust our perspectives as we take into account their perspectives.” This may even lead us, as Volf says, to “look afresh at our own traditions and rediscover their neglected or even forgotten resources.”

This is essentially what’s happening in the reclaiming of the fire-lighting tradition. Even though it took more than a century, the two cultures came into contact with one another, and the dominant culture was able to see the value of the traditional practices. They began to see the error of their previous ways of understanding land management, and they also began to view the members of these Native cultures as valued partners. This is the beginning of justice.

In his book, Volf goes on to say that we’re called to seek and struggle for the justice — God’s justice — even though we can only comprehend it imperfectly. God’s justice is, therefore, not necessarily our justice but rather our understanding of justice that may come into sharper focus when we’re willing to embrace and be open to the other. This willingness to practice double vision and to embrace the other brings the possibility of healing. The story of the fire-lighters is obviously a small one, and although a small story doesn’t make all things right, it’s a beginning and it’s a hope. 

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