The Climate Adaptation Plan of the Karuk Tribe is about care-based relationships and responsibilities. The plan states, “climate adaptation is about restoring human responsibilities and appropriate relationships with species and ecosystem processes.” This way of relating is born out of thousands of years of culture-based commitment to land management, carried through ceremonies that “restore balance and renew the world.” This relationship was disrupted by mining prospectors who swarmed Karuk aboriginal territory (1.38 million acres that stretches from California to Oregon), the US military, and then through the criminalization of Karuk fire-based land management practices to protect the economic interests of the timber industry. Today, the Karuk remain a reservation-less tribe, negotiating their responsibility as “fix the world” people and a commitment to traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) through access to the land via the US Forest Service. At the core of their work remains an understanding of a care-based, reciprocal relationship with the land. And while constant and expanding wildfires across the western United States have brought increased interest in the Karuk’s expert use of fire, our interview with Analisa Tripp and Vikki Preston, who are Eco-Cultural Revitalization Specialists in the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources, teaches us that knowledge itself cannot be extracted from a relationship to land and the people who have traditionally taken care of that land. While politicians, scientists, and economists alike scramble for responses to wildfires, Analisa and Vikki remind us of the importance of care-based relationships and cultural sovereignty—in this case the ability to practice traditional ecological knowledge on one's traditional lands.
The land cares for us, so we have a responsibility to care for the land
In their work, Analisa and Vikki shared the joy that comes from returning to places they have been stewarding over multiple years and witnessing a thriving response through harvests of acorns, berries, bulbs and basket-making materials. This evidence of the reciprocal nature of care is encouraging, tangible and inspiring for younger generations as they experience the land. It flips the dominant, capital-based relationship to land that sees "nature" as a resource to be used, manipulated and extracted from. Common English-language definitions of "nature" rely on an opposition between the physical world (plants, animals, landscape, etc) and humans or human creations. The understanding carried through Analisa, Vikki and the Department’s efforts instead reflect a deep interdependence of those elements and humans, as actual relations. Another report led by the Department reads, “By reconnecting the human role to the whole landscape, we can strengthen the spiritual, subsistence and management practices that the place calls the people to perform” (p. 7). These different ways of relating (being called to perform as opposed to dictating what land will do) reflect different ways of seeing land, the former rooted in care, belonging and respect, the latter rooted in othering and dominance.
Indigenous sovereignty is key to addressing the climate crisis
When we asked Analisa about the role of TEK and the climate crisis, she reflected momentarily and then shared, “One of the things that I would say to anyone who wondered what would be one step to help combat climate change…I would say, land back.” What does land back, or the contemporary call to return traditional lands to Native peoples and the honoring of treaty rights, have to do with the climate crisis? The knowledge generated since “time immemorial” by Karuk people is place-based. This is shown in an orientation to fine details in the landscape, place-based names which remind of the uses or look of a place, or in ceremonies that are specific to the landscape and ecology of the area. There is a closely linked cycle of interaction within this long relationship—from land to culture and culture to sustainability. For example, in the Climate Adaptation Plan, Karuk Eco-Cultural Restoration Specialist William Tripp describes how elements of the Karuk World Renewal Ceremony—held in the fire season (September)—were also fire-management practices that prevented large scale burns (p. 43). When the land was taken by the federal government and settlers, Karuk cultural sovereignty was interrupted. Land management practices shifted, leading to large changes in the landscape and the presence of destructive, large-scale wildfires. Restoring cultural sovereignty through the return of land regenerates the ability to practice culture-based land management in ways that have a proven and long-standing record of sustainability.
Successful reciprocal care should be measured across many generations.
Vikki and Analisa spoke frequently about the “time immemorial” relationship between land and the Karuk people. This relationship, which has been held across many generations, has cultivated a complex understanding of how caring for the ecosystem reciprocates care for Karuk people. The land gives feedback on how it is being cared for through its flourishing or not. In this way, care for the land is not about one-time interventions or extractions of resources—as is the norm in capitalism and western forest management—but about ongoing relationship over an extended period of time. It is also about creating the conditions for collective abundance across generations. Under this paradigm, and building on traditional knowledge, success is not judged or evaluated by efficiency, but rather by ensuring “that [their] communities are taken care of,” today and in the future. In this sense, we are reminded that successful reciprocal care is not a destination that can be rushed but a long-term relationship.