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Fire Medicine for the Anthropocene 

Indigenous wisdom can help us realign our relationship with nature to more holistically balance the climate. 

Words: Cassandra Blondin Burt
Pictures: Cassandra Blondin Burt

I dreamt of Dene, The People, gathering at the center of The Sahtu, Great Bear Lake. Fires spreading all across the territory made it the only safe place to be. But, unlike firefighters — who spray water and chemicals to suppress this sacred element, we had fire carriers who honored fire, learning to work with K’o, fire, to tend the land, maintain the land, and transform the waters, air and soil, bringing the Earth back into alignment. K’o, fire, home, spirit, energy — it is all the same sacredness. 

In my dream, I saw that by honoring these practices we might change the course of how we experience fire, and life on this earth, over the next ten, fifty, and one hundred years. If we honor and bring balance back to our relation to fire, we can change how the next seven generations will also know fire. 

Research from recent wildfires has shown that the fires that burn out of control here in the northern boreal destroy the healing nature of large forested areas, turning them from carbon sinks to carbon sources. I can’t help but wonder, if properly implemented, could these fire practices reverse this process, or better yet, transform it? I have heard elders tell stories of playing in the fires of their community burns, decades ago They remember the flames being as gentle as ocean waves lapping at the beach. They were cautious but unafraid, they were surrounded by family, community, other humans, and their group relation to fire was one of reciprocity, of gratitude. It is this that I reflect on whenever I hear language around fire, fire prevention, or western calls to stop fire altogether. 

We can choose to remember our early sciences and land philosophies, in harmony with creation, resource, spirit, Mother Earth, Gaia, our first mother, and through her teachings bring our world back into balance, into harmony, or we can continue to ignore her ancient wisdoms.

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The remnants of Northwest Territories 2023 summer wildfire season. Photographs from Kakisa and Dehcho region. (Cassandra Blondin Burt)

Kira M. Hoffman and other forestry experts published a paper last year that explores barriers and opportunities for Indigenous fire stewardship. They identified cultural barriers to engaging with Indigenous knowledge systems around fire, “One of the most challenging barriers to engaging in Indigenous fire stewardship is the lack of understanding by wildfire management agencies, decision-makers, and the general public of the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and fire. Cultural burning involves knowing the intricate complexities of fire (when, how, and where fire should or should not be used) to maintain desirable ecosystem structures and enhance diversity and productivity of species for food, medicine, and ceremony.” They also emphasized the important climate benefits that can be gained by collaborating with Indigenous fire experts. “Regular cultural burning supports fire-dependent ecosystems, extending the season for burning, decreasing the return interval for wildfire activity, and supporting manageable suppression efforts when values are at risk from out-of-control wildfires. Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge of and reliance on fire is grounded in understandings involving specific relationships between humans, plants, and animals, including traditional governance practices and laws that have been developed, adapted, and passed down through generations.”

The remnants of Northwest Territories 2023 summer wildfire season. Photographs from Kakisa and Dehcho region. (Cassandra Blondin Burt)

Where we humans bathe with water, the land bathes with gentle fire. Fire is how we clear the debris, that which is no longer serving us, how we release it and cleanse it away. And the devastating damage of the wildfires that have been wrecking Canada’s Northwest Territories where I live, and other regions around the world, are not the only shape that fire can take. There are ways of working with this same energy, this same element, as a tool. Fire holds many wisdoms and through learning to honor fire, feed fire, and observe fire we learn about ourselves, the world we live in, and the cosmos.

To reframe this understanding or perspective of fire necessities a shift in language: from fire “fighting” to walking alongside fire, from fire “suppression” to understanding how fire benefits land, from seeing fire as something to fear, to remembering our place in the world as humans and honoring the elements, the earth, the sky, the water, fire and the land. 

In winter fires create hazards for the northern boreal, burning through -20 degree weather. Along the Mackenzie Highway, Northwest Territories, Canada. (Cassandra Blondin Burt)

When land is perceived while on it — not disconnected from it — the conversation changes.

For those of us who exist in cultures that are based on the land, through practices like hunting, harvesting, or fire, we see and perceive the actions and interactions of land differently, we do value assessment differently, we see changes in infrastructure under different conditions. Therefore, decision-making is based on very different ideals, data, goals, and perspectives. We need to take conversations about natural resources into nature — out of the office — and engage with experts who work on the land and with the land every day, to radically change global conversations about conservation and natural resources.

“Cultural burning is a community practice that takes on many different forms. It promotes intergenerational teachings, strengthens social networks, and supports overall community physical and mental health,” Hoffman and her co-authors wrote.

In this time of climate disaster, we can make paradigmatic shifts in our responses to perceived disasters by examining them as a conversation with the land. 

How we feel about fire has much to do with how we understand medicine, the natural world, and our place therein. Moving from seeing fire in only one way: a very western way at that, based on the Cartesian disconnection of soul and matter, to learning to express and perceive the myriad ways fire is medicine and a higher conscious healing meta-cine for ourselves and the land. In this time of climate disaster, we can make paradigmatic shifts in our responses to perceived disasters by examining them as a conversation with the land. 

Wildfires are an unregulated emotion, our mother crying out to be heard, but if we meet her in this conversation, and join the dance, we can slowly attune to more universal rhythms. These are the ways of Indigenous sciences, connected as they are, between the many nonhuman nations we rely on. 

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The remnants of North West Territories 2023 summer wildfire season. Photographs from Kakisa and Dehcho region. (Cassandra Blondin Burt)

Honoring our inner K’o means honoring our personal responsibility to learn temperance. It means honoring the beauty of owning our burning flames, our medicine, our shine, our brightness, while also knowing that fire can burn destructively. It means seeking the median, and asking,  what does the balance look like? 

To learn our space in community, as well as the beauty of burning bright is the process of individuation, of becoming, of enlightenment, of pathways towards expansion. Developing our gifts and allowing ourselves to be in our fullest forms as well as in the beauty and balance of community, of belonging, of nurturing connection, the sacredness of honoring others in their fullness, their fullest selves.

Honoring our inner K’o, our inner flames, and bringing those to the collective K’o that is a nation, that is a community, is alchemy, it is the root of spiritual paths that manifest in cultures around the world. The passing of stories, and the sharing of fire from one generation to the next is how we keep our traditions alive. When we gather for conferences, for sharing circles, for news, for media, for stories, to share grief,  all these are examples of welcoming each other into our shared K’o, our shared fire, our collective K’o.

Cassandra Blondin Burt

Cassandra Blondin Burt is a two-spirit Dene journalist, artist, and plant medicine maker living in Chief DryGeese Territory, Akaitcho Region, Denendeh.

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