#WildfireWednesday: The Indigenous Impact
#WildfireWednesday: The Indigenous Impact
An interview with Mary Big Bull-Lewis
By Andrew Glenn
It’s September 2020, and I’m experiencing my first wildfire season out West. Growing up in Arkansas, fire was usually paired under s’mores and roasted hot dogs. It was the centerpiece to outdoor conversations, a no-brainer after Friday night lights, and the siren for a cozy night under the stars. My knowledge around wildfires was merely textbook. Stories of personal impact were usually telephoned through my extended family, rarely stirring more than sympathy for loss of property.
While hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017, I experienced the impact wildfires have on a landscape and started to digest the exponential effect they have on the communities within. The air quality was shocking; the chaos and fear even moreso. Three years later, I’d move to Central Oregon ahead of the worst wildfire season on record, inevitably reforming my understanding of fire and the scale of its impact.
As wildfires tear through California, Oregon, and Washington, I want to better understand. Who is being impacted? Are there needs that are not being covered in the media? What does this mean for the future of these spaces I love, and what in the world does a 500+ AQI mean for my health?
Some questions may go unanswered, but I’m looking forward to the next few weeks of #WildfireWednesday to ask them anyway.
The Indigenous Impact
One of the first wildfires to pop up in Central Oregon was the Lionshead Fire near the Warm Springs Reservation; a fire that’s grounding planes, displacing many, and currently only 10% contained. Knowing disasters typically affect marginalized people groups the most, I’ve been curious about the scale and untold impact of wildfires in Native American communities.
Though under unfortunate circumstances, I was grateful to connect with the incredible Mary Big Bull-Lewis. Mary is a member of the Colville Confederated Tribe — Wenatchi, Moses and Entiat bands and a descendant of the Blackfoot Tribe. Mary, with her husband Rob, founded Wenatchi Wear in 2019 to bring awareness and empower Indigenous communities through purposeful, authentic designs. Dueling powers in entrepreneurship and activism, it was no surprise to find Mary on the frontlines of Wildfire relief efforts for Eastern Washington.
It was a gift to (virtually) sit with Mary and metabolize the many facets of wildfire with Native American communities. Here’s what I learned:
AG: How are Indigenous Communities being impacted most by current wildfires?
Mary: Indigenous Communities are being most impacted by the current wildfires by losing their homes, and everything they own. Family heirlooms that have been passed down from generation to generation including beadwork, regalia, sacred pieces, photos, and more. These cannot be replaced and with Native Americans constantly facing complete removal of our culture through colonialism, this is a piece of our ancestors & roots.
AG: What role does socio-economics play in wildfire relief?
Mary: Socio-economics plays a huge role in wildfire relief.
These particular fires in North Central Washington have impacted Native Americans & Latinos significantly. Both these groups of people continue to face social injustices. The Colville Reservation consists of 12 Tribes, each of these tribes were forced off of their original homelands onto land with significantly different environments due to the government not upholding treaties. So, disconnection from our ancestral lands causes further separation from our culture.
We are the land and the land is us. With many of the tribes not being federally recognized, it is more difficult to grow our original way of life. [There are] higher levels of poverty on the reservation. Blood quantum’s making it difficult for families whose parents have enough Native blood to be enrolled and receive benefits, [but] the children may not and cannot apply for Tribal Assistance in instances like a wildfire.
AG: What can we learn from Indigenous land management with the evolving climate?
Mary: We can learn a lot from Indigenous land management during our climate crisis. Properly handling the forests, as Indigenous tribes did for thousands of years. Preservation, moving away from fossil fuels to renewable power sources that are less destructive of the land, air, and water.
AG: What role does wildfire play in the community’s spiritual connection to the landscape?
Mary: Wildfires greatly affect the Indigenous community’s spiritual connection to the land and landscape. Many Indigenous peoples maintained, clear burned, and properly cared for the land. Our connection with the land is sacred. Some tribes who participate in sweat lodges are unable to do so, due to the high risk of the fires & air quality. Native Americans are at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, and more. Smoke from the wildfires can significantly affect or amplify those conditions.
AG: What resources could individuals use to learn more?
Mary: There are great resources at the touch of our fingertips in this digital age. However, [it’s] best to go directly to the tribe’s websites, which many have history, videos, and resources for the public to learn from. There are also a lot of Native American artists that are creating educational pieces along with designs, like Wenatchi Wear. Wenatchi Wear is an Indigenous for profit small business that launched in early 2019 and is passionate about creating awareness & empowering Indigenous Peoples through authentic threads. Wenatchi Wear designs with a purpose, each design shares important Native American history primarily focusing on local tribes, like the Wenatchi (P’Squosa) Tribe.
AG: Lastly, how can one help?
Mary: Many people are looking to help those affected by the wildfires directly.
Grassroots Indigenous groups are stepping up to create community connection and direct assistance to those in need immediately. Wenatchi Wear has a PayPal account: email@example.com. We are also collaborating with like-minded Indigenous non-profits who are on the ground, delivering items to people on the reservation, getting people who have been evacuated or lost their homes into hotel rooms, and keeping everyone safe.
The River Warrior Society is the one non-profit that I am directing our funds directly to. Their PayPal is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have several other Indigenous groups from all over Washington State, and across several states that are meeting several times a week via Zoom calls to discuss our next plan moving forward. The Missing and Murdered Indigneous Women Washington State (@mmiwwashington) is another organization assisting with our groups efforts.
We are recommending monetary donations, that way volunteers can purchase what is needed when it is needed. Only new & unused items are accepted as donations, but the need changes daily. Our storage facilities have changed this week. Limiting the number of items we have to store saves valuable time that can be focused on direct efforts.
A massive thank you to Mary for sharing her perspective and bringing more light to the wildfires out west.