Ndee Hotspots: Ethics, Healing and Management

From the Series: Firestorm: Critical Approaches to Forest Death and Life

Fires burning across the North American West send smoke pouring into the Pacific, September 10, 2020. Image by the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere.

Indigenous fire management strategies often reach back to time immemorial. Within the context of the White Mountain Apache Tribe in east-central Arizona, oral traditions discuss reciprocal bonds between human and nonhuman agents that guarantee ongoing balance and harmony through the Ndee cultural tenet of Gózhó—beauty, balance, and harmony. Wildland firefighting on the reservation enhances this bond of comanagement and relationality, but oftentimes traditional areas off reservation lands are also threatened by large, fast-moving wildland fire as well. Non-Indigenous fire suppression techniques often do not operate with the goal of enhancing and maintaining reciprocal bonds between human and nonhuman agents, which include the natural environment and resources.

For me, as a former Indigenous wildland firefighter and fire archaeologist-resource advisor for my own tribe I have witnessed first-hand the destructive nature of not only direct fire-related impacts to cultural heritage resources but those associated with firefighting suppression activities as well. What can be done to prevent a bulldozer from plowing through an ancestral Pueblo ruin? What can be done when a back burn burns so hot it obliterates all natural and cultural heritage resources? What can be done to fully take seriously Indigenous understandings of their own heritage and best management practices as actionable components of real time, everyday fire management and suppression activities beyond tribal trust land boundaries? Because of the need to control and suppress wildland fire, which are often characterized as natural or anthropogenic caused disasters, how do we effectively balance and respect tribal cultural protocols during such chaotic and disastrous events where the need to think quickly and act swiftly are necessary? Beyond red-flagging and buffer zones, the cultural ties to places, watersheds, resources, and sites are often overshadowed by the need to aggressively slow down and contain fire movement and spread.

One of the ten wildland firefighting standing fire orders of the U.S. National Wildfire Coordinating Group—“Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.”—can also help stress Indigenous cultural preservation techniques. Moving hastily to set a flare or drip-torch, which are basic wildland firefighting tools to ignite fuels to backburn huge areas to slow fire progression, is often necessary. However, the failure to take into account how destructive human-induced fire can be to cultural heritage resources can have deep social, political, religious, and psychological consequences. Because areas like mountain summits and peaks encompass cultural heritage resources that are finite and irreplaceable it is necessary for on-the-line ethics of engagement to be considered in various circumstances. Human life and safety is of the utmost importance during wildland fires, but in remote or rural areas outside of wildland-urban interface (WUI) areas there are ample opportunities to slow down and act decisively in accordance with Indigenous cultural values and protocols for cultural heritage resource protection and preservation. Understanding inseparability of Indigenous tangible and intangible cultural heritage is something that needs to be stressed during trainings and/or during supervisor/crew briefings. Putting such cultural knowledge and preservation techniques into practice during in-field fire management and suppression activities is crucial to avoid unnecessary destruction and damage to finite and irreplaceable cultural resources.

For example, a number of years ago I was working on a large-scale wildland fire burning in a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) associated with various tribes in eastern and southern Arizona. As a member of one of the tribes having affiliation to the mountainscape, I knew the immense significance of the area to local Indigenous communities as a place of ceremony, prayer, guidance. The entire mountainscape is associated with creation, deities, and ongoing Ndee well-being. During the 1980s a congressional rider was pushed through Congress approving the construction of an astronomical observatory near the top of one of the peaks having associations with the University of Arizona, the Max-Planck Institute in Germany, and even the Vatican.

During the fire all efforts were going to protect the telescopes and associated structures. A back burn was set off as a buffer zone directly in a holy cienega-spring area with associated shrines where Ndee people have come to pray, collect power, and leave offerings since time immemorial. As one of two fire archaeologists working the fire, I had no idea the back burn was being ignited in an area of such critical importance to Ndee people. It was heartbreaking to walk the area after the burn and view the telescopes towering over the tree line above while experiencing and seeing my own cultural areas and values viewed only as an afterthought. Why was so much effort being put into a structure that had no relevance to Ndee cultural, religious, social, and spiritual well-being? Why are Indigenous cultural perceptions and values always afterthoughts in comparison to non-Indigenous economic and scientific needs? As a tribal member I could not help but think about why Western notions of importance, knowledge seeking, and even religious pursuits are constantly viewed as more important and “worth” protecting more so than Indigenous knowledge systems.

Protection and preservation of such areas are critical during these times of increased climate change and large-scale world health issues like the COVID-19 pandemic. In the southwest United States, Indigenous health, healing, and overall well-being is tied directly to the land. Medicinal plants are gathered, spring water is utilized, and prayers are sent to the creator. However, unnecessary decimation and destruction through wildland firefighting suppression techniques infringe on Indigenous capacities to live and remain in balance with the natural world. Pre- and post-fire assessments should be directly linked to broader long-term effects on cultural values and livelihoods that are inextricably tied to the landscape and environment. As my fellow tribal citizen Ramon Riley (Senior 2004, 93) has stated in reference to a large-scale wildland fire occurring on reservation lands, such disasters happen “because the world is out of balance.” Maintaining and restoring balance is absolutely critical, but cultural values have to be taken seriously and acted upon during fire management activities to ensure cultural livelihood, harmony, and ongoing community well-being. Moreover, it is important to note that maintaining senses of Gózhó within Ndee communities is part of the larger cultural and social dynamics of the past and present that have defined Ndee people since time immemorial.


Senior, Louise M. 2004. “Athapaskan Occupation and Land Use.” In Rim Country Ethnicity: An Ethnographic Resources Inventory of the Rodeo-Chediski Burn Area, prepared by SWCA Environmental Consultants. SWCA Cultural Resources Report No. 03-164.