Photos from Ron Goode’s cultural burns on 4.21.12

Not a lot of text in this post, only some quick photos. Last Saturday, April 21, a work crew from Santa Cruz-based American Conservation Experience (ACE) and AmeriCorps helped Ron Goode with a few cultural burns in the Sierra foothills. Also on hand to help were Ron’s nephew, Jesse, and yours truly.

Star-thistle pile burns by ACE and AmeriCorps

Ron Goode supervises the pile burning

ACE and AmeriCorps at work

Jesse tends a sourberry burn


Indigenous stories and common core standards: there’s exposition in those narratives

That tribes have been able to maintain their discrete identities as national groups can be attributed to their steadfast adherence to their mission as a distinct people, as revealed to them in creation or upon one of their migrations… Tribes are, therefore, ultimately guided by internal prophetic instructions rather than external political and economic events, and the success or failure of the tribe in dealing with unexpected problems can be traced to this concern with fulfilling their cosmic responsibilities

                                                            — Vine Deloria, Jr.

Tribal creation and migration stories pervade the Lessons of Our California Land (LOCL) land tenure curriculum in all grades, K-12, because the stories provide keys to understanding of American Indian views of land in the past and the present. Stories engage, inspire, and motivate listeners and readers in ways that technical instructions or scientific explanation cannot. An American Indian origin story is not only a sacred text that expresses beliefs about Creator and the Creation, it is also a guiding text in the sense that the founding documents of the United States such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are guiding texts. Origin stories show people how to put values and principles into action.

Much more than simple fables or fairy tales, California Native American stories often use uncomplicated sentence structures to build complex narratives that are often intentionally left open, stories that allude to other stories in a tribe’s repertoire and that reward repeated readings and tellings.

The complexity of Native American narratives may make them ideal resources for English and history teachers who want to help students meet the Common Core State Standards. The State of California adopted the Common Core – developed by a consortium of states to provide consistent educational goals across state lines – in 2010, but educators in the state are just now beginning to grapple with ways to implement the new standards in classrooms.

According to my friend Marsha Ingrao, who is the History-Social Science Instructional Consultant for the Tulare County Office of Education and one of the directors of the California Council for the Social Studies, the Common Core State Standards will “open the door for integration of academic content at an all new level of rigor.”

Marsha notes that the Common Core State Standards call for several shifts from the traditional state standards, shifts that will “bridge the gap” between English-language arts and history-social science in K-12 schools. Resulting instructional changes will include an increase in reading complex, non-fiction text and primary historical sources, and an increased focus on text-based questions.

As Marsha writes:

The key to teaching history is using questions to investigate the past. Integrating ELA and history-social science can be as easy as altering the kinds of questions teachers ask their students.

In professional development workshops, Marsha asks teachers to formulate open-ended, complex questions for students about their reading selections, rather than, as Marsha puts it, “the relatively simple recall questions that are typically found in their ELA textbooks.” In guiding these more complex inquiries, teachers may well learn a great deal about the texts from their student’s observations and interpretations of them.

The historical and social inquiries that make up an integral part of the LOCL curriculum could make the lessons prime components in a teacher’s toolkit of approaches to the Common Core State Standards. By encouraging teachers and students to pay attention to how Native American stories characterize relationships among places, plants, and animals (see the discussion guides here and here) LOCL guides them to insights into American Indian lands, national identities, and purposes.

The Common Core State Standards emphasize reading and writing expository text in addition to narrative.  By approaching Native American narratives in a respectful spirit of inquiry, teachers will find rich and deep exposition, explanation, and description within them.




Great Teaching, American Indian Education, and Social Media

My first two blog posts had to do mostly with cultural burning, with the “eco-cultural restoration” and “history” sides of my interests.  Today I’ll zero in on my third area of interest, on education.  Eventually all three areas – education, history, and restoration — should interweave on this blog, since lighting fires on the land for cultural purposes is like lighting fires of inquiry in human minds.

During my K-12 classroom teaching days, my current work on the Lessons of Our California Land (LOCL) curriculum, my past work with the California History-Social Science Project, and my ongoing work with the California Postsecondary Education Commission’s Improving Teacher Quality Program, a question has often come up:

What is good, great, or “effective” teaching?

The California Standards for the Teaching Profession (2009) answers the question this way:

Effective teachers integrate the following: (1) ethical concern for children and society; (2) extensive subject matter competence; (3) thoughtfully selected pedagogical practices; and (4) a depth of knowledge about their students, including knowledge of child and adolescent development and learning; an understanding of their individual strengths, interests, and needs; and knowledge about their families and communities.

Regarding the last clause in these state-listed criteria, unfortunately, professional development programs for teachers almost never strive to help teachers deepen their “knowledge about [students’] families and communities.”  In my work with professional development programs for teachers, involving a total of about twenty universities and perhaps fifty school districts, I have only rarely – quite rarely – seen the leaders of the programs try to foster such knowledge.

If the subject at hand is American Indian culture and history, and if Native American students are present in the class, how can teachers meet the State of California’s standards by extending their subject matter competence and deepening their knowledge of the students’ communities?  I’ve provided suggestions for how to get started on the tasks in LOCL’s teacher resource materials (PDFs here and here), but the challenges for teachers who want to develop their knowledge of Indigenous culture and history and improve their teaching are considerable, especially for teachers in rural, isolated school sites.

Some of the best models for approaches to professional development in American Indian education may come, surprisingly enough, from the UK, where a movement is underway to facilitate connections, communications, and collaboration among teachers, subject matter specialists, and families using social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter.  Take a look at the policy paper “Tweeting for Teachers” (PDF), for instance, for examples of how educators are using social media to cross boundaries and work with each other and with the communities that host their teaching. Here in California, social media holds great potential for teachers, community members, and experts in Crescent City, Covelo, Highland, Hoopa, Julian, or Lakeport to exchange ideas with others in Oroville, Santa Ynez, Temecula, Tollhouse, or Winterhaven.  Great teaching – great American Indian education – could follow from these connections.



Smoke rises to a diseased oak tree from a cultural burn conducted by Ron Goode on April 5, 2012. Photo by Jared Dahl Aldern.

At last week’s Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire and Smoke Symposium in Clovis, California, Nick Goulette of the Hayfork Watershed Research and Training Center shared an excellent website called GoodFIRES, a collaborative project of thirteen state forestry agencies in the southeastern United States. Click through the pages of GoodFIRES for a primer on the theory, practice, and benefits of prescribed burning.

Over the course of the morning at the Clovis symposium the overall message of the speakers — fire scientists, land managers, and air-quality regulatory agency staff — became clear: Fire is good. Smoke is bad. Prescribed fire reduces fuel, the speakers told us.  It prevents large, catastrophic wildfires, and it helps animals and plants by keeping their habitats healthy. Smoke, on the other hand, is another matter.  The consensus at the symposium seemed to be that smoke is a pernicious nuisance, a pollutant to be controlled and minimized — especially here in the San Joaquin Valley, where weather patterns, topography, and countless sources of pollutants keep Fresno and other Valley cities near the top of the nation’s most-polluted lists.

So went the overriding discussion theme, until North Fork Mono Tribal Chairman Ron Goode rose to make a comment.  Our oak trees need smoke to produce good acorns, he said.  Maybe we need a broader definition of health, he hinted.  His comments reminded me of what North Fork Mono elder Melvin Carmen told me a few years ago: “We’ve got to put smoke on those trees.”

Now, I like clean air as much as anybody else.  My family, with our asthmatic tendencies, has suffered since our move from the relatively clean air of San Diego County’s backcountry to Fresno in 2006, and I love the view of the Sierra from Fresno and Clovis on a clear day — a view that is the very picture of “purple mountains majesty.”  But on a smoky day, my wheezing and my inability to cast my gaze on the snowy peaks a few dozen miles away don’t stop me from appreciating the benefits that smoke provides.

Ron Goode’s comments at the fire and smoke symposium prompted me to ask one of the UC Berkeley fire scientists in attendance whether he knew of any current researchers working on the ecological effects of smoke, and he replied that he did not.

So I got busy on my smart phone and googled this up:

Here’s an interesting excerpt from pp.4-5 of that document:

The Need for Smoke

…[S]moke from wildfire has decreased seven-fold compared to pre-suppression times. Skies were consistently more smoky and hazy in the past, as fires burned frequently and naturally across the landscape. In 1898, Dr. C. Hart Merriam, Chief of the federal Division of Biological Survey, wrote: “Of the hundreds of persons who visit the Pacific coast in California to see the mountains, few see more than the foreground and a haze of smoke which even the strongest glass is unable to penetrate.” …

The concept of a “smoke deficit” may seem strange. One might say that if smoke contributes to air pollution, then smoke is only a detriment. Yet within the larger ecosystem context, smoke plays a necessary role. For reasons still being studied, the seeds of some plant species require exposure to smoke in order to germinate. Smoke also keeps certain insect populations and tree pathogens at bay. Excluding all smoke therefore could interrupt the natural cycles and environments in which these plants live. As scientists continue to document the many natural and necessary ecological functions of fire, so too they are discovering related beneficial effects of smoke.

There are a few other fragments of research on smoke floating around in the scientific literature. For instance, in Introduction to Fire in California, David Carle writes: 

Whispering bells (Emmenantha penduliflora) germinate when exposed to the nitrogen dioxide in smoke for as little as one minute.

And Kat Anderson wrote in a 2009 report for the National Plant Data Center:

It is possible that the smoke from the fires curtailed oak diseases.  It is known that smoking foods reduces microbial activity, yet the effects of smoke generated from burning plant materials has rarely been studied in forest ecosystems.  

Yes, breathing too much smoke can be detrimental to our health.  But if we inquire further, perhaps we’ll find that smoke has its health benefits, too — for us and for the land.  Maybe we’ll all agree, eventually, with Australia’s Traditional Knowledge Revival Pathways project that fire and smoke lead to healthy country and healthy people:

During a rainy spell I sometimes hear people say, “You know, I sure am tired of all this rain, but I know we need it.” Maybe someday word will get around — after all, where there are GoodFIRES there may eventually be a GoodSMOKE website and other good educational resources — and we may even start to hear during fire season, “You know, I sure am tired of all this smoke, but I know we need it.”

Ron Goode and his nephew Jesse tend a cultural burn in the Sierra foothills, April 5, 2012. Photo by Jared Dahl Aldern.