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7 Generations Later; The Return of Indigenous Land Stewardship

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

What does it mean to steward the land, including all of its inhabitants and ecosystems? What is the measure of healthy land? In the last ~200 years, our land in Sonoma County has undergone major changes due in large part to indigenous people losing influence. The tradition of indigenous land stewardship assumes that the land, the people, the animals and the plants are all valued and cannot survive without each other. It is a fundamentally sustainable land care system where humans and our needs are deeply interwoven with the land, the soil, the animals and flora. This is contrasted sharply with a more modern capitalist-minded land management model where most humans are removed from the land, our needs come from far-off farms and factories, and short-term resource extraction/economic factors are primary.

In modern times using synthetic herbicides like glyphosate/RoundUp to deal with unwanted vegetation has become a common land management strategy because of its efficiency and low initial cost. Since we don't rely on our land for food and goods the toxic residue left behind might not seem important. We are slowly realizing now what the true costs of this practice have been to our waters, the ecosystem, the health of our community, and our connection to the land. We are now looking back to the time-tested tools used 200 years ago (grazing animals, prescribed burning, and strategic mowing/pruning) not only to reduce fire danger but to to completely reawaken the land to its full life-giving (and carbon sequestering) potential.

Our non-profit sponsored organization, Sonoma Safe Ag Safe Schools (Sonoma SASS) is dedicated to educating the community about pesticide use and advocating for nontoxic alternatives. All pesticides (this includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, etc.) are designed to kill and should be used only as a last resort. Our local Sonoma County land managers have made great improvements in the last 5 years to significantly reduce pesticides used in land management. The next step will be for these entities to embrace the more truly sustainable indigenous land stewardship practices. These are time-tested ways to address challenges such as invasive species and fire risk that work with the land and do not involve toxic chemicals.

Indigenous fire ecologist Clint McKay spoke recently at the CalCAN summit about the difference between land management and land stewardship. Clint brings to our land an unbroken tradition from his ancestors (Wappo and Pomo) on how to live in a fully integrated and more harmonious way with our ecosystem. 7 generations ago, indigenous people in Sonoma County were forcibly removed from traditional land stewardship activities. It is only now that Clint and his children and grandchildren are able to once again steward the land in traditional ways at places like the Pepperwood Preserve. 7 generations later, the broken tradition is beginning to be repaired.

Given all of the modern complexities most notably the intricate grid of private land ownership throughout Sonoma County going back to a more holistic, regional based strategy for land stewardship will have its challenges. However, with the reality of fires, drought, and climate change, it may very well be our best path forward.

Returning to indigenous land stewardship traditions is the best way for our government agencies to transition away from their reliance on pesticides. Our work with Sarah Keiser and the Community Grazing Cooperative is demonstrating how these time honored techniques can be used in Sonoma County to restore relationships to build a healthy fire ecosystems. If you support this work please make a tax deductible donation to our Grazing Land Stewardship program today. We are currently raising funds to support the publication of a white paper that will document healthy land stewardship methods demonstrated in pilot studies throughout Sonoma County.

Goats cut the grass down and fertilize the soil, something that mowers and pesticides can't do.

Goats can tackle all sorts of difficult plants, from native poison oak to non-native Asian Blackberries and Spanish Broom!

Fire is also traditionally used in indigenous land stewardship.

Photos by Paige Green

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