Since time immemorial until the arrival of white colonists, fires regularly burned the area that became greater Portland. Lightning-made fires would spark up in overgrown places, clearing out excess fuel like dead bushes and down branches over a few acres.
The region’s Indigenous people used fire extensively. Tribes, bands and families burned prairies to harvest tarweed seeds and woodlands to gather acorns, shaping and molding the ecosystem to favor habitats and plants that sustained their diverse societies and cultures. Sustained – and still sustain.
Early last fall, a wildland fire team from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde led a prescribed burn of Quamash Prairie Natural Area west of Tigard. For several years, Metro has worked at the prairie with members of the region’s Indigenous community, which includes members of more than 380 tribes and bands from across North America. Community members have advised on conservation practices, held ceremonies at the prairie, harvested foods, and gathered plants for basketry and ink-making.
Bringing fire back to the prairie has been critical. Here’s how fire works.
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A year ago, Colby Drake had never heard of Quamash Prairie, a low-lying property that winds alongside the Tualatin River near Southwest Scholls Ferry Road. Now, on a clear, cool fall day, he knows more about it than nearly anyone. He knows its contours and topography. He knows how much of the prairie is tender grass and flowers and how much is woody shrubs and saplings. He knows its moisture level.
And he knows how much of it will burn when his crew lights it on fire. It’s a particular kind of knowledge: Scientific, built on numbers and models, paired with 22 years of experience fighting wildfires and setting controlled fires. It’s the knowledge of a burn boss, a position Drake has held with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde for two years. It’s the knowledge needed to safely burn 32 acres of the 254-acre prairie to help restore it. But it’s paired with another knowledge, an ancestral knowledge of the importance of fire in the traditional land practices of Indigenous peoples.
When Curt Zonick, a conservation scientist at Metro, approached Drake about managing a prescribed burn at Quamash Prairie, the burn boss knew he wanted to work on the project.
“With our ceded lands up and down the I-5 corridor,” Drake said, “why wouldn’t we want to participate in these projects that restore fire to these natural areas?” Like nearly every acre of ground in greater Portland, Quamash Prairie is ceded land. When white colonists arrived in Oregon, they used violence and murder to push Native people off their ancestral lands. In the mid-1850s, the U.S. government formalized this takeover through a series of treaties with tribes and bands in the region.
The federal government forced tribes and bands to cede their homelands in exchange for removal to sometimes far-flung reservations. Many of the Indigenous people in what is now greater Portland became part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. In 1954, the United States terminated the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, dissolving the tribal government, dismantling the reservation and relocating tribal members to urban centers like Portland.
This colonial process frayed – though never broke – the tribes’ and bands’ connections to the land. The fraying was a cultural and spiritual violence against Indigenous people, but it also damaged the fabric of the ecosystem. Prairies, forests and wetlands shaped by Indigenous people since time immemorial became cities or farms or were overgrown by plants – native plants like Douglas firs as well as invasive plants – that had been held back by controlled fires set by Native people.
By the 1990s, when Metro started acquiring the land now known as Quamash Prairie, the site had been a farm for decades. During this time, the tribe was rebuilding. In 1983, the Grand Ronde was restored as a federally recognized tribe, and it began the process of reestablishing its government, membership and connections to its ceded lands.
During this rebuilding, Drake learned he is Grand Ronde, beginning his own reconnection to his tribe and his ancestral lands.
“For me, I sometimes struggle with the cultural side of being Indigenous. I wasn’t raised with it. I sometimes feel uncomfortable taking part in these practices. Sometimes I’m asked to introduce myself in my native language, but I don’t know any,” he said. “So I think about my personal ancestors. I think about what they were doing, and what they were doing was agriculture. They were using fire to keep down weeds, to flush out game, to create shooting lanes.”
Drake’s science-based, fire-boss knowledge provides him a way to connect to the land, to remember his ancestors. And it helps other Indigenous community members in the region, both Grand Ronde members and the thousands of others connected with other places across the country, to do the same. Some of them bring the cultural knowledge Drake is still learning.
On the day of the burn at Quamash Prairie, as the last of the smoke goes out, Drake and Zonick, the Metro scientist, walk onto the charred field with Greg Archuleta and Christine and Clifton Bruno. Archuleta and the Brunos, along with dozens of other Indigenous community members, have worked with Metro for more than 15 years at the prairie, bringing their expertise in traditional ecological knowledge and Indigenous practices in the region to the process of restoring the prairieturned-field-returned-prairie.
Archuleta and the Brunos don’t see the burned field as something sad and destroyed. They see the return of a normal stage of prairie life: the post-burn, a chance for regrowth. They see what the prairie can provide now and how it can be healed to provide more to future generations.
A few weeks later, Archuleta, who is a Grand Ronde member and employee, is walking across the prairie with Gerardo Rodriguez, a member of Portland’s urban Indigenous community who is Yaqui and Nahua. The prairie is still black and ashy. Archuleta sees more.
The work of Drake and his crews has allowed Archuleta and Rodriguez to harvest tarweed seed. Tarweed gets its name from the sappy coating that covers its seed pods. As Archuleta pops open the pods and threshes the seeds in his palm, he explains that the Kalapuya and Tualatin people who lived along the Tualatin River used fire to burn off the tar, allowing the harvest of the nutrient-rich seeds.
As Archuleta picks out the seeds and deposits them in a Ziploc bag, the past tense “used” soon shifts to “use” and on to “will use.” Fire is back at Quamash Prairie.