Editor’s note: Ryan Reed is from the Karuk, Hupa and Yurok tribes in Northern California. He is an Indigenous Fire Practitioner, co-founder and program director of the FireGeneration Collaborative, wildland firefighter, University of California Berkeley master’s student, and prides himself as a Karuk Medicine person strongly connected to his cultural practices and Pikyavish (World Renewal) ceremonies. In this blog, Ryan describes his relationship with fire, and the healing work of addressing intergenerational trauma through building movements for the future.

This blog is an installment in our Project Firehawk series. The series is named in reference to a cohort of Australian birds who carry fire in their beaks to spark change. It’s essays explore the core underpinnings of our work and challenge the status quo. We have asked the series’ authors to be bold as they tackle hard questions to reveal needed shifts in our relationship with fire. We hope this series continues the larger conversation about what it really means to live better with fire.

I grew up deep in the mountains on the Ishkêesh in the Mid-Klamath River Basin, California. No cell service, no stoplights, and sometimes no stop signs. Fishing, hunting, and gathering – but mostly fishing – were all activities I looked forward to growing up. That, and seeing family, friends, and anybody. I really valued relationships as a kid, and just being around the people of our land. Ceremonies, dipnetting for salmon, family barbecues, birthday parties – these were all places of rich knowledge, stories, and genuine connection. It was a great time, and always centered around a fire of some sort – medicine fire, cooking fire, warming fire, and even the occasional fire you let creep around the understory near the house. 

Changes in Generations, Changes in a Lifetime

As time went on, my communities, once a bright and glowing aura, became clouded by darkness, hopelessness, and uncertainty. Maybe it was my youthful innocence fading day after day, or life on the river emerging as unendurable and unlivable, but it wasn’t the same. There’s a particular difficulty growing up in the same place your entire life, especially a place like mine. You witness replacement. Places of fruitful knowledge generation and exchange become places of emptiness, silence and neglect. Rich and joyful conversations with a relative are spoiled into family feuds and anguish. That strong and beautiful medicine song in ceremony turns to self-medication and demise. 

Increasingly, family members, friends, community leaders, and knowledge holders are withdrawn from others and society. That’s a different kind of pain. A type of pain that isn’t felt by many who live the day to talk about it. No therapy, no relief from pain or suffering from the trauma they’ve experienced, or from the generations before. You may be wondering, is this relevant to fire? It absolutely is. 

Since time immemorial, communities like mine have stewarded the land and developed strategic and innovative management practices to sustain people, ecosystems, and the reciprocity between them. An abundance of historical and scientific research shows that cultural practices and stewardship (e.g., burning, aquatic species and wildlife management, ceremonies, etc.) have contributed to the establishment and maintenance of old-growth habitats, creating one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, supporting fire-adapted ecosystems, and adapting to other issues connected with changing climates across the Pacific Northwest (Long et al, 2021) (Norgaard, 2019). I learned this not in my school, but while I was in community with knowledge holders. In fact, I remember in elementary school being upset, as I felt like I always was, for not learning my own history and cultural practices. Instead, we learned about the mission system in southern California, the California Gold Rush, or even the Oregon Trail. I didn’t exactly know why I was “raising hell” or that I was “being a disruption in class,” it’s just how I felt. Upon reflection, what I felt in those moments was Indigenous erasure. 

Living a Shattered Existence

We were contacted by white people late. A quick story: Ned Rasper, also known as “Indian Ned,” a prominent and legendary figure and teacher to my Great-Grandpa, was about 116 years of age when he passed. In the 1830s, when Indian Ned was a teenager, he met a group of white people from Denmark whose ship wrecked in the Trinidad Bay, and stumbled aimlessly into the Klamath Mountains trying to get to Oregon. The early ethnographers confirmed the date of the shipwreck, ultimately proving his age. The white people who traded with Ned and others had a good interaction, and even made a good impression on our people. However, [they] were the only good group of colonizers, he stated, as future relations were “problematic” at best. I know this story via oral teaching starting with my great grandfather, Francis Davis  (1898-1977), to his daughter, Vera Davis (1930-2003), and to my father, Ron Reed (1962- present). Indian Ned passed down world renewal ceremonial information along with personal accounts of his life. 

Through that, much of our traditional ceremonies and oral teachings were relatively intact. But that doesn’t mean we escaped the grasp of pale hands, as lightly emphasized above. Terrorism and (eco)genocide by white settlers plagued our lands thereafter. Dam implementation followed by salmon kills, mining resulting in ecological and physical violence (rape, forced-sterilization, murder), logging and extraction of our forests (coupled with over a century of fire suppression), and the removal and regulatory restriction of Indigenous practitioners and management practices, created and puts us in this world of climate-driven catastrophic, devastating wildfires. But what remains, though fragmented and some parts even forever lost, is the resilience and oral teachings within our communities that lives on through the generations to come.

There are so many examples of how we’ve been impacted by white people’s inability to understand the land and us. But what’s consistent is they took us away from the land, and divided us up in order to conquer what they wanted – “kill the Indian to save the man.” What’s important here is understanding the history. Not just here in the Klamath Basin, but everywhere. Settler colonialism isn’t a singular or historical event, but rather has an ongoing impact on Indigenous (and all people of color) everywhere. I feel the pain, trauma, and shattered existence when I see the decline in salmon, acorns, basketry materials, cultural practices, and burning on the landscape. My inability to burn as often or where I should is a direct impact of settler colonialism. But what’s most important is the impact on our identity. Society reminds me daily I don’t belong, and sure as hell am not meant to succeed, whether it’s higher education, federal advisory committees, policy-making groups, or even in the fire world. Hearing stories about the old ways of doing things, or how the landscape used to look… honestly only increases the pain. Succumbing to anguish is a key indicator that white people’s goals to eradicate us have become a slowly growing cancer that gets at the essence of our minds, and tries to break our spirit. But the thing is, generation after generation, we refuse to break.

Reckoning with Identities 

Fire connects us to everything. It’s the giver and taker of life, it has a spirit and purpose of its own, and in order to restore our relationship with fire and the landscape, we must understand and heal from our past. Though I may be challenged for saying this, the struggles of a Native man in today’s society are severely neglected. The importance of providing salmon to our community, or laying fire down in our ceremonial and gathering sites, feeds the spirit and enables our identity to emerge. Without salmon, fire, and spaces to practice positive and traditional forms of masculinity, how can we create real change? That’s the role and significance of fire (Norgaard, 2018). The ability to unite and practice what we’ve always done since time immemorial has been more than what research can quantify or hypothesize about. To be clear, I’m not shining a light on this to suppress other identities’ struggles, or for me to not acknowledge the patriarchal world we live in and that I privilege from in certain ways. It’s actually the opposite. The harm that Native men perpetuate, and are assumed to, is appalling, and a product of neglect and patriarchy. There’s significant responsibility on the individual, but structurally this is a strategic characteristic of settler colonialism. 

Rejecting Indigenous Erasure and Showing Up for What’s Next

I don’t feel any resentment or hate for those who are unknowingly sources of my pain or trauma, because I know. I hear and learn the stories of your past derived from boarding schools and oppression. A place where you were forcibly trained as militants… to be greedy, violent, and ashamed for who you were – and had no other choice if you wanted to survive. That’s all you came to know. That takes healing, and it is healing that doesn’t exist in mainstream society. But it does exist in ours. It takes shape in lighting fires where they haven’t been lit in over a century; it’s sharing laughter and stories with our young ones; it means forgiving them, and ourselves for what has happened. 

Truth is, before I leave this earth, I want to leave it better than when I came into it – that’s always been my goal. Since colonization, mainstream leadership (and even tribal leadership, admittedly) has largely buried the responsibility to future generations. I can’t think or do for others, nor can I try to solve their problems (trust me I have tried and failed), but I can control what I have influence over, even if it is small. And so I say this: Indigenous erasure operates and works in different ways, silence being a main tool. Whether you’re an educator, laborer, forest manager, person in leadership, sociologist, ecologist, you have a role to play and a responsibility to follow through on. What we do today will impact the future. If we embedded this at every level, would we continue the decision-making that led us to the climate crisis? I want to re-implement this concept of intergenerational knowledge transfer and reciprocity into practice under Indigenous leadership. In 2022, I co-founded FireGeneration Collaborative. We build community and political capacity for young people in fire and land management, centering marginalized communities and Indigenous leadership. The stories and the resistance to succumb entirely to extinction is what I carry forward. This is my attempt at healing, and hopefully it can be a place of healing for others too.

A man crouches in grass in front of a building, smiling at the camera and with fingers interlaced. He wears a beaded necklace.

I also want to say to the Native kid who’s tryna make it: you have an immeasurable force and system pushing against you, but you’re powerful beyond conception – harness that. You matter, and so does your voice — do something with it. You are not alone so forget the looks, the money, the artificial acts. And whether you go into higher education, trade school, into the workforce, or whatever field: think for yourself, continue to learn, and do what makes you happy – everything else will follow. 


Long, Jonathan, et al. “The Importance of Indigenous Cultural Burning in Forested Regions of the Pacific West, USA.” Science Direct, 21 Nov. 2021, www-sciencedirect-com.libproxy.berkeley.edu/science/article/pii/S0378112721006873?via%3Dihub

Norgaard, Kari Marie. Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People: Colonialism, Nature, and Social Action. Rutgers University Press, 2019. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/71744.

Norgaard, K. M., Reed, R., & Bacon, J. M. (2018). How Environmental Decline Restructures Indigenous Gender Practices: What Happens to Karuk Masculinity When There Are No Fish? Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 4(1), 98-113. https://doi-org.libproxy.berkeley.edu/10.1177/2332649217706518

A note on these citations:

Unconventionally, I added the references after I wrote this piece. Not because I referred to them, but to show how others are thinking of this very same thing in different ways. Momentum is building. Additionally, the citations included were for those who think I’m just talking without direction, and those who need peer-reviewed references to justify where I was coming from. 


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