Last month, the ABC reported a story about an Australian Indigenous fire practitioner, Victor Steffensen, who is working with traditional owners of the Tsilhqot’in Nation to share knowledge of traditional burning practices for land management and protection.
In 2017, just three years after the Tsilhqot’in Nation won Aboriginal title to a vast area of their traditional homeland in a landmark ruling of the Canadian Supreme Court, large areas of Tsilhqot’in territory were destroyed in the largest wildfires in the region’s history.
Mr Steffensen has spent over 20 years working with Indigenous communities in Australia to recover their traditional fire practices, work he started with two Kuku-Thayapn elders from Cape York in far north Queensland.
His trips to Canada mark the second time he has worked with traditional owners, on country with fire, outside Australia.
Indigenous communities in Canada used similar practises for generations but much of the knowledge has been lost but is now being reinvigorated.
Through the support of the Gathering Voices Society, a Vancouver-based charitable foundation, Mr Steffensen spent time on country in November 2018, observing and talking to the Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in people.
“When I first went over there it was totally alien to me. There’s snow, all different species of pine and other trees,” Mr Steffensen said.
“So it was all about working with the traditional owners there to learn the country. It was like starting all over again, except this time I had a better understanding from our own knowledge and experiences.
“This is something that’s been done for generations on generations, and something that’s been suppressed. We are just trying to reinvigorate something that was always within us.”
For chief Russell Myers Ross, reviving traditional fire keeping practice is not just about healing land, but healing people.
“Having a landscape that is in constant turmoil or stress, not knowing that plants are replenishing themselves, it’s hard on our community,” Mr Ross said.
“We’re in flux trying to understand our own landscape and how to provide for ourselves.
Mr Steffensen is due to return to Canada with the support of the Gathering Voices Society in April to continue his work with Tsilhqot’in communities to rebuild the practice of fire keeping.
For Mr Steffensen it will take many generations to heal sick landscapes, but he believes it is crucial that those living today take the first step.
“The urgency has passed. There are animals that are already extinct, our elders have already passed, knowledge already gone to the grave,” he said.
“There’s devastating fires all around the world, there’s sickness within landscape. What more can I say? We need to start acting now.
“We’re past our due date, but I believe that there’s still time.”