The following is the established format for referencing this article:Oberholzer Dent, J. R., C. Smith, M. C. Gonzales, and A. B. Lincoln-Cook. 2023. Getting back to that point of balance: Indigenous environmental justice and the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association. Ecology and Society 28(1):14.
Emerging theories of Indigenous environmental justice reframe environmental problems and solutions using Indigenous onto-epistemologies, emphasizing the agency of non-human relations and influence of colonialism. The California Indian Basketweavers’ Association (CIBA) embodies this paradigm in its work to expand access to gathering areas, revitalize cultural burning, and stop pesticide use. Through our different positionalities as CIBA members, California Indian basketweavers, and researchers, we construct a case study of Indigenous environmental justice that articulates environmental stewardship as intrinsically linked with cultural and spiritual practice. Through education, information sharing, relationship building, lobbying, and collective action among its membership and land management agencies, CIBA has expanded basketweavers’ access to safe and successful gathering. By sustaining millennia of tradition, CIBA builds Indigenous sovereignty and shifts California’s land management paradigm toward environmental justice and global survival.
Indigenous environmental justice (IEJ) addresses environmental harm and restores just relationships with the environment through action rooted in Indigenous philosophies and onto-epistemologies (Parsons n.d., Barad 2003). Beginning with an understanding of colonization and environmental catastrophe as intertwined, it seeks both Indigenous sovereignty and global survival by reconception of “justice” on Indigenous terms. It is a response to environmental racism and a continuation of Indigenous resistance and resurgence.
Despite ongoing violence, California Indian basketweavers continue to fill a crucial role in their communities by maintaining traditional arts and community connections to land through stewardship and gathering of basket plants. What is often left unrecognized is the broader implications of their work through an environmental justice (EJ) lens, as with weavers’ work to reestablish Indigenous access to land, restore cultural burning practices, and resist pesticide use. Over nearly three decades, the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association (CIBA) has been working “to preserve, promote and perpetuate California Indian basketweaving traditions while providing a healthy physical, social, spiritual and economic environment for basketweavers” (CIBA n.d.a). By facilitating gatherings, empowering weavers and their communities, and fighting for their right to gather materials, CIBA has promoted healthy and just relationships with land and basket plants, the revitalization of critical cultural practices, and the leadership of cultural practitioners. Far beyond the preservation of material culture, CIBA is working to maintain traditional stewardship practices, promote IEJ, and fortify spiritual relationships between weavers, baskets, and land.
Today’s weavers face barriers in gathering materials connected to settler colonial legacies and environmental mismanagement. Land use change, environmental degradation, and the funneling of Native lands to both public and private owners have disrupted or destroyed gathering sites used for generations and produce onerous barriers to contemporary weavers. Beverly Ortiz (1993: 205) writes: “Stream channelization, overgrazing, agricultural and mining practices, and pollution have also taken their toll ... In addition to environmental destruction, private and public property restrictions, permit procedures, herbicide and pesticide spraying, competition with commercial collectors, non-existent or ineffective burn policies, improper waste disposal, and safety considerations all have an impact on contemporary weavers.”
Addressing these barriers is a key mission of CIBA, which places it on the frontlines of IEJ. Often, weavers are criminalized for pursuing their work as cultural practitioners and must negotiate gathering policies and other cultural use agreements. The California Indian Basketweavers’ Association has been a broker of these relationships with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS), California State Parks, and other land agencies as well as a source of empowerment for weavers to take these steps on their own. This paper will describe IEJ advocacy led by CIBA in three areas: land access, cultural burns, and pesticide use. Its historic and ongoing activities will provide examples of emerging theories in IEJ and their longstanding precedent in Indigenous communities. Our purpose is to spotlight the contemporary work of CIBA and the continuation of tradition by weavers, demonstrate what IEJ can look like in practice, and contribute to the recent theorization of these activities.
For thousands of years, California Indians have shaped the environments around them to increase productivity, build resilience, and fulfill spiritual responsibilities to the land. Far from the popular ideas that Europeans encountered a pristine wilderness and that California Indians were hunter-gatherers at the mercy of natural conditions, the landscape we know is in reality a product of complex natural resource management and spiritual dedication (Denevan 1992, Blackburn and Anderson 1993, Anderson 2005, Risling Baldy 2013). Weavers, baskets, and basket plants lie at the heart of this tradition. Carolyn Smith’s (2016: 1-2) powerful dissertation testifies to truths about weaving that have gone unrecognized by outsiders: “basketweaving is a way of life and a way of knowing about the world. Baskets are not just containers, nor are they static objects. Baskets carry the weight of history, vitality, loss, and spiritual connection to the land... Baskets hold knowledge about the world, how to live right within the world, and how to steward the world of which they and their weavers are a part. Baskets are made with intention, and through the intention of the weaver, baskets emerge transformed from the aliveness of the materials with which they are made to the animacy of living beings who need to participate in the world.”
Unsurprisingly, colonization gravely harmed California Indian basketry by means of violence exerted on peoples, their ways of knowing, and the land. Gendered violence (both physical and ideological) and subsequent resistance were central features of colonization and frequently precipitated further atrocities (Norton 1979, Castañeda 1997, 2011, Miranda 2010, Madley 2016). In addition to the staggering number of people killed during the Mission period and the California Genocide, child slavery and boarding schools arrested the intergenerational flow of weaving techniques, traditions, and stewardship practices. As California Indian identity became stigmatized and persecuted, basketry was hidden or discontinued along with language and other cultural practices (Cardozo 2005, Peters and Ortiz 2010, Smith 2016, Chavez 2019). In parallel, the landscape itself was deleteriously altered through theft of aboriginal territory, fire suppression, invasive pastoralism, and mining pollution (Anderson 2005, Norgaard and Reed 2017, Bacon 2018).
Nevertheless, the traditions continue today among master weavers and their growing numbers of students (Mathewson 1998, Ortiz 2008, Smith 2016). With the greatest intimacy and expertise, weavers have consistently tended basket plants to ensure straight, pest-free, abundant, renewed growth suitable for basketry (Ortiz 1993, Mathewson 1998, Anderson 1999, 2005, Smith 2016). In this reciprocal relationship, weaving is a spiritually connected process and an embodiment of Indigenous sovereignty (Risling Baldy 2013). With gathering as an integral part of the practice, weaving forms a circle of responsibility with land and community that involves careful environmental stewardship, spiritual devotion, and cultural continuity.
Understanding California Indian basketweaving is key to understanding contemporary Indigenous cultures and their histories. Beyond Western categories of utility or art, baskets in many California Indian societies are living members of their communities with identities, histories, and knowledge archives (Mathewson 1998, Cardozo 2005, Smith 2016). Furthermore, weaving forms the foundation of all parts of life: cooking, gathering, childcare, ceremony, art, recreation, attire, and more (Smith 2016, Hunter 2018, Malone 2020). The centrality of baskets emphasizes the importance of just relations with the environment, especially for those peoples who understand them as continuations of the living beings from which they are derived.
Indigenous frameworks: reciprocal relations
Increasingly, calls for environmental action are recognizing the essentiality of Indigenous peoples, Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), and “reciprocal relations” of mutual human–environment care to this effort (Berkes 2017, Diver et al. 2019, McGregor 2021). Recognition that the well-being of Indigenous cultures is tied to the well-being of land has led to work that is revitalizing language, building economic independence, improving health, reducing carbon emissions, and rehabilitating degraded areas. Conversely, understanding the just use of and care for natural resources is contingent on understanding the cultures that co-evolved with them. This framework, known as “ecocultural,” “biocultural,” or “reciprocal restoration,” comprises a path forward that recognizes decolonial and environmentally restorative ideals as intrinsically united (Kimmerer 2011, 2013, Long et al. 2017, 2018, 2020, Zedler and Stevens 2018, Stevens 2020). Of course, academic work in this area is only catching up to millennia of lived tradition.
In this respect, settler colonialism should be understood as destructive not only to Indigenous people and land physically, but onto-epistemologically as it disrupts systems of relationships between humans and non-humans, preventing Indigenous peoples from exercising their cultural responsibilities (Watts 2013, Whyte 2016, 2018, Davis and Todd 2017, Norgaard and Reed 2017, Burow et al. 2018). Thus, settler colonialism and Indigenous sovereignty constitute critical inquiries with respect to land stewardship, gathering, and spiritual accountability. These concerns have found a recent home in the EJ movement, but major interventions are still required to properly address and improve the conditions of Indigenous peoples using this framework (Ishiyama 2003, Schlosberg and Carruthers 2010, McGregor 2018a, 2018b, Barnhill-Dilling et al. 2020, Parsons et al. 2021).
Indigenous environmental justice
The EJ movement has seen continuous evolution when it comes to the unique position of Indigenous peoples. Early frameworks that emphasized distributive justice, or the classic maldistribution of environmental problems and benefits, have been modified to address procedural justice, or greater emphasis on decision-making processes, and later recognition justice, which calls for consideration of diverse cultures and values in environmental governance (Sze and London 2008, Holifield et al. 2009, Whyte 2011, Barnhill-Dilling et al. 2020). However, even this most recent intervention has been criticized for its potential to replicate paternalistic power dynamics that only grant Indigenous entities legitimacy through the purview of the state (Coulthard 2014, Parsons et al. 2021).
The unique position of Indigenous people requires address of dimensions including tribal sovereignty and intergenerational relations (Ishiyama 2003, Holifield et al. 2009, Schlosberg and Carruthers 2010, Holifield 2012, Barnhill-Dillings et al. 2020). In particular, the affiliation of Indigenous peoples with non-human or more-than-human relations is a marked contrast from Euro-American tradition and must influence the formulation of any Indigenous EJ (Deloria 1999, Martinez et al. 2008, Watts 2013, McGregor et al. 2020). Although Enlightenment values imposed a separation of human and nature, Indigenous peoples throughout the world operate on “kincentric ecologies” in which animals, plants, natural features, the supernatural, and other environmental components are relatives of humankind and linked through mutual responsibility (Salmón 2000, Wynter 2003, Johnson and Murton 2007, McGregor 2009, 2018a, 2018b, Kimmerer 2011, 2013, Aldern and Goode 2014, Gratani et al. 2016, Ulloa 2017, Long et al. 2020, Parsons et al. 2021, Clark et al. 2022).
The present moment calls for an IEJ movement that is truly grounded in Indigenous onto-epistemologies and for contributions that come directly from tribal communities (Whyte 2011, Todd 2016, McGregor 2018a, 2018b, McGregor et al. 2020). In recent scholarship, McGregor, Whitaker, and Sritharan (2020: 36, quoting Whyte 2017a: 156) have formally postulated an IEJ that “recognizes the agency of non-human beings as well as the Earth itself... [and] understand[s] the current ecological crisis as an ‘intensification of colonialism.’” Indeed, CIBA’s work to support traditional gathering and weaving supports both these principles. This project seeks to develop this framework by example, center the contributions of Indigenous practitioners, and underscore the continuity of these practices long before the EJ conversation began (McGregor 2021).
This case study uses radical self representation and Indigenous methodologies to disrupt extractive power dynamics between the academy and Indigenous peoples (Shuman 2005, Wilson 2008, Kovach 2009, Smith 2021a). Following a conversational method (Kovach 2009), sharing of knowledge and generation of meaning were fostered in semi-structured dialogs throughout the project timeline. At its core, our methodology revolved around strengthening the agency of weavers and bringing their knowledge to new spaces in a good way.
The stages of the project were cyclical, allowing for ongoing validation of the partnership and results as well as development of new research directions. The project was conceived within Indigenous-initiated practitioner–university networks (Karuk–University of California Berkeley Collaborative (KBC) n.d., Sarna-Wojcicki 2014) and realized through the Environmental Justice Working Group at Stanford University (EJWG) (EJWG n.d., Polk and Diver 2020), speaking to ongoing efforts to shift teaching and research agendas. The first result was a preliminary academic report and corresponding blog material, intended to foster relationships online during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic (Smith 2021b). The second, this publication, seeks to further connect basketweavers to environmental justice, academic, and Indigenous activist spaces and contribute to Indigenous movement building. The essence of the project as tangibly beneficial to basketweavers was intrinsic from conception and reaffirmed at each stage of the process.
The project was initiated and guided by weavers, with the researcher focusing on rhetorical strategy. This parallels works of community-based participatory research, yet we strive to reshape the process more fundamentally. Like Kim TallBear (2014), our research is not an exchange but a coalition. In working with this knowledge, we necessarily built solidarities and relationships that broke down the researcher–community dichotomy. Of course, positionality is not a dichotomy to begin with; weavers, including the authors, also work in research and academic spaces. Although three among many, these co-authoring weavers bring their extensive experience as CIBA Board Members as well as their personal weaving and ecological knowledge. Their work with weavers and agencies across the state is complemented by diverse perspectives that reflect the different practices and needs of weavers in different communities (Lincoln-Cook 2018, Chavez 2019). Fundamentally, this project reverses the flow of knowledge typical of academic research; rather than information being sought for an extrinsic purpose, here practitioners carry knowledge to new spaces on their terms.
As these comments suggest, methodology cannot be separated from surrounding epistemological currents. The study of TEK in the academy has long been criticized for the ways Indigenous knowledges have been extracted, broken apart, divorced from their relational context, depoliticized and sanitized of colonial violence, and used mainly to “supplement” dominant science (McGregor 2004, Simpson 2004, Whyte 2017b). We advocate for and offer our work as an example of the critical importance of land-based cultural practitioners being honored as bearers of TEK, treated as experts, and returned to authority over TEK’s representation (Simpson 2017). In honoring cultural practitioners, we also seek to destabilize dominant knowledge hierarchies and (re)privilege Indigenous onto-epistemologies and alternative knowledge archives (Bam 2021).
To this end, it was natural to make all individuals involved co-authors. Recognizing constraints in academia such as the inadequacy and danger of institutional review boards to Indigenous research (Tauri 2014, Sabati 2019) and the troubling dynamics of objectification and dehumanization embedded in the origins of interview-based research (Truman et al. 2000, Kuokkanen 2007, Kovach 2009), we use co-authorship as a strategy for epistemic justice by emphasizing the true authority of practitioners in this project and contributing to a shift in what is considered academic knowledge and who may create it (Sarna-Wojcicki et al. 2017).
Carolyn Smith (Karuk) is a traditional basketweaver, artist, and anthropologist whose work uses Indigenous methodologies to understand how Karuk basketry is profoundly interwoven with ways of knowing and being in the world. She is a current member of CIBA.
Cristina Gonzales (Chumash) is a cultural practitioner, lecturer, and museum professional specializing in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). She practices basketweaving and cordage making and works primarily with dogbane. She is a member of CIBA’s Board of Directors.
Alice Lincoln-Cook (Karuk) is a traditional basketweaver and jewelry maker with over 20 years of experience. She works with local schools and institutions throughout the Pacific Northwest and was instrumental in reviving “Following the Smoke” as well as serving as Chairperson of CIBA’s Board of Directors.
John R. Oberholzer Dent is a biologist whose work seeks to merge environmental science and ethnic studies. He also practices his own ancestral arts, traditional Croat and Slovene textile arts and lacemaking.
Gathering and weaving are cyclical processes that connect weavers, land, and communities through reciprocal gifts and responsibilities. Founded in 1992 to create a statewide community of weavers and strengthen anti-pesticide campaigns, CIBA’s work to sustain weaving culture is a contemporary manifestation of these cycles. Characterized here as IEJ, CIBA’s contributions to restoring access to land, revitalizing cultural burning, and fighting for safe materials are derived from ways of knowing and being that are fundamentally tied to California Indian autonomy, self-determination, and sovereignty (Simpson 2017).
We have a connection with the landscape, we have a connection with the land. A lot of us aren’t on reservations, and even if we were, a lot of reservations aren’t in our traditional territory. And so a lot of things are displaced. We’re displaced. We’re always trying to seek out these places for the baskets and to continue our tradition. - Cristina Gonzales
Weavers’ relationships with their plants go far beyond the simple act of harvesting. Cristina states, “A long time ago, before there were all these properties and people ‘owned’ land, women would have their places where they would gather, and these places were taken care of. Even our places now where we trespass are very well taken care of, we go there throughout the year, not only when we gather, but to make sure that invasive plants aren’t taking over. The gathering places are harvested, but they’re also taken care of.” This ethic revolves not around the product that is ultimately harvested for some transactional purpose, as with commercial collectors, but the life of the plants themselves and their role in California Indian societies (Fig. 1). Weavers are even willing to face physical violence and legal prosecution for the sake of these relationships, committed to tending stolen land (Cardozo 2005, Mathewson 2007, Risling Baldy 2013, Gonzales 2020).
California’s unique history includes the nullification of treaties and systematic disenfranchisement of California Indians from their ancestral land. This history, including immense violence and genocide, alienated weavers from their traditional materials and restricted their gathering rights. Reservations are small (most less than 1² mile) and are seldom located in traditional territory (Norton 1979, LeBeau 1998, Cardozo 2005, Smith 2016, Madley 2016). Furthermore, successful gathering requires long-term care. For Cristina, “It’s hard to find these places, because once you find the place then you can’t just start picking. It takes time and preparation! You have to prune it down and then it starts growing, but it doesn’t grow fast. A lot of these things are done once a year. And then it takes a while to process the material, too. A lot of times it’s not only cutting, you have to trim it and strip it and split it. There’s a lot of things that go along with it.” These difficulties, on- and off-reservation, led to CIBA’s work reconnecting weavers with their materials, especially on public lands (Gonzales 2020, Rogers and Smith 2021).
The NPS, BLM, State Parks, and especially the USFS hold the majority of lands where weavers gather. Each agency and each individual park has different levels of restriction around gathering, creating a patchwork of policy difficult for weavers to navigate. Personnel turnover requires constant reeducation and renegotiation. CIBA has served as a broker for gathering arrangements and a source of empowerment for weavers working on their own. With CIBA’s influence, new exceptions to paid-permit systems, increased consultation, and establishment of gathering areas accessible to elders have spread across the state. Weavers educate field personnel and consult with top-level leadership to make areas accessible for gathering. Some also gather from roadsides or private property, which cannot be similarly negotiated.
We need our water, we need our air, we need all those things that Mother Nature has given us. And that includes fire; there’s no question we need fire. We just don’t need devastating fire that wipes everything out. All of those are part of our healthy Earth: the water, fire, soil, everything. Those are what make the world healthy for us. And we have to get back to that point of balance. - Alice Lincoln-Cook
In stark contrast to the longstanding USFS policy of fire suppression, Indigenous peoples use fire as a tool for environmental stewardship (Kimmerer and Lake 2001, Anderson 2005, 2018, Hannibal 2014, Lake and Long 2014, Hankins 2021). For weavers, burning allows plants to grow stronger, longer, and healthier (Fig. 2). Without it, plants like beargrass, hazel, and willow will not grow straight or insect free and cannot be used for basketry. Today, it is a struggle to continue these techniques. Alice explains: “There are so many restrictions that make it difficult. You can’t burn beyond this barrier. You can’t burn this time of year. You can’t burn by this tree, you can’t burn there because of the owls, you can’t burn there or there... There’s so much that goes into burn. There’s so much red tape.” Even in recent decades when agencies like the USFS have recognized the utility of burns, they are not included in annual budgets and are thus only carried out with the special attention of some helpful manager. Even then, they may not be carried out if the conditions or personnel needs do not align. Once again, employee turnover can set back years of progress.
Fire suppression policy has been disastrous for the people and environment of California (Stephens and Sugihara 2018). More than a century of fire suppression has accumulated fuel stocks poised to bring calamity year after year, exacerbated by aridity and extreme weather due to climate change (Collins et al. 2011, Steel et al. 2015, Abatzoglou and Williams 2016, Taylor et al. 2016, Goss et al. 2020). A combination of risk- and liability-averse professional culture, budgetary incentives for suppression policies, and perpetual disaster response creates a “rigidity trap” that manifests in neglect for prescribed burn projects (Quinn-Davidson and Varner 2011, Spencer et al. 2015, Crowder 2019, Miller et al. 2020, Clark et al. 2021, Marks-Block and Tripp 2021). Moreover, obstinance toward cultural burns in particular is augmented by lack of prioritization of cultural resources (such as basket plants), invalidation of TEK and Indigenous fire expertise, and denial of sovereignty (Quinn-Davidson and Varner 2011, Eriksen and Hankins 2014, 2015, Lake et al. 2017, Adlam et al. 2021, Clark et al. 2021, Lake 2021, Marks-Block and Tripp 2021).
Through programs like “Following the Smoke II,” CIBA has strengthened traditional burning practices used to care for basket plants (Lincoln-Cook 2018). The first incarnation of Following the Smoke, which began in the 1990s, took its name from weavers’ practice of mapping out slash and lightning fires in USFS lands so they could gather there the next year. Karuk basketweaver Laverne Glaze and others partnered with the Six Rivers National Forest and Heritage Manager Ken Wilson through the USFS “Passport in Time ” program to bring together basketweavers, agency managers, field personnel, and teachers to learn about weaving and land stewardship. Picking up the mantle of this successful, decades-long program, CIBA worked with Glaze’s family to bring the tenets of Following the Smoke to other regions throughout the state. Following the Smoke II helps basketweavers develop collaborative relationships with land management agencies and other stakeholders, educate them about gathering and culturally valued plants, and bring healthy fire back to the landscape (Peters and Ortiz 2010, Ortiz 2008, Smith 2016). Through this work, CIBA advocates a shift toward a holistic, relationship-centered ideology. Weavers also provide on-site expertise, identify areas for future burns, and build relationships with land managers and cultural practitioners across the state that facilitate exchange of knowledge and future collaboration.
It’s not even just for women, it’s the forest’s health, it’s the forest’s rights, it’s the trees’ rights, it’s the animals’ rights. It’s for everybody. - Cristina Gonzales
CIBA’s work on pesticides arose from campaigns in Karuk and Yurok country in northwestern California where pesticide spraying did not consider weavers and cultural use of forests. Conversely, weavers lacked information about spraying regimes and safe areas to gather (CIBA 1992, Cardozo 2005, Peters and Ortiz 2010, Gruenig 2020). Cristina says, “It’s terrible because a lot of this material, we inherently work it with our hands and it goes in our mouths. It’s on our clothes. It’s in our houses.” CIBA’s first policy, adopted in 1994, promoted the web of life, biological diversity, the health of children, future generations’ water and fisheries, and animal and human health (CIBA n.d.b, Cardozo 2005).
Despite their harmful effects, pesticides are a preferred method for forest management by the USFS and corridor control by CalTrans due to their low cost and efficacy in suppressing undergrowth that competes with conifers (CIBA 1995b, Clary 1999, Cardozo 2005). This reflects a value system that prioritizes economic gain over human, environmental, and cultural health, especially considering the heightened exposure of Indigenous communities. For example, weavers gather in close contact with underbrush and process plant material by using their mouths as a “third hand” (Gruenig 2020, Caudell 2021). Currently, weavers are also facing increased risk due to cannabis cultivation and wildfires, both of which prompt higher pesticide use (Carratt et al. 2017, Long et al. 2018, Reed 2020, Caudell 2021).
CIBA works with government, tribal, and economic organizations; lobbies at the local, state, and national levels; spreads awareness among weavers; distributes information about spray plans for local areas; and documents and maps pesticide spraying. It participates in and promotes public comment opportunities and informs its membership using the CIBA newsletter. CIBA’s work has resulted in a pesticide ban across CalTrans District 1 (North Coast) and agreements with the USFS not to spray “culturally important areas,” concessions in the amount and number of chemicals used, and buffer zones around surface water. Officials report it has made a key difference to have CIBA lobbying against pesticides and protecting weavers (Clary 1999, Cardozo 2005).
Starting from Indigenous worldviews: land access
The barriers that weavers face to land access must be understood as a fundamental disruption of the natural and spiritual order (Risling Baldy 2013, Watts 2013, Whyte 2018). Gathering is indeed crucial for daily necessities like food and ceremony, but less recognized is its relationship to California Indian onto-epistemologies. Basketweavers seeking access to public lands operate from this understanding and seek to restore proper relationships with the land, beyond simply harvesting enough plants to weave a given basket (Risling Baldy 2013). Failing to recognize the interconnectedness of spirituality, environmental stewardship, and everyday activity results in restrictive policies that have excluded the majority of California Indian basketweavers’ needs. Fortunately, the USFS in particular has proven willing to assist weavers in full and go beyond their mandate by partnering with non-federally recognized tribal groups as well as CIBA itself. Weavers report that the key has been building collaborative relationships with federal land managers and educating agencies about their traditions and needs (Cardozo 2005).
In order to fulfill a “justice” defined through an Indigenous worldview, weavers are reaffirming their traditional practices and relationships with land. In educating public land agencies and negotiating the return of gathering rights, weavers reassert their sovereignty in occupied public spaces (Diver 2016, Long and Lake 2018). Their work has much to do with the distribution of environmental goods and bads, especially given the quotidian significance of basketry in California Indian life, but even more to do with the renewal of their cultural and spiritual worlds (Fig. 3; Kimmerer 2011, Smith 2016, Simpson 2017, Long et al. 2020). This resurgence holds promise for a broken world in need of just relations between humans and environment.
A historical perspective affirms the claim that the fates of Indigenous people and land are linked. The settler colonial greed for land and resources that motivated the nullification of treaties and expropriation of California Indian territory resulted in widespread environmental degradation that decimated carefully tended ecosystems and their basket plants (Anderson 2005, Madley 2016, Bacon 2018). By expanding access to basket plants, weavers resist the legacies of colonization in both legal and environmental spheres. These activities speak to the possibilities of renewal of Indigenous environmental stewardship, revival of cultural and artistic traditions, and restoration of relationships between human and non-human beings (Martinez et al. 2008, Vizenor 2008, Simpson 2011, Diver et al. 2019). With expanded scale, these practices may also provide foundations for recovery of environmental responsibility in the form of co-management agreements between tribal entities and public land entities and outright repatriation of land (Middleton 2011, Diver 2016, Long and Lake 2018, Gould and Garzo Montalvo 2020, Schneider 2022). Restoring balance through the renewal of Indigenous worldviews is imperative, and sovereignty and self-determination are inherent requirements of this movement. Although climate change and global environmental collapse are at best heightened challenges (and at worst existential threats) to Indigenous peoples, they can also be “strategic opportunities” for applying traditional stewardship (Cajete 2000, Nelson 2008, Norgaard 2014: 15, Whyte 2014, 2021, Davis and Todd 2017, McGregor 2021).
Beyond environmental goods and bads: cultural burning
Weavers’ approach to burning is rooted in relationality and can offer leadership toward further sovereign burning, continuing the role of women as keepers of fire knowledge under settler colonial oppression (Eriksen and Hankins 2015, Lincoln-Cook 2018). Their efforts disrupt the USFS paradigm that focuses on fuels reduction and revenue by emphasizing continuous relationships and responsibilities at a local scale. Tending basket plants with fire involves disinvestment from settler colonial organization of space, such as logging roads and private property lines, and joins other efforts such as the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network in “democratizing scale” in fire governance (Cardozo 2005, Sarna-Wojcicki et al. 2019: 257, Lincoln-Cook 2018, Marks-Block and Tripp 2021). These efforts meet natural resource management needs without marginalizing Indigenous ways of knowing and anticipate a future where California Indians have control of land tenure and fire governance such that the full ecological, cultural, and spiritual purposes of burning are met (Adlam et al. 2021).
Although the advantages of burning for basket plants are well documented, it is not for their benefit alone (Anderson 1996, 1999, Lake 2007, Lake and Long 2014, Marks-Block et al. 2021). The entire forest ecosystem is tended, from the reduction of fuel stock that prevents catastrophic wildfires to the opening of serotinous cones. Biodiversity, critical habitat, species abundance, landscape resilience, landscape heterogeneity, ecologically productive smoke, water flow, and control of pests and parasites are among the benefits that are known in TEK and increasingly in Western science (Anderson 1999, 2005, 2018, Kimmerer and Lake 2001, Aldern and Goode 2014, Lake and Long 2014, Lake et al. 2017, Marks-Block and Tripp 2021, Marks-Block et al. 2021). In caring for basket plants, the entire landscape is uplifted. In this way, basketweaving falls in line with Indigenous traditions of environmental stewardship that considers ecosystem health holistically, rather than prioritizing production of goods.
Although Western science is recently beginning to understand fire as a tool for environmental stewardship, this is only one dimension of the California Indian worldview. Clark et al. (2021: 2) write that “in the context of Traditional law, fire is the law of the land, and cultural practitioners are the conduit for upholding the law,” speaking to the role of fire in just relations between human and non-human entities. The significance of fire reverberates deeply throughout the material, psychological, and spiritual worlds of California Indian peoples, from diet to social cohesion (Eriksen and Hankins 2014, Reed and Norgaard 2014, Adlam et al. 2021, Rogers and Smith 2021). In these ways, fire is woven into California Indian identities and onto-epistemologies (Eriksen and Hankins 2015, Lake 2021, Hankins 2021). Fire is also frequently described as medicine, reinforcing the role of burns not as management or control, but as care (Lake 2021). This is the context for basketweavers’ cultural burns, which must be treated with corresponding gravity.
This understanding should also accentuate the deep harm to California Indian peoples from fire suppression policy, which coincided temporally and ideologically with removal from land, genocide, and environmental degradation (Diver et al. 2010, Reed and Norgaard 2014, Norgaard 2019, Hankins 2021, Marks-Block and Tripp 2021). Whereas the intensification of wildfires due to fuels build-up provides a literal example of Kyle Whyte’s (2017a: 156) evaluation of environmental catastrophe as an “intensification of colonialism,” this statement must be understood on a philosophical as well as physical level. From an IEJ perspective, environmental catastrophe is seen as the corruption of proper relations between human and environment, and settler colonialism is understood as onto-epistemological violence that disrupts the practice of these relations. The work of weavers to revitalize cultural burning operates from this perspective and stands to influence prescribed burning—a field vital to climate catastrophe mitigation—for the better. Alice reflects on this potential: “People are scared of fire, they’re really scared of fire. But now, people are becoming concerned about the stopping of our traditional practices and trying to figure out a resolution. And Following the Smoke could be a huge part of that, showing what we’re doing at different places, showing how it works and how to continue it... Because if we continue to do it separately, it ends exactly where we are now. Scared of fire.”
Restoring relationality: pesticide use
The use of harmful pesticides is rationalized through the doctrine of “acceptable risk,” which quantifies allowable damage in exchange for desired benefits. This practice represents a fundamental disconnect between Western and California Indian thought; for peoples that understand all life as connected and value holistic environmental health, there is no acceptable human or natural price for pesticide use. They understand pesticides are not just chemicals, but a means of disrupting one order of relations for the maintenance of another (Liboiron et al. 2018, Hendlin 2021).
Furthermore, the pesticides used by the USFS were approved without testing for effects on human consumption; they had simply never considered that California Indians still use forests for gathering and subsistence purposes (Cardozo 2005, Gruenig 2020). The conflict over this doctrine came to a head in 1995 when the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) met with CIBA to arrange a study to quantify the impacts of pesticides on weavers’ health. Recognizing that the study would only lead to a calculation of exactly how much violence the CDPR would be willing to inflict on weavers for the sake of timber stands and wary of the similar situation of farmworkers, CIBA agreed to cooperate only partially on methodology for detecting pesticides in the environment (Moses 1993, CIBA 1995a, Reeves and Schafer 2003, Cardozo 2005). Knowing that Indigenous knowledge has been frequently stolen and misappropriated, here CIBA exercised its right to restrict access and maintain sovereignty of knowledge and confronted the illusion of risk assessment science as exact, unbiased, and comprehensive (Arcuri and Hendlin 2019, Hendlin 2021, Smith 2021a).
Basketweavers’ opposition to pesticides is derived from another crucial distinction from Western science. For those who gather, pesticide use is not a calculation made in an office building on the basis of scientific data; it is a tangible source of harm that is experienced personally. Kari Marie Norgaard (2007: 465) poses the paradigm of “abstract vs. embodied risk” to describe this divide, thus supporting weavers’ strong opposition. As people with intimate experience with the hazards of pesticide use, weavers hold a unique authority in judging the legitimacy of their continued use that is disregarded by hegemonic risk assessment science (Checker 2007, Shattuck 2020). Moreover, harm dealt to the environment is experienced personally in the California Indian worldview, where ethics of relationality motivate care for non-human relatives. The disproportionate impacts of pesticides on California Indian communities through basketry embody the consequences of spiritual prohibitions that have been violated by their use. Weavers have noticed impacts among non-human relations in the forest including damage to pollinators, deer, and of course, their own basket plants (LeBeau 1998, Pfeiffer and Ortiz 2007). Fulfilling the responsibility to treat basket plants well through tending, and not poisoning, allows basket plants to provide their gift of safe, healthy basketry material (Ortiz 2008).
Pesticide use is a gendered issue not only because of its outsized impact on weavers. Norgaard (2007, 2019) and others have chronicled how birth defects, miscarriages, and alteration of menstrual cycles became chillingly common in Karuk country after pesticides were introduced in the 1970s. Women were also impacted as caregivers of the elderly, who suffered from heightened cancer incidence, and children, who teethed on woven baby rattles and ate from handmade bowls (Fig. 4). Moreover, midwives and female medical practitioners played a key role in disseminating information about the dangers of pesticides. These drastic health outcomes have raised calls of alarm about renewed genocide toward the Karuk community, who point out that the infringement of their sovereignty in land management is also perpetuating centuries-old “extermination” policies (Norton 1979, Diver et al. 2010, Norgaard 2019). The symbiosis of violence against the environment and women, a noted feature of settler colonialism, is repeated once again (Gunn Allen 1992, Anderson 2016, Risling Baldy 2018).
Diania Caudell (2021), CIBA Board Member and Tribal Pesticide Program Council Representative, asserts that “weavers need more than booklets, newsletters, and brochures.” The goal in fighting pesticide use is to ensure the health of all non-human relations and future generations to come; information about spraying plans is not the end of the road. In order to change the dominant tools of settler colonial land management through policy and institutional changes, forests must no longer be seen as “tree farms” but as living relations that, as part of their intrinsic value, are sources of diverse ecosystem services, livelihoods, and spiritual resources for California Indians and other California residents (Nicola 1998: 2). In a ubiquitously toxic world, weavers’ work fighting pesticides demonstrates the need for Indigenous worldviews and traditional practices in engaging with global systems that deny connections between humans and environment, compartmentalize risk but not harm, and challenge the limits of perception and agency (Liboiron et al. 2018). Their knowledge informs precisely the sites of manipulation used to uphold toxic orders, like motives of profit or industry science that generates as much uncertainty as fact (Shattuck 2020). Their leadership exemplifies the intimate, diffused action needed to maintain relations and resist chemical threats as dominant politics turns a blind eye (Neville and Martin 2022). These principles were manifest in CIBA’s work many years before they entered academic discourse, and weavers continue to lead the way (Packer 2021).
When you think of everything that California has been through, language and land and all of this stuff, and yet we’re still here making baskets and we’re still doing these cultural practices. Sovereignty: that’s your inherent right to do those practices and maintain your culture. - Cristina Gonzales
Weavers consistently stand at the front lines of EJ issues that affect the health and survival of their communities. Their work illuminates the ways that settler colonialism manifests itself in the modern environmental order and speaks to a future where Indigenous ways of knowing prevail in shaping interactions with the environment. Despite this, weavers face a continuing invisibility problem in EJ, and each of the three areas discussed highlights this lack of attention. CIBA and its members have played a key role in expanding land access, promoting cultural burning, and reducing pesticide use through both institutional and cultural shifts, yet they are left out of EJ conversations in organizing, academia, and sometimes even their own communities. Moreover, beyond conversations, justice on the ground also requires resources, mobilization, and collaboration.
CIBA’s work demonstrates how approaching environmental stewardship from Indigenous onto-epistemologies results not only in the continued cultural and physical survival of Indigenous communities but also in manifold environmental benefits sought by Western environmentalism. Principles of reciprocal restoration hold potential not only for Indigenous peoples but also for the major shifts needed to survive global climate catastrophe. CIBA’s work prompts non-Indigenous people to ask why land management decisions (and indeed EJ scholarship) are made without those who have been tending the land for thousands of years and provides inspiration for those seeking solutions.
RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLE
Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.
The authors wish to thank the CIBA Board of Directors for their support and contributions. We are also immensely grateful to Sibyl Diver for editorial assistance and guidance throughout the entire process. Finally, thank you to California Indian basketweavers from past to present and into the future for their hard work and dedication to perpetuating weaving and gathering practices.
Data/code sharing is not applicable to this article because no data/code were analyzed in this study.
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