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Factors Contributing to the Cultural and Spatial Variability of Landscape Burning by Native Peoples of Interior Alaska

David C. Natcher, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Monika Calef, State University of New York, Albany
Orville Huntington, Alaska Native Science Commission
Sarah Trainor, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Henry P. Huntington, Huntington Consulting
La’ona DeWilde, Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council
Scott Rupp, University of Alaska Fairbanks
F. Stuart Chapin III, University of Alaska Fairbanks


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Although wildfire has been central to the ecological dynamics of Interior Alaska for 5000 yr, the role of humans in this dynamic is not well known. As a multidisciplinary research team, together with native community partners, we analyzed patterns of human-fire interaction in two contiguous areas of Interior Alaska occupied by different Athabaskan groups. The Koyukon in the western Interior considered fire a destructive force and had no recollection or oral history of using fire for landscape management. Low lightning-strike density and moist climate constrained the effects of lightning fires, and a subsistence dependence on salmon, a relatively predictable resource, resulted in a trilocal residency pattern. In this environment the occurrence of wildfire would have negatively impacted territorial use and the exploitation of wildlife resources. In contrast, the Gwich’in of the eastern Interior actively used fires to manage the landscape. The Gwich’in territory experienced a higher lightning-strike density and a corresponding increase in wildfire activity. The Gwich’in showed greater mobility in hunting moose and caribou, their less spatially predictable subsistence resources, which enabled them to avoid andor target a range of habitats affected by wildfires. The contrasts between these two neighboring Athabaskan groups indicate different uses and views of wildfire that are derived from their cultural adaptation to local biophysical and ecological settings. These findings call into question the commonly held view that native peoples of North America pervasively and near universally modified landscapes through the use of fire.

Key words

Alaska; Gwich’in; human-fire interaction; indigenous Koyukon; land management; landscape burning.

Copyright © 2007 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087