The smiling face of Smokey the Bear has managed to cross continents, far outside his Californian place of birth. Since 1944 the affable ursine mascot’s catchphrase was “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.”
It was only in 2001 that it was amened to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires”. For two generations the idea that all forest fires were to be feared and avoided by any means was encouraged, with terrible consequences for the forest as a whole.
In Inhabitants – An Indigenous Perspective, Vikki Preston, a cultural resources technician and member of the Karuk People of Northern California, explains that prescribed fire has been used for millennia. Careful stewardship of the forests for food cultivation and wildlife propagation forms not only an inherent part of their beliefs but also their survival. However, intentional burning was outlawed by the federal government for a century, a ban that was particularly enforced against Native Americans. The tinder-box conditions this ban engendered fuels the wildfires that continue to devastate the west coast, every year seemingly worse than the last.
Fortunately, and happily, the Karuk People survived the era of genocide and cultural suppression, and their knowledge of fire management is returning to the landscape. Their story, along with those of other Native American communities, are told through a series of interviews and beautifully shot depictions of the vastly different landscapes of the continent, and beyond.
Some climate-change investigations can be at best described as doom-laden; others patronising in the extreme. Inhabitants director Costa Boutsikaris – whose film was successfully funded through Kickstarter in 2020) concentrates on his subjects, having no need for the attention-grabbing “Gotcha!” journalism of Netflix’s recent environmental documentary “Seaspiracy”.
In addition to the Karuk, we’re invited to learn about the traditions of Hopi dryland farming in Arizona; restoring buffalo to the Blackfeet reservation in Montana; maintaining sustainable forestry on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin; and reviving native food crops in Hawaii.
The sadness and anger that arises from the statistics included as we learn their history is unavoidable. At the beginning of the 19th Century North America had a population of over thirty million buffalo before they were reduced to the extinction-level number of 500; whilst the Native Americans themselves were cut down from nearly 7 million to less than 250,000 by the turn of the 20th century. We see landscapes that were once incredibly diverse forests scraped to nothing for the planting of coffee beans and sugar cane.
Still, however diminished, these lands and the people who have lived there survive. Forests, plants, animals, are far better off taking care of themselves, doing so long before the industrialisation of agriculture demanded they had to be “managed” instead.
If you’re despairing about how the world can possibly pull back on the reins of climate destruction, this portrait of the importance of looking back and learning from those who came before might just give you a ray of hopeful sunshine.
Inhabitants – An Indigenous Perspective is screening online as part of the California Film Institute’s documentary film festival DOCLANDS, 2021 from May 7th to 16th.
More information about the film and further screenings can be found on the Official Website.
A copy of this film was provided to the site for review.
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