Sacred Fire: Ron Reed and Tradition

Rebecca Murillo | 02.03.2017

“I was born into this world looking at the glass half empty,” Ron told Delicious Revolution, a radio show and podcast about the food movement that is working on a series of in-depth interviews on the California food movement.

Many tend to think of colonialism as a thing of the past: stealing land, exploiting the inhabitants, and leaving a trail of health problems that lasts for generations. The food justice movement, however, reveals the many ways in which colonization defines the present. Voices of this movement educate us on the contemporary dynamics of colonialism.

Ron Reed is one of these voices. He is a traditional dipnet fisherman and a cultural ecologist for the Karuk tribe. Located in Northern California on the Klamath River, the Karuk are one of the 18 California tribes without a ratified treaty, and thus, no reservation. Ron was born into a medicinal family and taught the traditions of the tribe from ceremonies to fishing. But Ron explains that he also held some resistance to these traditions, as he felt a need to exist in the colonizer’s world, or the so-called “modern” world. Ron explained that traditional ways are seen by many as underdeveloped or misinformed.

“Fix the world” is the direct translation of pikyávish, the Karuk religion that informs Ron’s life work. He cofounded the Karuk-UC Berkeley Collaborative, which works on initiatives in eco-cultural revitalization. The Klamath Basin Tribal Food Project works to provide culturally appropriate food to the Karuk, as well as other efforts that work to build a sustainable food system.

Sacred fire (Pikyav, literally, to fix) is the practice of burning land to create fertility and regenerate the soil. The idea is often met with baffled looks when Ron brings it up it at the US Forest Service or academic conferences, but he describes it as the original forest management tool, a way of increasing biodiversity, and a traditional solution for a modern problem. Some tree species only drop their seeds after a fire, making fire an essential part of the forests’ renewal. Often misunderstood, the practice has helped the Karuk-UC Berkeley Collaborative restore ecological systems in the Klamath River basin. Ron also uses the process of sacred fire, of burning to recreate, to help others understand what has happened to his people’s food traditions during the long process of colonization, and his hopes for the renewal of those traditions:

We need to start taking care of each other, people who don’t have good food, we need to start addressing that issue. Because what happens is, society is paying for that regardless of if we think we are paying for it or not. I think that…when I’m laid down to rest, this traditional knowledge is going to be in full bloom. At some point in time the seed is going to drop and when the seed drops there is no stopping it.

With voices advocating for tradition such as Ron Reed, there is hope that a culturally mindful future fits alongside an agriculturally sustainable one.

You can listen to the interview with Ron Reed on below, on the Delicious Revolution website, or by searching for “Delicious Revolution” wherever podcasts are found. This season of Delicious Revolution is made possible by California Humanities and Food First, and Delicious Revolution is made by Chelsea Wills and Devon Sampson. Rebecca Murillo is a Food First intern working on Delicious Revolution.

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