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KU professor leads students in prescribed burn at Lecompton prairie

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About three dozen students and community members gathered Wednesday morning to place Good Fire and spend time in community on the land. 

The group, led by Melinda Adams in partnership with Native Lands Restoration Collaborative, set out to burn a patch of remnant tallgrass prairie near the Winter School northwest of Lawrence in an effort to restore what little is left of the culturally significant ecosystem.

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Good Fire is Indigenous-led prescribed fire conducted with the goal of ecological, cultural and social restoration, according to Adams, N’dee San Carlos Apache. These cultural fires repair degraded soil and increase biodiversity while reducing the overgrowth that contributes to uncontrolled fires. Cultural burns don’t harm native plants, many of which are adapted to fire and even need fire for their seeds to germinate.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Vic Secondine (center) and MK Kerron (right) use rakes to gently guide fire on the tallgrass prairie.

Beyond the benefit of ecological restoration, or ecological healing, Adams emphasizes “the cultural healing, the spiritual healing that goes with placing fire to the ground.”

“Fire was forcefully removed,” she said, drawing a parallel between healing from boarding schools and restoring cultural fire. “We have a lot of healing to do as peoples.”

“Fire serves as an entryway” to begin eco-cultural healing and restoration, she said.

Adams is a Haskell alum with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, a Master of Science in ecology and environmental science from Purdue University, and a Master of Arts and doctoral degree in Native American studies from the University of California, Davis. She is a Langston Hughes Assistant Professor in Indigenous Studies and Geography and Atmospheric Science at KU.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Melinda Adams holds dried prairie sage, which is used to begin the prescribed burn.

Reclamation and healing

Fire was “outlawed, prohibited,” Adams told the group. “Fire has been absent. We’re all relearning how plants respond to fire.”

MK Kerron was among those in attendance for the burn Wednesday. Growing up, she watched her grandpa do small burns in his backyard to remove weeds.

“Fire has always been a very big part of my cultural life, and personal life as well,” she said.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times MK Kerron uses a rake to guide the fire.

Kerron, Wichita & Affiliated Tribes, Muscogee Creek, and Makah, was a Haskell Environmental Research Studies program intern in the summer of 2021 when she first heard Adams speak about fire. “I felt very inspired,” she said.

Her Ancestors relied on the prairie, and the prairie relied on them, she said. But the government enacted laws intended to eradicate Indigenous lifeways. 

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“So many of their traditions were taken away and it impacted the environment and also our identity … A lot of our practices were outlawed. And seeing it come back, it’s a heartwarming feeling.” 

Kerron said she felt humbled “to come out today and set fire on the ground in the ways that our Ancestors used to do.”

It was Kerron’s first cultural burn. 

“It’s a good rush, I’ve never felt like this before. I really love it,” she said.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Vic Secondine looks “real stoic” while holding a hedgehog mug during a cultural burn.

Wednesday’s was Vic Secondine’s second cultural burn. 

Secondine, Two Spirit citizen of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, experienced their first cultural burn during the spring semester as a student in Adams’ Pyrogeography class at KU.

“I feel it’s important for me to be here and to learn about fire stewardship.”

“A lot of our stewarding has been lost,” they said, “through nine forced removals, many years of trauma, and displacement from our homelands.”

“I want to reclaim that tradition for my people.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

‘Ethic of community care’

Adams explained some differences between cultural burns and the approaches fire agencies use, such as the use of hand tools to guide the fire, taking a moment to see how the plants are responding to the fire, and avoiding putting fuel, such as propane, into the plants.

Cultural burns also include an “ethic of community care where we’re looking out for one another and being in communication in a calm manner, rather than a command and control type of approach that most fire agency approaches entail,” she said.

Another differentiating feature of cultural burns is a desire for people to feel welcomed. “We want people who may or may not have fire certifications to join us in rebuilding our relationship with fire,” Adams said. 

“We welcome people to learn and relearn these cultural lessons with us as a responsibility to our cultures, our communities and the places that we all live and hopefully care about,” Adams said. “Every practitioner that I work with is open and inviting to non-Indigenous community members who want to learn and burn with us in a good way. There is an opportunity for all of us to care and put the stewardship lessons back to the lands that nourish us.”

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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership scholars smile for a photo with their mentor, Melinda Adams, and their director, Joseph Brewer.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Melinda Adams, right, said “Fire’s not scary.” Courtney Masterson added, “If it is, you’re doing it wrong.”
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Courtney Masterson demonstrates how to use a water pack.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The racist branding on the water backpacks was not lost on the participants.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Rather than putting propane into the plants, dried prairie sage is lit with a simple lighter and then carried to the intended burn site.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Hand tools, such as rakes, are used to guide the fire during the cultural burn.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Kelly Nalani Beym carries fire to place it where it is needed.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Michael Willis uses a rake to guide the fire.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Courtney Masterson places fire where it is needed.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Evan Lott, left, uses a rake to guide the fire.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Men wearing water packs dampen the base of a telephone pole to discourage damage from flames during the cultural burn.
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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Jake Borgmann guides the fire with a rake.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times About 30 people gathered at the Winter School to participate in a cultural burn, Nov. 29, 2023.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Michael Willis guides the fire with a rake.

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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Joseph Brewer (left) and Brett Ramey place fire during a cultural burn.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Joseph Brewer II
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Melinda Adams (left) and Joseph Brewer share a laugh in the remnant prairie.
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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The pre-burn prairie patch foregrounds the Winter School in Lecompton, Nov. 29, 2023.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Courtney Masterson
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Kelly Nalani Beym carries fire to place it where it is needed.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Protective gloves and water backpacks are laid out in preparation of the cultural burn.
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Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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