Lessons from Scientific and Indigenous Traditions

Fire draws us toward it. Transfixed by the way it moves; shape-shifting and illuminating the shadows, we delight in both the warmth it creates and marvel at the mystery of its creation. We learn about fire by studying it; from ignition, combustion and management, the chemical properties and reactions, to the cycles that help form and release the building blocks of life. There is also much it teaches us, and by accessing long standing traditions of firekeeping we are gifted with the lessons inherent in its power and wisdom.

Once a week for most of each winter, I take my class of 10–12 year olds to outdoor classrooms and we light a ‘leave no trace’ fire. Students take turns hauling and splitting wood, collecting rocks, lighting and keeping it, sitting close, heating up lunch, and burning it down to ash so it can be easily and safely extinguished. Our fires allow us to stay outside all day in just about any weather. Sitting in a circle on plank benches around our fire we read, write, experiment, observe, discuss, celebrate, create and reflect.

Grade 5/6/7’s from NEST, Sunshine Coast BC, 2017. Photo: Simon Hocking

My sense is that incorporating fire into a classroom setting on a weekly basis offers students a way of learning that is fundamentally different from the western-industrial model. Although untested — I have found no research in this area — I feel that regular classroom fires could open the door to indigenous epistemologies to students of all cultures. I continue to teach indigenous students and for them these fires are especially important. As Gregory Cajete describes:

… little research is available about First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples’ successes when their language, knowledge systems, and ways of knowing are included in their education. Perhaps doing so would contest the Eurocentric policies of colonial languages and their knowledge system being applied indiscriminately. Indigenous Elders, scholars, and educational leaders have been steadfast in claiming that Indigenous intellectual traditions and knowledges have an important place in contemporary learning environments, and perhaps more so in the context of the 21st century as we rethink and reimagine sustainable relationships with each other and all life (Cajete, 2015).

I would like to take the opportunity to begin deepening the teachings fire offers to me and the students I work with. There are many understandings, competencies, and ways of knowing incorporated into the examination and use of this element that I have not yet employed in my teaching practice. With some research and experimentation, I delve into the topic from both scientific and indigenous perspectives, seeking to employ ‘two-eyed seeing’ in order to open new realms of inquiry, exploration and mastery. The following represents a range of topics that I’ve scratched at as an educator, along with some initial research to prompt my learning and teaching.

Challenge

Learning to light a fire independently can be a defining moment for a young person. The process of trial and error, increasing confidence and concrete results represents a learning journey that is authentic, practical and validating. A common challenge in the outdoor education field for students is to light a ‘one match fire’ (Elpel, t. 2019). While this isn’t something I have done yet with my class, I would like to try. I appreciate the way the task is defined so clearly: either you do or you don’t. I am confident that I can provide students with the motivation, tools, skills, as well as cultural context to frame and scaffold the final ‘test’.

Grade 5/6/7’s from NEST, Sunshine Coast BC, 2016. Photo: Simon Hocking

Responsibility

Something that comes intuitively when working with fire is the notion of being responsible. For us, this means choosing an area where the fire won’t spread, keeping it small, never leaving it unattended and extinguishing it completely. When introducing fire in the classroom context from a western perspective, the focus is usually on dangers associated with fire and preventative measures to ensure safety. The mantra is always ‘never play with matches’ and ‘help prevent forest fires’. While the destructive potential of uncontrolled fire is undeniably the most important message, the narrow focus of this theme is akin to counterproductive campaigns of abstinence from drugs or sex. As usual, education can help. Exposing students to fire can help them know how to use it responsibly, and could remove some of the rebellious draw which is typical for young people. Interestingly, the fire suppression regime of the last 100 years has led to conditions that exacerbate large forest fires. Indigenous fire management techniques that were outlawed along with so many other cultural teachings actually prevented uncontrolled fire disasters through regular small controlled burnings. Only recently have western scientists begun to seek out the ancient wisdom of traditional firekeepers in effort to combat the gargantuan fires of our age (Brend, Y. 2017).

Annie Kruger was a firekeeper in a long line of people trained to use fire to take care of the land. Photo: Don Gayton. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/fire-fighting-first-nations-firekeepers-annie-kruger-penticton-bc-wildfire-mega-fire-1.4205506

Heat + Fuel + Oxygen

A common fire lesson involves the ‘fire triangle’. Each side of the triangle is necessary for a fire to become and stay lit. There are many types of fuel (wood, leaves, paper, gasoline, trees, houses, etc.), and many sources of heat (lightning, the sun, matches, a lighter, a furnace or heater, etc.). When students practice lighting and maintaining fires, they need to ensure that all three elements are present at all times. When extinguishing a fire, one needs only to remove one side of the triangle (removing the air by smothering, burning all of the fuel, or adding water to remove the heat) (CFA 2020). Surprisingly, I’ve never taught this basic theory or referred to it while coaching new fire builders.

Chemical Reactions

Although the chemistry of fire is complex, and typically not representative of middle school curriculum, I like the way looking at atoms, elements and equations can stretch those learners who are ready for it, and give the general learner a sense of what makes up our world. I have a molecular model kit with atoms and bonds, and could teach students the equations and have them build models, then rearrange the atoms within the sugar / cellulose and oxygen molecules to simulate the reaction, producing carbon dioxide and water. The diagram below could also be useful for creating a worksheet, or a directed drawing activity. The chemical composition of wood (or the main component of wood, cellulose) is similar to that of sugar, so the diagram with images can be used to approximate the exothermic chemical reaction that takes place during a fire, where solid wood and oxygen react in the presence of heat to transform into gaseous carbon dioxide and water.

European Chemistry Thematic Network, 2020

Below is the slightly different, but more accurate equation.

The Carbon Cycle

A core science topic that connects nicely to fire is the carbon cycle. By investigating this topic, we are able to look at how we are physically connected to fire, trees and plants, pollution, the oceans, fossil fuels and other animals at the molecular level (NCAR, 2007). Understanding this topic scientifically can help to see how our actions impact the world, and how balanced natural systems can become otherwise. An interesting way to present this information could be through the role play activity created by the California Academy of Sciences (see link in references).

NCAR, 2007

Ceremony

Ceremonial fires are a large part of many Indigenous cultures. In Mi’kmaw tradition, when a community member dies, a sacred fire is lit and kept burning for four days to act as a beacon for the spirit to return after it visits the people and places it knew when alive. The firekeeper’s job is to keep a small and tidy fire going no matter what happens with the weather, other people or one’s own fatigue (Crowfeather, D. 2016). Ceremonial fires are a part of the reciprocal relationship and language between human and spirit for many Indigenous people (Ward, J. 2010). Elder Sherry Copenance, a firekeeper during the Missing and Murdered Women Inquiry described ceremonial fire as “a spiritual doorway that opens to a spiritual realm so we can communicate and have relations through the fire”.

As a white person, I know it is not my place to teach or practice anything approaching a ceremonial or sacred fire. Luckily I work with fantastic Indigenous educators who carry a spirit of collaboration and are open to helping me combine outdoor learning with Indigenous ways of knowing. I do know that my personal connection to fire is strong, and as I seek to decolonize myself and my educational practice, I will keep these ideas close as I work with fire. I have yearned for a way to strengthen my relations with the other-than-human, and perhaps this is the doorway I’ve been searching for.

References

Brend, Y. (July 15, 2017). Forget Smokey the Bear: How First Nation fire wisdom is key to megafire prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/fire-fighting-first-nations-firekeepers-annie-kruger-penticton-bc-wildfire-mega-fire-1.4205506

Cajete, G. (2015). Indigenous Community. Rekindling the Teachings of the Seventh Fire. Living Justice Press.

California Academy of Sciences. (2020). Carbon Cycle Role Play. Retrieved from: https://www.calacademy.org/educators/lesson-plans/carbon-cycle-role-play

Country Fire Authority (2020). Fire Science and the Fire Triangle. Retrieved from: https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/lesson-2-fire-science-and-the-fire-triangle

Crowfeather, D. (March 27, 2016). Talking Stick — About being a firekeeper. Retrieved from: http://www.muiniskw.org/pgIssues01_Firekeeper.htm

Elpel, T. (2019) One Match Fire. Retrieved from: http://www.hopspress.com/Books/Curriculum_Guide/Lesson_Plans/One_Match_Fire.htm

European Chemistry Thematic Network (2020). The combustion reaction. Retrieved from: http://www.whatischemistry.unina.it/en/burn.html

National Center for Atmospheric Research. (2007). The Carbon Cycle. Retrieved from: https://scied.ucar.edu/carbon-cycle

Talaga, T. (May 31, 2017). The importance and lessons of the sacred fire at the inquiry in Whitehorse. Retrieved from: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/05/31/the-importance-and-lessons-of-the-sacred-fire-at-the-inquiry-in-whitehorse.html

Ward, J. (2010) Keeping fire at the dance. Retrieved from: https://danceforallpeople.com/about-fire/

Classroom Teacher, Ecophile, Adventurer, Father, Writer.