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Professor Peter Nelson adds wildland firefighting to his expertise

Nelson, a California Native American, is an advocate for using "good fire" to help steward the environment

Assistant professor Peter Nelson, a Native Californian, leans against a tree in Faculty Glade and looks into the distance.

“I’m learning as much about the practice of fire and prescribed burning as I can, wherever I can get it,” says Peter Nelson, a California Native American who joined the faculty in January 2021. He is training to be a wildland firefighter with the goal of using “good fire” as a tool to reduce risk and build ecosystem resilience against wildfires. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

For Peter Nelson, stepping foot on the UC Berkeley campus last January as a new faculty member, after 3 1/2 years on the San Diego State University faculty, was a return to his alma mater, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology.

Returning to Northern California from San Diego also was a homecoming, since Nelson is Coast Miwok and a tribal citizen of the Graton Rancheria community, a federation of the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo peoples of Marin and southern Sonoma counties.

Berkeley’s proximity to his ancestral territory is a plus, said Nelson, a Santa Rosa resident who is the first and only hire, so far, for the campus’s new Native American and Indigenous Peoples cluster. “It’s a huge consideration for Native faculty,” he said, “trying to maintain connections with family, the ceremonial cycles, religious ties, food systems, and participation in traditional culture.”

Nelson is an assistant professor of environmental science, policy and management and of ethnic studies whose research — at the intersection of anthropological archaeology, Indigenous environmental studies and Native American studies — touches upon environmental stewardship. But recent wildfires in the state, like the 2020 LNU Lightning Complex, have fueled his interest in gaining additional expertise: wildland firefighting, with an emphasis on using “good fire” as a tool to reduce risk and build ecosystem resilience against wildfires.

Peter Nelson, an assistant professor at Berkeley, is dressed in firefighter clothing while helping to battle the Walbridge Fire in 2020, in Northern California. The bearded professor has got on a yellow helmet with goggles attached, a navy bandana around his neck, and is carrying gear.

At the August 2020 Walbridge Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex, Peter Nelson was a member of a volunteer firefighter hand crew that helped protect the Austin Creek and Armstrong Redwoods State Park areas. (Photo by Peter Nelson)

“In many ways, fire needed to come to that area, but it didn’t need to destroy it,” he said of the counties — Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Yolo — affected by the complex, the fourth-largest wildfire in California’s recorded history. Between Aug. 17 and Oct. 2 of that year, blazes ripped through more than 360,000 acres, burned nearly 1,500 structures and left six people dead.

If relatively small areas of our landscape were burned routinely and on purpose — a Native American practice for thousands of years to generate fresh forage for animals, stimulate growth of basket-weaving materials, control acorn pests and reduce fire hazards around living areas — such catastrophic damage could be avoided, Nelson explained.

“You have old growth redwoods and toothpick sticks of redwoods cluttering what’s in between. We’ve allowed all that (vegetation) to grow out of control,” he said, as opposed to “burning a wide range of plants at different times of the year, when you can get a low intensity burn to creep along the ground and not grow out of control and burn everything. You haven’t seen that type of management, that stewardship practice, in Central California for nearly 200 years.”

Successive waves of Spanish, Mexican and American colonialism “disrupted Native Californians’ lives and communities through forced removal, violence, disease and labor, contributing to declines in our population,” he explained. “And early settlers established laws explicitly restricting the use of fire to burn the land in response to this Indigenous practice that they did not understand.”

Peter Nelson, now an assistant professor at Berkeley, is dressed in firefighter gear and using a drip torch to intentionally burn within an oak woodland area in Audubon Canyon Ranch, in Northern California, in order to use good fire to keep the woodland healthy. Other firefighters are also in the photo, helping with the work.

Peter Nelson uses a drip torch to put “good fire” back on the ground for a burn within an oak woodland at the Bouverie Preserve, an Audubon Ranch Canyon property in Glen Ellen, California. (Photo by David Levya)

Building skills for his tribe, community, environment

Through Audubon Canyon Ranch, a nonprofit environmental conservation and education organization headquartered in Stinson Beach, Nelson completed basic wildland firefighter training in 2020 through its Fire Forward program. He is now part of a group of specialists in prescribed burning that collaborates with communities and private landowners to plan and conduct burns to prevent wildfires on vast acreage that Cal Fire and local fire departments don’t have time or permits to manage.

In a historic moment last year, a Fire Forward crew was allowed to help firefighters in the LNU complex’s devastating Walbridge Fire in northwestern Sonoma County. Nelson said his group, assigned to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, “set sprinklers inside the trees to cool them down so they wouldn’t die. It was a wonderful experience, taking care of 1,000-year-old giants.”

Audubon Canyon Ranch, on land within Coast Miwok, Southern Pomo and Wappo peoples’ territories, launched Fire Forward in 2017. Over the course of eight weekends, the program trains community volunteers, like it did Nelson and his younger brother, Tim, how to assist with prescribed burns; some of the lessons are taught with involvement from members of local Native tribes.

“It’s kind of like learning a language. I’m learning as much about the practice of fire and prescribed burning as I can, wherever I can get it. I think it’s important to learn about how non-Native people and agencies think about and practice prescribed burning, too, so we can better understand their goals and where we can find common ground in caring for our ancestral territory,” said Nelson, who also consults with his tribe and organizations such as the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and California State and National Parks on the Marin Forest Health Strategy project.

Professor Peter Nelson, a wildland firefighter, meets with Audubon Canyon Ranch staff on a dirt road near Toms Point, near Tomales Bay, to discuss a prescribed burn.

Last July, Peter Nelson (right) met with Audubon Canyon Ranch staff to do initial planning for a prescribed burn at Toms Point, which overlooks Tomales Bay and is where Coast Miwok and other California Native American people remained or returned after the missions closed in 1834. (Photo by K. Elizabeth Soluri)

This year, Nelson is one of Audubon Canyon Ranch’s first Fire Forward Fellows, building leadership skills and learning advanced prescribed burning techniques through a year-long internship that helps fellows on their way to qualifying for “squad boss” or California state-certified “burn boss” status.

“I don’t think I’m going to be a full-time burn boss because I’m also a professor,” said Nelson, “but I could play a more active role when my tribe is in consultation with agencies and other partners about putting fire back on the ground. I can be part of directing the fire in cultural ways that prescribed burning doesn’t always account for­ — to burn for the health of acorns and our staple foods, to burn for straight shoots for our basket weavers, and to steward significant gathering areas in our ancestral territory to continue our cultural practices.”

Sasha Berleman, director of Fire Forward, said Nelson is “building a slide deck of experience and qualifications that will allow him to be a leader in the community, in this region, within his tribe and possibly within other tribes that haven’t reconnected with fire, and that leadership also will extend to students at UC Berkeley.”

In addition to learning wildland firefighting, she said, Nelson is sharing with the nonprofit his expertise in natural resources stewardship and protection to contribute to projects that include floodplain restoration at Bolinas Lagoon and a burn at Toms Point, in northern Tomales Bay. Toms Point is a significant area for many Coast Miwok families because their ancestors re-established their lives there after Spain’s forced attempts to remove and colonize them during the mission era.

“The crew of prescribed burners we’ve built from the local community includes botanists, an ecologist, anthropologists — people of different backgrounds who contribute incredible skills to the fire line,” said Berleman. “I’m so impressed by and grateful for Peter. He’s connected us to his values as an Indigenous person and to what his needs are to fulfill his cultural practices and reconnect with the land.”

Peter Nelson, an assistant professor at Berkeley, uses ground penetrating radar to assist a California Indian tribe with assessing sites that need protection.

For a collaborative, non-invasive archaeological project in the Warner Springs area of San Diego County, Peter Nelson (center) uses ground penetrating radar to survey the ancestral territory of the Pala Band of Mission Indians. He is accompanied by cultural monitors who are members of the tribe. The work assists the Tribal Historic Preservation Program by evaluating historic Native American sites in order to best protect them. (Photo by Giorgio Curti)

‘A crucial and pioneering hire’ for Berkeley

Nelson grew up in the 1990s in Vancouver, where his parents, Rachel and Don Nelson, were teachers who had met as students at University of Portland in Oregon. His ancestors, like his maternal grandfather, Benjamin Howard, had long left their shacks on the outskirts of well-to-do white ranchers’ properties in Marin and Sonoma counties. During and after World War II, they’d had no choice: A new mandate required them to pay taxes or buy their land.

Howard, whose first home was a renovated chicken coop in Sonoma County, where he picked prunes and other fruit, chose to join the Navy. Then, “like many others after the war,” said Nelson, “he was dropped off in Seattle,” where he married and made a home, but longed to be in California again.

Nelson has always been aware of his maternal Native heritage — his father is of Norwegian descent — but said he began to explore his identity and family heritage more deeply as a teen. During that time, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was underway, the remains of Kennewick Man, or “the Ancient One,” were the subject of lawsuits in the Pacific Northwest, and in 2000, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria regained federal recognition.

In 2003, as a University of Washington freshman, Nelson joined First Nations@UW, the campus’s Native student group. “I had a lot of fun with other students working frybread fundraisers and powwows and helping with different efforts,” he said. “The experience, along with my Native identity, influenced my direction in archaeology and the topics I chose to write about,” including the social hierarchy at Fort Vancouver, where the lower status afforded to Native American traders by the British officers and company employees is reaffirmed in the fort’s architecture.

The British built their grand Chief Factor’s House, for example, where the fort’s leaders lived with their families, with two cannons outside of it, positioned right at the small, drab Indian Trade Shop, where Native people traded with fort residents.

Peter Nelson, a new faculty member and a Native Californian, looks at the camera while standing in an area of campus near Faculty Glade.

“Seeing more Native professors on campus is so important for Native students, who need to see themselves in that role,” said Nelson, the first hire for the campus’s Native American and Indigenous Peoples faculty cluster. He is on the review committee for the five hires yet to come. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

In choosing graduate schools, Nelson said he felt compelled to work in partnership with tribes and to “go deeper into my family and cultural history. Also, I was very impressed with Kent Lightfoot at UC Berkeley. He was working collaboratively with Kashaya Pomo people, neighbors to the north of my tribe.”

At Berkeley, Nelson spent from 2009 to 2017 studying cultural heritage preservation, settler colonialism, climate change and Indigenous landscape management. He engaged in Indigenous archaeology and community-based participatory research methodologies, using approaches including geophysical surveying, paleoethnobotany and ethnography.

He also began to forge the close relationship he’d sought with extended family and other members of his tribe, participating, as he does today, on its sacred sites protection committee and “learning about my traditional culture, my family’s history and the tribe’s history at the same time.” He chaired the committee from 2015 to 2017.

And he partnered with the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department on a master plan for Tolay Lake that included educating visitors of its role as a sacred spiritual center and cultural landscape for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and restoring health to the freshwater lake, altered during the past 100 years for ranching and farming.

Today, having hired Nelson — an interdisciplinary scholar with strong ties to the region’s landscapes and histories — Berkeley has made a “crucial and pioneering hire,” said anthropology professor Meg Conkey.

“Not only will he be an excellent teacher and resource for many,” she added, “but, after all, we are the flagship campus of the University of California, and we really ought to have many Native Californians as faculty, staff and students. Their ancestors were here before us, and we have much to learn from them.”

Professor Peter Nelson wears a wide-brimmed hat and look straight at the camera while standing on stands on a parched bluff while operating a ground penetrating radar device on Santa Cruz Island.

Peter Nelson conducts a GPR (ground penetrating radar) survey on Santa Cruz Island with equipment from the campus’s Archaeological Research Facility, where he is an affiliated faculty member. (Photo by Glenn Russell)

Fostering ties between tribes and campus scholars

Nelson recalls feeling lonely as a graduate student at Berkeley. “I even feel that now, as a faculty member,” he said. “Especially for California Indian people, UC Berkeley is one of the most prestigious schools in our home state, but we don’t see too many of our own people here on campus.

”I am the only California Indian tenure-track professor on the campus, currently. I hope there will be many more soon. But in order to change that, Berkeley will have to accept that many California Indian people are trained at the UCs and CSUs, and we have have to hire our own to fill those positions.”

In hiring California Indians to the faculty, the campus benefits from more than just their academic backgrounds and training: “We also help diversify the academy with our Indigenous perspectives and knowledge that is rooted in our respective ancestral territories in California,” said Nelson, “and you can’t get that anywhere else.”

There currently are 11 ladder-rank faculty, 365 undergraduates and 159 graduate students at Berkeley who self-identify as Native American/Alaska Native, independent of their selection of any other racial/ethnic groups. These faculty data are from the Office for Faculty Equity and Welfare; the students’ data are from Cal Answers.

Nelson said he is encouraged by a Native American student center being launched at Berkeley, the new Indigenous Community Learning Garden, Café Ohlone’s planned relocation to the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, the unnaming of Kroeber Hall and five more hires to come for the Native American and Indigenous Peoples faculty cluster.

New faculty member Peter Nelson leans against a tree in Faculty Glade and smiles. He has a short pony tail and a beard and is a Native Californian.

“Indigenous scholars, like Peter, are leading a historical effort to reconfigure and reimagine the colonial academy,” said Tony Marks-Block, an assistant professor at California State University, East Bay. He and Nelson are researching how prescribed fire and land management can improve conditions for Indigenous acorn gathering. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

“Seeing more Native professors on campus is so important for Native students, who need to see themselves in that role,” said Nelson, who is on the cluster’s interview committee. “One of the things that is really attractive about the (cluster) applicants is that everyone is working with Native American communities — their own, or other tribes around the country. And most often, the people really engaged with that work are Native themselves.”

Nelson doesn’t see much of a boundary between his on- and off-campus environmental stewardship work, including his wildland firefighter training, and he hopes to use his network of connections in the region to foster research partnerships among Native and non-Native students and Native tribes.

“Indigenous scholars, like Peter, are leading a historical effort to reconfigure and reimagine the colonial academy,” said Tony Marks-Block, an assistant professor at California State University, East Bay, who is collaborating with Nelson, through Audubon Canyon Ranch, to study how prescribed fire and land management can improve conditions for Indigenous acorn gathering. “His presence at Berkeley will undoubtedly transform the lives of Indigenous students and Indigenous communities in California.”

Faculty member Peter Nelson is a little boy in this photo, standing with his grandfather. They are Coast Miwok and were always told they looked alike. Here, they are wearing white T-shirts and jeans.

Peter Nelson (left) says he’s always identified closely with his maternal grandfather, Benjamin Howard (right), who was a Coast Miwok person and always hoped, but was never able, to return to California after serving in World War II. (Photo by Rachel Nelson)

Added Lightfoot, an anthropology professor at Berkeley, “It’s fantastic having him on campus. He brings so much to Berkeley, in all aspects —he’s a well-respected teacher, has a lot of great research projects, practices a low-impact kind of archaeology, works closely with tribes and in collaboration, is developing on many different fronts a perspective about bringing good fire back to California and using it to steward the land. … I fully support him and will do whatever I can to help out.”

Nelson knows that his grandfather, a Coast Miwok person who never finished high school, also would be pleased to see him at Berkeley, bringing fresh approaches to issues of critical importance to Native Americans and the environment.

“I’ve really identified with my grandpa, specifically because everyone says I look like a carbon copy of him. We look like twins,” said Nelson. “But I know how I connect with his story is that he wanted to return to California after the war, but never did. When I applied to go to grad school at Berkeley and talked to Grandpa about it, he was really proud.

“He ended up passing away a few months after I arrived in California. I don’t think that’s insignificant. Once he knew a piece of himself was down here, it was a completion of something he wanted.”