Publication Details

Eriksen, C. & Hankins, D. L. (2015). Colonisation and fire: Gendered dimensions of indigenous fire knowledge retention and revival. In A. Coles, L. Gray & J. Momsen (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Gender and Development (pp. 129-137). New York, United States: Routledge.


This chapter elucidates how gender is entwined in the spatial and temporal knowledge trajectories through which indigenous fire knowledge is retained and revived using a case study of eastern Australia and California, USA. Fire extends its roots far into the past of indigenous cultures worldwide, extending beyond basic domestic needs to responsible environmental stewardship. Fire has played a key role in the land stewardship practices of Aboriginal Australian and Native American women and men for millennia (Stewart et al. 2002; Gammage 2011). This includes cultural and gendered landscapes, such as indigenous sacred and ceremonial sites off-limits to women or men. However, a 'disconnect' between the past, present and future of both ecological and cultural aspects of fire underpins a tendency among many researchers, policymakers and practitioners to dismiss or ignore fire knowledge that is alive today among indigenous elders and cultural land stewards. This may be attributed to assumptions based on historic events, a lack of current burning and relatively low indigenous populations. Instead guidance is sought from archaeological, anthropological and ethnographic records from the past or from scientific models that project the future. An attitude also prevails that depicts historic use of fire by indigenous people as non-applicable in current-day environments due to environmental and demographic changes (White 2004). Yet, it is important to recognise that culture and knowledge are as dynamic as the environment is. From an applied standpoint, indigenous fire knowledge is fluid (for example, changing with past climatic events or gender-targeted genocide), and the ability to read the landscape to know how, when, why and what to burn comes with proper training. The concept of 'proper training', however, arguably plays out differently today from traditional indigenous fire knowledge trajectories of the past due to the impact of history and politics. It is this marginalised political, technological and institutional position of indigenous peoples' knowledge in many 'developed' countries that makes this chapter relevant to a handbook of gender and development.