UC Davis professor of Native American studies Beth Rose Middleton throws deergrass onto a burning pile as she and students in the “Keepers of the Flame” class take part in a cultural burn at the Tending and Gathering Garden at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve in Woodland. (Alysha Beck/UC Davis)
UC Davis Professor of Native American Studies Beth Rose Middleton throws deergrass onto a burning pile as she and students take part in a cultural burn at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve in Woodland. (Alysha Beck/UC Davis)

Native American Studies Professor Links Native Voices to Water, Fire and Land

Beth Rose Middleton, professor and chair of the Department of Native American Studies, is a leading voice on three projects that recently received a combined $1.5 million in funding to advance ongoing Indigenous research connected to water, fire and land.

  • Middleton has been awarded $230,000 from the Resources Legacy Fund for her book project “Removing Dams and Restoring Tribal Homelands.”
  • She will oversee and mentor a postdoctoral position studying Indigenous fire practices, funded by $226,000 from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
  • She is also part of a project receiving $900,000 from the University of California Office of the President that will examine the return of land to Native peoples and develop UC curriculum on the topic.

“All these projects inform one another and bring together the different aspects of my research and collaborations in overlapping, multidisciplinary fields,” said Middleton, Yocha Dehe Chair in California Indian Studies. “I see them as reflecting a holistic approach to research and teaching that embraces areas from the humanities to environmental science. As such, they’re a good fit for UC Davis, which is known for bringing diverse disciplines together.”

Support provided through the endowed Yocha Dehe Chair laid the groundwork for these studies and awards, Middleton said.

All the projects aim to “foreground Native voices and work in partnership with Native community members,” she said.

A deeper look at dams

The article and book project on Indigenous leadership in the complex negotiations involved in dam removal is a follow-up to Middleton’s 2018 book Upstream: Trust Lands and Power on the Feather River about how Native land allotments were often taken for dam projects. She will complete a series of case studies examining Indigenous leadership in dam removal and restoration throughout the West.

“I’m so excited because the last book was about the impact of dams and the struggle to get some of those lands back,” Middleton said. “The project will look at the opportunities to heal people and land and build healthier watersheds by engaging in negotiations to remove dams and restore the cultural and ecological aspects of impacted fisheries.”

Examining cultural burning practices

For the USGS project, the postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis will work on policy and applied aspects of contemporary Indigenous “cultural burning” for land restoration and stewardship. The postdoc will be co-advised by Middleton and Hugh Safford, research associate and senior lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy.

The project, titled “Future of Fire in the Southwest: Towards a National Synthesis of Wildland Fire Under a Changing Climate,” will build a cohort of seven postdocs looking at different aspects of fire and climate change. Each postdoc will be housed at a regional Climate Adaptation Science Center across the United States and territories.

A repatriation road map

A collaboration between UCLA, UC Riverside and UC San Diego, the UCOP-funded project will examine recent and proposed return of land to Native peoples. Part of the project will be developing a coursework module available online across the UC system, presenting many aspects of repatriation and cultural protection with an interdisciplinary approach, Middleton said.

Professor Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie and Assistant Professor Kathleen C. Whiteley, both in the Department of Native American Studies, will be coinvestigators on the UC Davis aspect of this multicampus project, titled Centering Tribal Stories of Cultural Preservation in Difficult Times.”

“We will work in partnership with Native community members to develop curriculum about multiple aspects of and considerations regarding repatriation and cultural heritage protection,” Middleton said. “I hope that these projects — most in collaboration with colleagues on and off campus and students at UC Davis and beyond — will benefit Indigenous nations in California, the Department of Native American Studies, UC Davis and the University of California system.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science

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