Fighting Fires and Family Secrets : Throughline Uncontrollable western wildfires and a hidden family history — two puzzles that can only be solved with knowledge buried in the past. Indigenous people in Montana fight fire with fire, drawing on the unique relationships their ancestors had to one of the West's greatest threats today. And a young woman grapples with the secret that binds her family together, but also tears them apart. This week, we bring you stories produced by two members of the Throughline team: Victor Yvellez and Anya Steinberg. Through their past work before joining the show, we'll travel from the homelands of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes to the freezers of a cryobank to answer questions about family, tradition, and the future.

Fighting Fires and Family Secrets

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RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

Hey, everyone. This week, we have a special Thanksgiving treat for you from two amazing members of our team. Before they joined us, they were already creating incredibly rich audio stories on their own. And today, we're gonna share two of them with you.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

The first story we're going to share is from our amazing intern Anya Steinberg, who won last year's NPR Student Podcast Challenge with her story, "He's Just 23 Chromosomes."

ABDELFATAH: And the second story is from Victor Yvellez, who started with us as an intern during the pandemic and is now making our radio show. He recently helped produce the series for Montana Public Radio called Fireline. The series is about what wildfire means for the West, for our planet and for our way of life.

ARABLOUEI: We really hope you enjoy these stories. And thanks to Anya, Victor and the rest of the THROUGHLINE team for being such fantastic people to work with every single week. Stick around for our first story, "He's Just 23 Chromosomes," from Anya Steinberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Here's our first story from our current intern, Anya Steinberg.

ANYA STEINBERG, BYLINE: Hey, I'm Anya Steinberg, and I produced the story "He's Just 23 Chromosomes." It's a story that explores a family secret I found out later in my life and my hunt for someone who I know as Donor No. 3046. What I discovered ended up changing my whole outlook on who I am as a person today. And just a note - there's some adult language in this piece. Here's the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANYA STEINBERG: Hi, I'm Anya. And today, I'm going to tell you the story of an immaculate conception. It didn't happen in the Bible. It happened on my mom's lunch break in a sterile room. What my mom likes to say about it is this.

KRISTIN WINTERMUTE: I fucked a syringe, and then I had two kids.

ANYA STEINBERG: (Laughter).

Me and my younger brother, Ari, were products of artificial insemination. We're from the same donor, who my mom and dad picked out online.

WINTERMUTE: There was only one cryobank in all of Minnesota. We went to them, and there were no Korean donors. I went back and called...

ANYA STEINBERG: Why did you want a Korean donor specifically?

WINTERMUTE: Well, 'cause Dad was Korean.

ANYA STEINBERG: You couldn't just have any old Asian.

WINTERMUTE: (Laughter) No, we weren't going to have - no.

ANYA STEINBERG: They ended up going through a cryobank in California, where they chose Donor 3046. He was a medical student at Stanford with good grades, or so I thought.

WINTERMUTE: And I swore to God, I thought we picked the doctor.

ANYA STEINBERG: Last year was the first time I tried finding my sperm dad in the cryobank's database. I typed 3046 into the search bar and immediately had to call my mom.

WINTERMUTE: We picked the jazz musician, and then I remember when you guys said that to me, you and your brother, that we decided to go with the artist, I was like, well, you're an artist, and you're Korean, and he's Korean, and he's an artist. That would be cool.

ANYA STEINBERG: The cryobank gives limited information that you can access for free. Reading through his files, my mind was spinning. My brain couldn't keep up with my eyes. I was like, 165 pounds, medium tan skin, born in Seoul, Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANYA STEINBERG: Plays trumpet. Outgoing. Dreams of directing a major motion picture. I was shook. I had this identity crisis. Like, who am I? My dad was supposed to be this straight-laced, studious guy, captivated by the intricate systems that make up the human body. And that made sense because I liked systems too, just bigger ones. I was on track to become an ecologist. I was contemplating Ph.D. programs and research conferences. But all of a sudden, I was like, my dad isn't a doctor. My dad is creative. It's in my genes to be creative, and maybe that's why I'm sitting here today, making this podcast instead of applying to grad school.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANYA STEINBERG: Our parents got divorced when I was in third grade and Ari was in kindergarten. At this point, we didn't know we were sperm donor kids. We had a tumultuous relationship with our dad. He didn't always treat us well. Like, he wasn't the most stand-up guy, but to us, he was still our dad. So despite the hard times, we kept trying to make it work, and that's the way our dad wanted it.

WINTERMUTE: I had this little file, and I thought, oh, gee, they'll become 21, and they'll have all these questions, and I thought, oh, I'll have the record. But then your dad burned all the records. It was super important to me that at some point we have to tell these kids. Now, your dad never wanted to. If he could keep it a secret from you guys forever, then you would forever love and adore him as Dad - like, all-encompassing Dad.

ANYA STEINBERG: Maybe our dad was right to want to keep the truth from us because when our mom told us, something broke. When Ari found out about donor dad, he said he was relieved.

ARI STEINBERG: Like, my perception just changed for him, you know? Like, I felt like since I was his son, I owed him something. But, you know, finding out that you're not really related to this dude, I just felt like that was a relief off my shoulders 'cause I could just be like, all right, fuck this guy.

ANYA STEINBERG: (Laughter).

ARI STEINBERG: But yeah, I just feel like - it just, you know, gave me relief 'cause it was kind of like my exit ticket.

ANYA STEINBERG: Sometimes I wonder if when the truth was revealed, our dad felt relieved too. The charade was up. The blood that was the bond that held us together dissolved. Ari and I started making excuses to ignore the custody schedule, and our dad started making excuses to skip our school conferences and orchestra concerts until one day we just didn't know each other anymore. Every other year or so now, he'll call on my birthday and leave a message.

ALEX STEINBERG: So I was calling to wish you a happy birthday. I called last night, but I didn't hear back from you, so I'll call you here in a - when I think you're out of school. OK, bye.

ANYA STEINBERG: I only call back sometimes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANYA STEINBERG: I'd like to say I'm the headstrong one and that eventually I decided to be super fulfilled and independent without a father. But that's Ari.

ARI STEINBERG: No, I'm not looking for a dad in general.

ANYA STEINBERG: You're not on the market for dads?

ARI STEINBERG: No, I'm not - it's not - the dad market is closed.

ANYA STEINBERG: (Laughter).

ARI STEINBERG: Stocks are trending down.

ANYA STEINBERG: (Laughter).

ARI STEINBERG: 'Cause, you know, I got me, so that's all I really need.

ANYA STEINBERG: Ari isn't even curious about who sperm dad is.

ARI STEINBERG: I'm not that into, like, finding out.

ANYA STEINBERG: Why not?

ARI STEINBERG: I'm not really looking for, like, a father figure in some random stranger that, you know, just nutted into a cup.

ANYA STEINBERG: But I am obsessed. Sperm dad is my glossy fantasy. Thinking about him - it's the kind of thing where I find myself melting holes in my ceiling with my eyes, just completely lost in my head. I imagine his voice would sound deep, oaky and reassuring. He wouldn't be like those serious Koreans. He would laugh and laugh, especially at what I said. He would teach me Korean and tell me all about why our family crossed the Pacific from Seoul to California. These sperm dad fantasies have a darker side, though. In all of the ways my dad failed me, sperm dad could too. And when that darker side creeps in, I feel...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Han. Han. Han.

ANYA STEINBERG: There's this Korean word, han. It has no direct translation in English. The best I can say about it is that it's this swirling mix of deep sorrow, resentment, grief, regret and anger that some say lives inside every Korean. It's an echo of the traumas Koreans have experienced from Japanese occupation to American imperialism and war. Apparently, it runs through our veins. It's written in the helixes of our DNA. Han has its tendrils wrapped around the Korean heart. Han is the only Korean word I know, which is fitting because the only Koreanness (ph) I have lives in a man I've never met.

Han is why I haven't called the cryobank yet to see if I could reach out. I realize I don't even know if he's alive. And even if he is, it's possible the records are sealed, which means that if I wanted to meet him, I would tell the cryobank, and then they would contact him and ask if he wanted to talk to me. If he said no, case closed. I would never get to know who he is, which seems so unfair. I wish I could just run into him on the street and get in his face - like, waving my hands around shouting, hey, here's what I am. Don't you want to know that I was Earth club president in high school? Don't you want to know that I used to pee my pants a little bit every time I laughed? Don't you want to know that I've read "Harry Potter" 14 times?

Like a father, I wonder if he could love me despite - despite the fact that I could be a real know-it-all growing up, despite the time when I was 8 and I got mad and kicked my brother in the face. I've cheated on a test. I drank under age. I'm a nervous driver, and once, I crashed my car and totaled it. I wonder if he could forgive me. My mom miscarried a child before me, a girl, and she miscarried my little brother's twin. Sperm dad has lost two kids he didn't even know he had. I wonder if he would mourn too. I'm scared the answer to everything will be no. But for the sake of this story, I'm going to be brave.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING AND RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you for calling California Cryobank, the Generate Life Sciences Company. If you're a new or existing donor sperm client, press 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: That was "He's Just 23 Chromosomes," from our fabulous intern, Anya Steinberg. Her friend Dan Archibald wrote all the music. Stay tuned for our second story right after this break.

ARABLOUEI: Next up is our second story. It's from THROUGHLINE producer Victor Yvellez. Fun fact - Victor would love nothing more than to go on Joe Rogan and talk about this piece. So Joe Rogan, if you're listening, you should have him on your show. So without further ado, here's an amazing episode from the series Fireline, produced by our very own Victor Yvellez.

VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Hey. I'm Victor Yvellez, and I helped produce the Montana Public Radio series Fireline. Wildfire is a part of life across the Western United States. By just about every measure, wildfires are becoming bigger, hotter and more devastating. But it's really important to keep in mind that fire is normal. Forest health in many ecosystems depends on fire. Fireline is about our long, complicated relationship with fire and what wildfires mean for our planet and our way of life. And today, we'll be sharing the fourth episode from the series, "The Gift Of Fire." It's a story about bringing fire back to the landscape and how Indigenous knowledge of fire and its role was suppressed with the arrival of European settlers. As climate change leads to more severe wildfires, Indigenous groups across the country are working to bring back their tribal relationships with fire.

Today, you'll hear the story of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes in northwest Montana and their attempts to revive that relationship. I, along with our executive producer Nick Mott, reported, wrote, produced and edited the series. And here's the creator and host of Fireline, Justin Angle. Hope you enjoy it.

JUSTIN ANGLE, BYLINE: I met father and son Tony Incashola Jr. and Tony Incashola Sr. in the height of fire season last year. We met in a lush, peaceful forest of widely spaced trees in the foothills of the rugged Mission Mountains on the Flathead Reservation just north of Missoula. The reservation is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. This is a tiny sliver of the tribe's ancestral land, more than 20 million acres in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and British Columbia they've inhabited for at least 10,000 years.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: You're going to say something first? You're going to start...

TONY INCASHOLA JR: No, it's you. You - hey, they wanted to interview you. I'm just along for the ride.

(LAUGHTER)

ANGLE: We'll just call these two Junior and Senior. They're both tribal members, and they took me to this particular forest to tell me about a big experiment here that shaped what the forest is today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGLE: Junior's the head of forestry for the tribes. He's wearing a trucker cap, a bright blue athletic T-shirt and cargo pants with a little burst of a goatee on his chin.

How did you get into this work?

TONY INCASHOLA JR: Just as a kid. So - I lived here, so this is what I do. This - I come to the woods all the time. I hunted. I fished. I gathered. I recreated, hiked.

ANGLE: Back when Junior was a kid tromping around the woods, this forest looked a lot different than it does today. This spot is called the Jocko Prairie, named after the nearby Jocko River. But back then, the place looked more like a jungle than a prairie.

TONY INCASHOLA JR: Very dense looking, very tight, slow growing, a lot of competition, ton of stems per acre.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGLE: This, a congested swath of ponderosa pine, is a forest type where fire suppression has played a major role in the buildup of fuel. Just like in the rest of the West, fire in this area was treated as an enemy for about a century. Without periodic flames, little baby trees and other undergrowth grew and spread, clogged the place up. To add to the mix, cattle were grazing through here.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: Well, you'd have to watch where you step, for one thing.

ANGLE: That's Senior. He has well-kept white hair and glasses and a collection of pens in the chest pocket of his polo shirt. Junior grew up following his dad around the woods, watching and learning from him. And today, when Senior starts to talk about this place and what it means to the tribe, Junior mostly stands back and lets Senior lead.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: You know, I had the opportunity and fortunate enough to be born and raised in a time period, the last - probably the last part - generation of elders that really understood the traditional values of who we are as a people and also the last ones that actually lived that way.

ANGLE: For almost five decades, he's been working for the culture committee here to keep traditions and knowledge alive that could otherwise slip through the cracks.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: I still learn something new every day from my elders. And that's something that - education like that is a lifetime thing. It doesn't just come and go. You're not born, you go to school, you get a degree, this and that, and it's over. No, education continues on and on.

ANGLE: Senior's education about fire started when he was a kid, looking up to his grandma. He remembers seeing the smoke in the mountains after a summer thunderstorm. She looked at that smoke and told him that it wasn't something to be feared, that soon there would be new growth and new life there.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: She was an adamant supporter of fire, knowing that - she said the creator is cleaning his room.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGLE: And it wasn't just fires, off in the mountains.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: We all have our favorite camping spots, our favorite hunting areas. Well, when I was growing up, it's no different. And in those areas, the first thing we'd do is get there - my grandma, who's the head - in charge of camp, she would select an area. She said, we're going to camp; this is our camp. My dad and my brothers and I, first thing we'd do is clear it and burn it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGLE: Burning the land would prepare it for hunting and for harvesting.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: You can just kind of think about it as a garden, you know, a gardener out there taking care of his garden. You know, you've got to weed it. You've got to do things. Well, the bigger garden here is fire is used. That's the role of the fire. It comes in and cleans it out, and in some areas, it needs help.

ANGLE: Looking back even farther, certain members of the tribe had a very special relationship with fire. They understood its behavior, how it would interact with upcoming rain or snow and how it could rejuvenate the landscape.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: They had what they called fire-makers. In our language, they called them (non-English language spoken), which is kind of a fire-maker. There were several over them that would study, would understand the environment, the growth, the different things. These people were the ones that set the fire. They knew when. They knew where. They knew the weather. And they were the ones that would set the fire.

ANGLE: He tells us more about that childhood camping spot. It was along a river in northwest Montana.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: What is now the Flathead River used to be called the Pend d'Oreille River, which was after the upper Kalispel people. The Pend d'Oreille are actually Kalispel. Kalispel, in our language. Kalispel, which means people of the camas.

ANGLE: That plant, camas, is an important one to know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGLE: Camas is a flower that blooms bright purple in the summer. Traditionally, Salish women gathered and baked the bulbs of camas. One single woman might have gathered upwards of 4,000 pounds of the plant in a year. It was crucial for the survival of the tribe. But its use and even its presence on the landscape has plummeted since colonization. Here in the Jocko Prairie, let's rewind just 10 years. And the place is covered in cow patties. It's an overgrown jungle, a far cry from what it once was.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: You know, our elders have always said that there was camas in this area. But nobody believed it because they couldn't see it.

ANGLE: Elders and others in the tribe took note of the damage to the ecosystem.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: They said, something has to be done. They can't go camping in their spots. They can't do - recreate in their spots without stepping on some cow shit - or drinking water anymore. They have to bring water because of it. That's when they start thinking about - and started hammering our tribal leaders about what's necessary.

ANGLE: So what was necessary? Those elders wanted to breathe life back into this area, to get it back to that lush, wide-open space. But doing so meant bringing fire back to the landscape. And that's no easy feat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGLE: We'll go back to Junior and Senior in a bit. But first, we need to understand how, for the tribe, fire had a very different meaning than it did for much of the rest of the country. When Germaine White started thinking about those two different meanings...

GERMAINE WHITE: I saw this extraordinary collision of cultures that occurred historically.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGLE: Germaine's also an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. And she spent decades working for the tribes in cultural preservation. And she got thinking about the tribe's relationship with fire while working on a project about tribal place names - as in, what areas are called.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITE: They're oftentimes names that come from coyote stories that tell about the making of places, so the creation of this landscape. They talk about resources that are on the land. Or they talk about landforms. So this is some of the oldest memory of tribal people that our elders have carried from their ancestors and then have passed onto their children.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITE: What I saw at that time was that these places that the elders had known throughout their lives - so this is in the late '90s. These places that have been known for 12 or 14,000 years conservatively were changing within their lifetimes. There was development infrastructure. There were roads. There was all kinds of change that had occurred. But how did the landscape change so profoundly?

ANGLE: As she talked to elders about how the land used to be, she started to realize that the cause of all that change wasn't just development. Fire had given the landscape some of the characteristics those names carried. Fire suppression was one of the forces that made things so different.

WHITE: I began to understand the role of fire in shaping this cultural landscape that our elders knew and loved.

ANGLE: Now, this is one tribe's view of wildfire. And the federal government recognizes more than 500 tribes in the U.S. The specifics of tribal relationships with fire vary to some extent across the country. But before white settlers took over the land, it's fair to say that those relationships developed from living alongside and often utilizing wildfire. But as the U.S. government confronted tribes, it corralled native people into reservations, killed them, forced them into boarding schools and outlawed traditional ceremonies and practices. As this mission to suppress indigenous culture gained steam, very different ideas about fire took hold.

WHITE: I also began learning about the early history of visitors and strangers that came to this landscape and how many of them came from Europe, from a Christian background and a built environment where fire was not considered a gift. You know, we can think about the fires of hell or the destruction of residential fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGLE: Germaine had written down a passage from an essay by ethnobotanist Nancy Turner.

WHITE: And she said, quote, "It's ironic that the landscapes so appreciated by the early explorers and colonists actually were created by the very fires they feared and disliked." Well, that pretty much sums up the cultural collision that occurred when visitors and strangers came to this land where people were making fire, using fire as a powerful tool.

ANGLE: In the middle of the 20th century, as our national war against fire seized the country, so did an obsession with wilderness, areas we value for the natural beauty and lack of obvious human impact.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Congress was specific in defining what wilderness is. The act states...

ANGLE: This is from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service video about the Wilderness Act, which passed in 1964.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: A wilderness, in contrast to those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. Let me say that again.

ANGLE: Combined, the areas designated as wilderness in the U.S. are bigger than the state of California. In wilderness, you can't run a chainsaw or drive a car or build a road.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: You can see the intent of the word untrammeled in the Wilderness Act. These are areas where humans do not direct what goes on in the environment. It is the forces of nature that affect the environment. The act goes on to define wilderness.

ANGLE: This idea of wilderness, of land untouched by human hands, erases the long history of humans living in and shaping those ecosystems.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGLE: As society waged a war on flames, fire, even if to make the land fertile and healthier, was forbidden. At times, the consequences for Native Americans were dire. Germaine tells me about a newspaper account from Missoula in 1875.

WHITE: The beginning of November of that year, 183 lodges of Pend d'Oreille Indians were crossing the Rocky Mountains in the northwest corner of the territory. They were travelling east on a buffalo hunt when two of them were shot and killed by, quote, "the officers of the international line" for setting a fire on the plains.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITE: So when people would leave in the late fall from - you know, and so this was at the beginning of November. When they were returning home, they would set fire that would make the - you know, that would leave an ash layer that was a fertile seedbed. It would - the next year, the grasses would be green. It was a way of restoring and maintaining the landscape. Pretty powerful disincentive to continue your cultural practices when you're shot and killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGLE: Germaine, like Senior, sees the elimination of fire and what it means for the landscape as bound up with the elimination of culture and tribal people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGLE: In the absence of fire, native flora tribes relied upon for millennia have been overtaken and replaced by encroaching grasses, weeds and other plants. In many cases, the knowledge and traditions that depend upon those plants and those ecosystems have withered away too.

WHITE: It's easy to understand that when people arrived on this landscape, that it was a landscape that was shaped and maintained by fire and that it was exquisitely beautiful. It's easy to understand that traditional knowledge of fire should be integrated into fire management practices today. But man, that's hard to achieve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: When we come back, what the tribe decides to do to the forest.

ARABLOUEI: Now back to the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGLE: Back in the Jocko Prairie, Junior and Senior are showing us around.

TONY INCASHOLA JR: We've got a fairly large, you know, 100 to 200-year-old ponderosa pine that's about 18 inches in diameter.

ANGLE: When we left off, tribal elders and others on the reservation had decided that this forest had gotten too unhealthy. It was overgrown from decades of excluding fire. Cattle were ranging through, trampling grasses. It made it hard to fish or hunt. Native plants like camas hadn't been seen there for decades. But how do you get from point A, this overgrown mess of a landscape, to point B, a healthy forest?

TONY INCASHOLA SR: It wasn't easy, but after a period of time, they finally convinced - at the right time, some leaders agreed and moved the cattle out.

ANGLE: So that's Step 1, getting the cattle out. But they still had to deal with the impacts of all that grazing and the lack of fire. And that meant, first off, thinning the area - coming through and cutting away some of that overgrown mess, especially the smaller trees in between the healthier, older, bigger ones. And then at long last...

TONY INCASHOLA JR: Came through here in 2015, laid some fire in the ground, very low intensity.

ANGLE: So that thinning cleared the way for a prescribed burn. Before the treatment, if a fire came through the dense brush and medium-sized trees, it could have laddered up the flames into the canopy. Everything could have burned. But the flames Junior helped put on the ground burned the overgrowth and behaved more like a natural fire. It left the big trees standing and rejuvenated the soil for new growth. That was all part of the plan. But nobody expected what happened next.

TONY INCASHOLA JR: And the next spring, we came back in here to do just a survey, and that's when we witnessed that this entire prairie was just purple, completely purple. All the camas came back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TONY INCASHOLA JR: This place has such a high hydrological water table in here that we didn't even know. Obviously, we would think by the structure of the stand, it was a more dry, arid site. But it's got such a high water table in the springtime and then runs out and dries out more in summer, which is perfect for camas. And so with that fire reintroduction finally back into it just - it bloomed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TONY INCASHOLA JR: I can't even guess how many years that camas was in here dormant. And with finally, the exclusion of cattle, just from stop suppressing it and then a rejuvenation of nutrients with the fire, it just sprouted. And it's come back every year.

ANGLE: That regrowth has slowed just a little bit, but that's because the work of burns like this one are never done. The area is on a plan to get burned again in a couple of years. That new fire will likely reignite the nutrients in the soil and keep the camas blooming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TONY INCASHOLA JR: There's been, really, a shift of recognition of us or Native tribes nationally, regionally, using fire and seeing the benefits from it, for sure.

ANGLE: Early in this episode I mentioned that prescribed burning in the West went down from 1998 to 2018. In that same time period, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was the only federal agency that saw its burning increase substantially. Organizations like the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network are also growing and helping amplify tribal knowledge around fire in Northern California, the Great Lakes, the Southwest and elsewhere.

Let's zoom out a bit further. Native Americans have a long history of taking part in some of the federal government's biggest fights, despite centuries of oppression. Senior himself is a Vietnam veteran.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: So I felt that war, even though took me, I still had that connection to the values of what - you know, why I am there, not necessarily because of the fighting but the protection of what I left behind.

ANGLE: Since the 1930s, Indigenous people in the U.S. have played a significant role in the government's battle against wildfire, too. Tens of thousands of Native Americans and Alaska Natives helped build the country's trail and forest infrastructure. Today, there are seven all-Native elite firefighting crews across the country. And in spite of all the deep cultural connections to fire, intentionally setting fire to reservation land still presents many challenges. Here in the Jocko Prairie, Junior explains.

TONY INCASHOLA JR: There's still a ways to go. There's still a ways to go. Obviously, our forests aren't where we want them to be yet, and we're still striving to do that. We burn 3- to 5,000 acres a year. I mean, I would love to see us burn 7- to 10-, you know?

ANGLE: Burning that much more land on the reservation or burning a bunch more land anywhere else in the country means building relationships with communities in the area who have to decide that having small amounts of smoke in the skies in certain times of the year beats out choking on smoke if a massive fire erupts. Junior says the tribe's forest management philosophy is based on using fire, not just suppressing it.

TONY INCASHOLA JR: I see our forests coming back to a more natural state where burning will be more acceptable. But I think going forward, there is an opportunity someday to really let fire play more of its natural role.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: It's a matter of, I think, using our knowledge and our tools properly. And we'll get there. Our tools, knowledge, our tools of the gifts that were given to us, the fire, whatever - just learn how to use them, and we'll get there.

ANGLE: Senior used this language a lot - gifts. He says plants, animals, everything here is a gift to the Earth, fire included. Junior sees it the same way.

TONY INCASHOLA JR: Not only a gift to us, but it's more of a gift to the land, you know? That's how I've always looked at it. It's a recognition that it's a gift to the land.

ANGLE: Junior says this open area could slow or even stop a raging fire. But fire resilience is just one small part of the bigger picture.

TONY INCASHOLA JR: I mean, just speaking on camas specifically, that practice and that gathering in here was absent for a hundred years, I'd have to say. With the fire now, that practice can begin here. Cultural events can come back here. That teaching of that lost tradition in here can happen again, not just with camas. But when camas comes back, other stuff comes back. It's not just one community, one plant. It's multiple things that start to happen. You know, as we open this stand up, elk come in more. And as that happens, hunting happens more. Gathering of camas happens more. It's not just focusing on one goal. It's a goal of all the ecosystem here.

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ANGLE: Senior has dedicated decades of his life to preserving culture on the Flathead Reservation.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: Sometimes it's hard, you know, especially in this day and age. It's hard to keep those values and traditions alive because things have so changed. And that's because we all forget who we are, where we come from. Me, I feel I'm fortunate enough that I grew up in a time period that I know who I am. I know where I come from. And I know what I need to do for the next generation.

ANGLE: Bringing fire back to this landscape is a part of that work.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: You know, unfortunately, some of those elders that fought so hard for it weren't able to see the benefits of what happened to their work. And that's how we survived today. Those ancestors back then that fought so hard, they didn't benefit. What they were fighting for was not for them. It was for the generations that are here today. That's what life is about. It's not about me. It's not about you. It's about the next generation. That next generation depends on us, what we can do.

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TONY INCASHOLA SR: I think this is a good example of the tribes - one of the tribal success stories, I guess, of what this country or what our Aboriginal territories used to look like. The fire creates safety. It creates new growth. It creates a lot of different things that's not the fear that hundreds of thousands of years ago that worried people. It was making sure that that fire, you know, played its role. But today, there's a lot of fear, a lot of misunderstanding because - it's simple - they don't know what the role is of fire. You know, it's something that you will not be able to control. And this country has tried to control everything.

ANGLE: Standing there with Junior and Senior, the sound of the creek and breeze blowing in the ponderosa, I was struck by this idea - the control we tried to exert over the natural world. In Episode 2, historian Steve Pine talked about how the country's relationship with fire has long been one of control and domination.

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STEVE PYNE: We're going to knock fire out of the landscape. It was a crazy ambition.

ANGLE: Lots of scholars call the part of history we're in now the Anthropocene. That anthro, it means people. It's a time when humans have impacted every part of the ecosystem. Wherever you look - in forests, in rivers - you can't escape the legacy of us and our crazy ambition to control and shape the world. But to Senior, this forest and bringing fire back to it shows that a different relationship with the natural world is possible, one that's not based on control, one in which humans and nature shape each other.

TONY INCASHOLA SR: It's things like that that people need to understand, you know? You can't control fire. That's part of who we are, part of nature, part of, you know, whatever it is that you see here.

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ARABLOUEI: That was an episode from the "Fireline" podcast. Big thanks to our own Victor Yvellez, who helped produce and edit that series from Montana Public Radio.

ABDELFATAH: And thanks to our current intern, Anya Steinberg, for her story "He's Just 23 Chromosomes."

ARABLOUEI: And if you have an idea or like something you heard on this show, please, write us at throughline@npr.org. Or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlineNPR.

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