Researchers look to native history to gather ideas about forests and flames
Document Type: News Article
Author(s): M. Jamison
Publication Year: 2005

Cataloging Information

  • Alberta
  • Canada
  • community ecology
  • digital data collection
  • ecosystem dynamics
  • education
  • European settlement
  • fire culture
  • fire regimes
  • fire suppression
  • forest management
  • general interest
  • grasses
  • grasslands
  • histories
  • hunting
  • landscape ecology
  • light
  • lightning
  • Montana
  • mortality
  • mountains
  • Native Americans
  • presettlement fires
  • public information
  • succession
  • suppression
  • wildfires
  • wildlife
  • wood
  • woody fuels
Record Maintained By:
Record Last Modified: June 1, 2018
FRAMES Record Number: 43234
Tall Timbers Record Number: 18433
TTRS Location Status: In-file
TTRS Call Number: Fire File-J
TTRS Abstract Status: Okay, Fair use, Reproduced by permission

This bibliographic record was either created or modified by the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy and is provided without charge to promote research and education in Fire Ecology. The E.V. Komarek Fire Ecology Database is the intellectual property of the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.


Traveling the borderland between modern Montana and the endless expanse of what's now known as southern Alberta. Still smoking all around, the explorer notes: 'grass having been lately burnt,' 'grass nearly all burnt,' 'grass yet burning.' For days, his journals are filled with fire, no end in sight. Yet there hadn't been a lightning strike in who knows how many weeks. When Hudson's Bay Co. fur trader Peter Fidler first laid eyes on the wide wild West, it seemed to him a pristine wilderness, a garden shaped from on high and never yet bent beneath the clumsy hands of men. 'But it's a myth,' said Germaine White. 'This idea that it was a 'natural' forest, that you can restore 'natural' fire, it's a myth. For thousands of years, this has been a landscape formed by native people.' 'It is,' she said, 'a cultural landscape.' White, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, is one of a team of researchers tracking across that cultural landscape - and the tremendous width and breadth of their work is almost sure to influence the ongoing national debate about forest health and wildfire. Set for release by year's end, their meticulous multimedia curriculum bridges history and science, wisdom and knowledge, cultural gulfs that brought us, White said, to where we've come to be, and that offer lessons on where we go from here. 'We go to war to fight fire in this country,' she said. 'Fire is really vilified. But it's very different for native people.' Native people like those Fidler encountered amid the smoke more than two centuries ago - people, he wrote, who traveled with hundreds of animals, every horse and every dog burdened by a bundle of fire starter. All winter long, Fidler wrote, if a patch of open ground appeared, they burned it. Fire was the most powerful tool North America's first peoples had to improve wildlife range, clear horse pasture, herd elk, drive game, clear campsites, signal neighbors, and encourage the growth of food and medicinal plants. It was warmth in the winter, hot food on the hearth, a weapon in warfare. 'It was fundamental,' White said. So when Christians arrived on the scene with their religious baggage connecting fire to brimstone and evil, she said, 'well, you can imagine the extraordinary collision of cultures.' Today, the wreckage of that collision still lies scattered across our forests, she said, just waiting to burn. A nationwide debate has been sparked, all about how to get back to what foresters like to call 'natural conditions' - and what White calls the 'cultural landscape.' It's ironic, she said, that native voices have been all but cut out of that debate, 'even though they lived sustainably on this land for millennia,' even though the landscape so prized by early European arrivals was no accident. 'Few non-Indian accounts of native modes of subsistence seem to consider that Indian people actually knew what they were doing,' said White's colleague, historian Thompson Smith, 'that there might be some method to a way of life that had sustained these communities for such a very long time, or that the magnificent country taken over by non-Indians was itself the product of millennia of native knowledge and care.' White does not presume to know what's best today and certainly does not call for turning the clock back to pre-European conditions. But, she said, much might be learned by 'giving the native ways of understanding greater respect.' There will be many steps on the path toward healthy ecosystems, she said. One of the first might be to understand how those ecosystems first were formed, in no small part by the marriage between men and fire. White's own first steps began a decade or so ago, when she was working with the tribes' cultural committee to research traditional place names. In that work, she said, 'we kept returning to places elders no longer recognized.' In fact, the old names no longer fit. A place that translates to 'Big Meadows' in what's now the Bob Marshall Wilderness, for instance, hasn't been a meadow for generations. 'It was shocking,' White said. 'These places had changed profoundly in the lifetime of our elders.' Later, as a cultural resource adviser, she was asked to look at places where tribal foresters wanted to reintroduce controlled fire and decide whether any historic cultural sites might be disturbed. But the elders kept telling her not to worry, that 'there's always been fire,' that Indians had long lit blazes of their own for any number of reasons. 'It just astonished me,' she said, 'and then all of a sudden the pieces started coming together.' The foresters were using the latest science and technology. The elders knew how the land had come to be 'natural.' It was time to get them together. She partnered with author and researcher David Rockwell, brought in historian Smith and together they started digging. 'I wanted to begin at the very beginning,' White said. That meant listening hard to Salish Coyote stories, ancient and sacred stories that deal with creation and the origins of things, stories such as 'Beaver Steals Fire' - the tale of how fire was brought from the sky, as a gift from the creator to the people. Sink into the deeper meanings of the story, White said, and it's clear how hard the cultures must have collided. For the Salish, fire was life itself. For Europeans recently arrived, 'they just wanted to put it out.' 'Beaver Steals Fire' became part one of a four-part presentation in book form, as told by Johnny Arlee and with strikingly dignified watercolors by Sam Sandoval. It is, White said, accessible by the very young with depths to be sounded by the very old as well, wrapped in layers of meaning not unlike a Bible story. The story is retold in the project's second part, a DVD version told by Arlee and again illustrated by Sandoval. The level of sophistication, however, is ratcheted up in the DVD, with interviews exploring a modern understanding of fire and forests. 'Uncle, could you tell us a Coyote story?' And then the measured cadence of ancient Salish rhythms, long vowels sliding and hissing into abrupt stops, like flames hard up against late-season snowpack. When Arlee transitions into English, it's so smooth you'll likely miss it. The third part of the curriculum includes another DVD, this one interactive, in which older students can spend hours exploring history, culture, fire and forests. Click the buttons and hear 'Beaver Steals Fire' in English or Salish. Watch any of 86 video clips from interviews with six tribal elders. Learn fire history, fire regimes, forest succession, fire ecology. See striking photos of the forest, then and now. Peruse journal selections from early explorers, reading what they had to say about fire, landscape and native peoples. The information is drawn up from the distant past, from the earliest written records, from the first recorded interviews with tribal elders, from an oral tradition Smith says is 'very rigorous and disciplined,' stories not varying in the slightest detail over 100 years. The interactive DVD also is densely packed with science and ethnography, but has enough bells and whistles to grab even the most jaded X-Box addict. There are living maps and even virtual forests where you can apply your own fire and see what happens. The fourth part of the project, Rockwell said, is a Web site, but with all the work on the three core parts, the Internet component has been left to the last and is not quite finished. Combined, they are a lifetime of lessons, a constant and consistent message that White thinks could well help create a fundamental shift in cultural understanding. Already, Rockwell said, teachers have been impressed, and are lining up for a sneak peak. By year's end, he said, it will be ready for the classroom, bringing some very old know-how to a very new debate. You have to wonder what Sxwpaam would have thought of all this. That's the name given 'the fire maker,' the Salish man of old whose job it was to make the fire. He was, Smith said, carefully and exhaustively trained - when to light, how to light, where to light - versed in wielding fire as a tool. With White's project, his tricks are out of the bag. Sort of. Much of what Sxwpaam would have learned has been lost, she said, evidence not only of European attitudes toward fire, but also toward Indians. The researchers, in fact, found it impossible to untangle the effort to snuff fire from the effort to snuff Indian culture, so intimately are the two connected. It's hard to appreciate the enormous extent to which Indians burned their lands, or the degree to which that burning infuriated their new neighbors. White estimates that 'Indian people doubled the frequency of fire, at least. As I've listened to elders talk, I think Indians exponentially multiplied the amount of fire on the landscape.' 'The tribes didn't do many things that didn't have a purpose,' said Ron Swaney, a modern-day Sxwpaam who manages the CSKT prescribed fire program. 'And I think they saw great benefits from fire.' When scientists today say a particular forest type burned every 10 or 15 years, what they really mean to say is Indians actively burned the land every decade or two, long before enough wood would have stacked up to fuel a natural lightning fire. 'I think,' Swaney says on the DVD, 'those fires covered a lot of ground.' But early Europeans didn't necessarily understand how things had come to be, White said. The Missoulian, back in 1875, reported two Indians were shot dead 'for setting fire to the plains.' And in 1900, the Helena Herald reported on 'about 20 Indians' found hunting and burning in what is now the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The Indians were 'very saucy,' according to the article, and when forest rangers tried to arrest them they 'showed fight, pointing their cocked rifles.' One was captured, but he quickly escaped and fled for the reservation, through a pass over the Mission Mountains. When he 'got to the top of the divide,' the newspaper reported, 'the party saw him deliberately start half a dozen fires.' Was he restoring a piece of forest that he felt needed a bit of fire? Was he clearing a trail he couldn't help but notice had become overgrown? Was he hobbling his pursuit? Was he thumbing his nose? 'We can only speculate,' White said. What is certain, however, is that the connection between the Salish and the land was intensely strong, rooted in survival - and it was called fire. In fact, Indians throughout North America burned enormous swaths every year. And the white settlers couldn't stand it. Throughout Smith's research appear stories of violence and threats, arrests and killings, all aimed at Indians bent on starting fires. What emerges, he said, 'is an ironclad consensus that fire is bad,' and by extension, that so are those who light it. The newly arrived culture did everything it could to put it out. But, Smith said, now we're coming right back to where we started. 'The suppression of Indian burning,' he said, 'led directly to the conditions that helped create the fires of 1910.' And those fires, more than any, led to more aggressive fire suppression. And that suppression, finally, led to more fire, as woody fuels accumulated over the decades. And the subsequent, sometimes massive wildfires led to the current debate, which hinges on how to return fire to forests, just as the Salish and others did for thousands of years. 'Maybe we weren't so smart,' Smith said. 'Maybe we could have learned something from the people who had been managing this land for millennia. If the goal now is to get forests back to a historic state, then you have to restore human fire as well.' White's doing her part. She now has her 'red card,' she said, and sometimes takes to the woods with a drip torch alongside foresters conducting prescribed burns. It's a connection to her traditional culture, to the land that shaped it and was shaped by it, and she burns, 'oh yeah, every chance I get.' But just over the Missions, in the Bob, the cultural clash continues. 'Modern wilderness managers still wring their hands over prescribed fire,' Rockwell said. 'They want to let nature take its course. But nature included people. When you talk to native people about fire in the wilderness, they don't have a problem with it. They just don't have a problem with lighting a fire in a wilderness.' Of course you cannot hope to solve today's problems simply by looking back, White said. Too much has changed. The forest and the culture surely aren't the same. But there has to be a first step, she said, and might it not make some sense if that step were to begin to understand how the forests came to be 'natural' in the first place? 'We'd do well to remember,' Smith said, 'that history did not start in 1805 when Lewis and Clark showed up.' There are lessons, White said, that the old generation can share with the new, ancient tools that might well have a place in a modern world. Already, just since White started her work a decade back, land managers have come 'a very, very long way' toward understanding fire's role on the landscape, she said. Increasingly, the old Salish ways are being adopted by modern land managers, even if they don't quite know it. Just as Sxwpaam would have sparked a back-burn to keep his camp safe, so do today's firefighters use fire to fight fire. An increasing amount of today's landscape is one fur trader Fidler might well recognize, Smith said, where the trapper might once again be compelled to comment, as he did two centuries ago: 'grass yet burning.'

Online Link(s):
Jamison, M. 2005. Researchers look to native history to gather ideas about forests and flames.