Home->Winter 2005/2006

The Gift of Fire

The modification of the American continent by fire at the hands of American Indians, Native Americans, or First Nations/People was the result of repeated, controlled, surface burns on a cycle of one to three years, broken by occasional holocausts from escape fires and periodic conflagrations during times of drought. So extensive were the cumulative effects of these modifications that it may be said that the general consequence of the Indian occupation of the New World was to replace forested land with grassland or savannah, or, where the forest persisted, to open it up and free it from underbrush. Most of the impenetrable woods encountered by explorers were in bogs or swamps from which fire was excluded; naturally drained landscape was nearly everywhere burned. Conversely, almost wherever the European went, forests followed. The Great American Forest may be more a product of settlement than a victim of it.”
–Pyne, Stephen J. 1982. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 79-80.

“At this time (1878) the creek (the West Fork of the Bitterroot River) was thoroughly set with a growth of willows and very completely so on the south side. Since it has become part of the white man’s domain and fires are less general and frequent, the large alder growth has very generally replaced these willows. It might be noted here that the Indians were great foresters, as all old-time prospectors will affirm. They left the forests to the tender mercies of nature. While the Forest Service spends millions of dollars battling against nature’s force, the result is a tendency to a scrubby growth of timber and a fire trap.”
–Frank Jaquette, an early settler in the Bitterroot Valley, reminiscing about Salish land management practices.

Gift of Fire
For thousands of years Salish and Pend d’Oreille
people have been lighting fires in the Northern
Rockies for the benefit of plant and
animal communities.
According to the traditional beliefs of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille of western Montana, in the beginning the Creator put Xrixreyu , the animal beings on the earth before humans. But the world was cold and dark because there was no fire on earth. The animal beings knew that one day human beings would arrive, and they wanted to make the world a better place for them and for themselves, so they set off on a great quest to steal fire from the sky world and bring it to the earth. The story reminds us that, while fire can be a destructive force, it is also a gift to us from the Creator.

As Salish and Pend d’Oreille people, our view of fire was and is quite different from the modern western view. In our tradition, fire is a gift from the Creator brought to us by the animals. We think of it as a blessing, that if used respectfully and in a manner consistent with our traditional knowledge, will enrich our world. This belief explains our long tradition (12,000 plus years) of spring and fall burning and of adapting to, rather than fighting against, lightning- caused fires.

Researchers have documented dozens of reasons why tribes started fires (Lewis 1973). Prior to the 1850s, our ancestors burned the grasslands and forests to increase plant foods and medicines. They set prairies and mountainsides ablaze to increase forage for game animals. They used fire to create drivelines and game surrounds, improving their chances at hunting. They lit fires to open trails and to keep them groomed.

They employed fire in warfare, both offensively and defensively. They used it to communicate over long distances. They fireproofed camps with it and used it to reduce the presence of rattlesnakes in their camps.

For thousands of years our people lit fires in the Northern Rockies, so much so they doubled the frequency of natural fire in many places (Barrett 1982). So profound was this influence that landscape ecologist Doug MacCleary has written “there is no question that enormous areas of the forests and grasslands we inherited were very much cultural landscapes, shaped profoundly by human action. The wildlife communities that characterized these cultural landscapes were in large measure products of thousands of years of human intervention. And it will take continued human intervention to maintain them.”

Little appreciated today is the fact that tribes had practiced the art of managing landscapes with fire for millennia. The contrast with modern land managers, whose use of fire goes back a few decades, could not be sharper. The Salish and Pend d’Oreille had a single person who had the responsibility of overseeing the use of fire on the land. That person was called Sxrpaajm. He had an intimate relationship with and knowledge of fire because of the extensive burning that he did during his lifetime and because he had apprenticed under the Sxrpaajm who came before him, learning the knowledge that had been gained over many generations. Our knowledge about fire then was based on a collective, tribal knowledge that stretches back perhaps seven thousand years. So our people understood as well as any group of people could understand how fire works in natural systems and how to use it in a beneficial way. Yet, once non-Indians arrived, tribal people were persecuted for lighting fires.

Indian Firefighters
Indian fire fighters play an
important role in managing Wildland
fire in the Northern Rockies.
A December 21, 1875, newspaper account in the Missoula Pioneer details how, at the beginning of November of that year, 183 lodges of Pend d’Oreille Indians were crossing the Rocky Mountains in the northeast corner of the territory. They were traveling east on a buffalo hunt when two of them were shot and killed by “the officers of the International Line” for setting a fire on the plains.

This was a beautiful landscape that early explorers entered. They saw the beauty, but misunderstood it. They saw Indian burning and reacted in fear, at times thinking, “the whole country was on fire.” They possessed little or no knowledge about the land and fire’s role. As settlements grew, non-Indians came to believe fire was a threat to them and the land. Nancy Turner said in Indians, Fire and the Land in the Pacific Northwest, “It is ironic that the landscape so appreciated by the early explorers and colonists actually were created by the very fires they feared and disliked.” And while we have made progress in our understanding of the role of fire, we still have a long way to go. The daily journal accounts of Jesuits living in the Mission Valley in the mid to late 1800s also make vivid how frequent the fires were at that time. The fathers make frequent mention of fires and remark almost daily in the summer about the extremely smoky conditions in the valley.

Theodore Shoemaker who worked for the US Forest Service in the early 1900s wrote that “Prior to 1897, and even later in many sections, fires burned continuously from spring until fall without the slightest attempt being made to extinguish them.” Today, it is common for people to complain about the smoke from even one or two small prescribed burns. Most of those people probably do not know that for thousands of years prior to the last century of fire exclusion it was common for summer and fall skies in Montana and elsewhere in the west to be heavy with smoke.

On the eastern side of the Flathead Reservation, which is home to our tribe, the Mission Mountains rise some seven thousand feet above the valley floor. They form a parapet, a ragged wall of peaks that hold snow much of the year. Below that snow, the slopes are densely timbered. But that blanket of timber is a relatively recent development. Photographs taken from the late 1800s to well into the 1930s show a mountain range that would be unrecognizable were it not for the familiar skyline formed by the mountaintops. In some of the earliest photos, it is apparent that a person could have walked from the bottom of the range to the top without ever passing beneath a tree. Ribbons and patches of trees separated enormous openings created by fire. Today, it would be impossible to travel any distance at all without being under a dense canopy of spruce and fir and larch and pine. Tony Incashola, one of our Tribal elders tells of taking his grandmother into the Missions to pick berries. This was after nearly one hundred years of excluding fire. They looked for the place their family had traditionally picked for generations. But the trail had grown over, the way was impassible, and the hillsides above, once open and thick with huckleberry, were now heavy with timber, the berry bushes gone.

The story is emblematic of what has happened throughout our aboriginal territory. Many of our traditional medicine and food plants that depend on fire are now difficult to find, while just three, even two generations ago they were plentiful, and many Salish and Pend d’Oreille families harvested them spring, summer and fall. Camping and hunting places that we know were once open because their Salish names describe them that way are no longer recognizable. They are now crowded with trees.

On my last trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area with one of our tribal elders, Harriet Whitworth, we followed the trails she had followed seventy years previous with her mother and grandmother, trails her family had followed for multiple generations. When we arrived at Big Prairie on the South Fork of the Flathead River, Harriet described what it was like when she was a little girl. She said it was a big, open, park-like area where there were enormous ponderosa pine trees, an abundance of grass, and many animals. The place name in our language, ljjjqjrlqrle, describes the area as having many clearings, a series of prairies in one place, and Harriet talked of how beautiful it was when she was a child.

Now there is only a little bit of a camp and small prairie or meadow left, and the big pine trees are crowded with Douglas-fir trees. Being there in that place and listening to the stories of how it used to look just a single elder’s lifetime ago showed me in a vivid way what it means to exclude fire from the landscape.

Many of the problems we face today in our forests—the risk of catastrophic fire and the very dangerous conditions in the wildland urban interface—have their roots in the dominant society’s failure to appreciate the depth and sophistication of the tribal relationship with the land and in particular tribal land management practices. It takes generations to create and maintain large old pine forests and open prairies.

We have made a start, but we have a long way to go. A good next step is to acknowledge, appreciate, and most importantly begin to learn from the traditional knowledge that native peoples have about burning. In the beginning, in our belief, it was the animals that gave fire to the people.

It is now time for us to return that gift to the animals.

Germaine White is an information and education specialist for the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation in Montana.



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