7 Dec 2007, 12:49am
Cultural Landscapes
by admin

Forgotten Fires

Stewart, Omer C. Forgotten Fires — Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness. Edited and with Introductions by Henry T. Lewis and M. Kat Anderson. 2002. University of Oklahoma Press.

Review by Mike Dubrasich

Omer Call Stewart (1910-1991) was the most perceptive, influential, and possibly the greatest American anthropologist of the 20th Century. And possibly the 21st, too; it’s fair to say that Omer Stewart was fifty years ahead of his compatriots, and his genius is still not widely recognized outside of esoteric circles.

Omer Stewart founded the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado and was its first chair. He was instrumental (and successful) in defending Native American land claims and helped to establish important legal precedents recognizing Indian land rights. He was at one time the principal defender of Native American religious beliefs, the Native American Church, and the sacramental use of peyote.

In addition, Omer Stewart is the Father of Anthropogenic Fire Theory.

Anthropogenic Fire Theory is a shorthand name for the study of indigenous human influences on the environment during the last 10,000+ years, especially in North America. Other folks call it Indian burning, or traditional environmental knowledge, or tending the wild, or tending fire, or a variety of other monikers and acronyms.

Omer Stewart developed the first elucidation of AFT in a manuscript that lay unpublished for fifty years, until 2002. He began work on Forgotten Fires in the early 1940’s. His efforts were interrupted by the war, and he renewed them in 1951. Efforts to get the manuscript published failed despite repeated attempts over the subsequent decades. Stewart freely shared his manuscript with correspondents, though. Before his death, the University of Oklahoma Press agreed to consider publication, and did publish it, though the effort took another ten years.

The publication of Forgotten Fires corresponds to the current revolution in the life sciences, wherein human cultural influences upon the historical environment are being taken into consideration, and Forgotten Fires is at the same time the elderly foundational document of that revolution.

In Forgotten Fires Omer Stewart united cultural anthropology with landscape ecology, in effect combining social sciences and history with geography, ethno-botany, forestry, range management, and fire management. His interdisciplinary approach generated new insights and understanding in each of those individual fields.

Stewart’s thesis in Forgotten Fires is that for at least 10,000 years Indians have occupied the New World, and their influences over all that time have profoundly altered the vegetation, principally through the use of deliberate landscape burning.

There is evidence that fires set by Indians were of the utmost importance in determining the pattern of the vegetation from the time mankind first peopled the Western Hemisphere…

The evidence suggests that few Europeans have ever seen in America vegetation areas that were not at some time burned over. Exceptions are found only in places where vegetable matter was too scant to carry fire from one plant to another. If there was anything to burn, Indians set fire to it…

In spite of this evidence, fire has been almost ignored as one of the important ecological variables determining vegetation. Particularly neglected have been man-made fires. This work is written specifically to try to remedy that neglect.

Forgotten Fires begins with a discussion of eastern woodlands, sweeps south through southern pines to Louisiana, marches north through the grasslands of the Great Plains to Canada, then west through the Rockies to the Pacific Northwest, and winds up in California. For each vegetation province across the U.S. Stewart reports the enormous influence of Indian burning on the landscapes.

Stewart’s scholarship is well-grounded in historical documents but also derives in large part from his “culture area concept”:

Anthropologists have shown that practices typical of part of a culture area are usually present throughout the entire culture area. When the samples are widely scattered, as they are in the case of woodland burning, over a region of uniform environment and cultural similarity, the samples are assumed to represent the whole area. The eastern woodlands culture area has been divided into subcultures on the basis of local specialization of some elements. However, vegetation burning does not appear to have varied within or between subculture areas but rather corresponds to the basic technological traits for the culture area as a whole.

Stewart’s thesis is also based on his expert understanding of the ecological effects of fire on vegetation, and of vegetation on fire. Frequent, seasonal, intentional anthropogenic fire has a much different ecological effect than infrequent “natural” fire. The landscapes encountered by the first Europeans were products mainly of the former, not the latter.

The Indians burned the forests of the eastern United States to such an extent that the general vegetation first observed by Europeans was not at all what could be expected from an evaluation of soil and climate. Thousands of square miles of the Indian-fire-forest, frequently called “virgin forest,” have been maintained to the present time against floral competitors by the same means used by the Indians. This clear, well-documented fact has been ignored by most ecologists, botanists, and foresters.

Ditto the rest of the country, which Stewart flies through with similar pronouncements. His insights are uncannily accurate.

One of the most interesting and provocative aspects of Forgotten Fires is the degree to which Omer Stewart has influenced the thinking of leading anthropologists, ethno-ecologists, historians, and forest scientists today. Forgotten Fires was compiled, edited, and introduced by Henry T. Lewis and M. Kat Anderson (each wrote a separate introduction and a third jointly, some of best parts of the book). They chose to lead the book off with a quotation from Thomas M. Bonnicksen, whom they quote and cite frequently in the intros:

Native Americans were an integral part of America’s forests. The forests and the people who lived there formed an inseparable whole that developed together over millennia. …Native Americans helped to create and sustain the ancient forests that Europeans found beautiful enough to set aside in national parks. — Thomas M. Bonnicksen, America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery

Stephen J. Pyne is also quoted and cited repeatedly, and he contributed a blurb to the book jacket:

This is a book that should have been published fifty years ago. Not only is Omer Stewart’s original manuscript long overdue, the introductory essays by Henry Lewis and M. Kat Anderson are real value-laden scholarship in their own right, for in establishing the concept of Stewart’s work, they explain our evolving understanding of fire and its place on the landscape, very often a place set by people.

Henry T. Lewis on Omer Stewart

If Omer Stewart was the Father of Anthropogenic Fire Theory, then Henry T. Lewis (1928-2004) was the First-born Son, the standard-bearer, the torch-bearer for 30 years.

Anthropologist Henry Lewis earned his doctorate at UC Berkeley and based on his research there authored Patterns of Indian Burning in California in 1973. That landmark work expands on Omer Stewart’s general contentions by examining the details of anthropogenic fire in California as practiced by the indigenous residents in pre-contact times.

Lewis went on to become Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta in Edmondton (1971-1975 and 1986-1990). There he conducted research in the burning practices of the native peoples of northern Alberta. In addition to written works, Lewis produced a documentary film, The Fires of Spring, in 1978.

Papers by Henry T. Lewis include:

1973 Patterns of Indian Burning in California: Ecology and Ethnohistory. Lowell John Bean (ed.). Ballena Anthropological Papers Vol. 1. Ramona, CA: Ballena Press. Reprinted in Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson (eds.) Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. Menlo Park, CA: Ballena Press.

1977 Maskuta: The Ecology of Indian Fires in Northern Alberta. Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 7, #1: 15-52.

1978 Traditional Uses of Fire in Northern Alberta. Pp. 61-62 in Dennis E. Dube (compiler) Fire Ecology in Resource Management: Workshop Proceedings, December 6-7, 1977. Information Report NOR-X-210. Edmonton, Alberta: Environment Canada, Canadian Forestry Service, Northern Forest Research Centre.

1980 Hunter-Gatherers and Problems for Fire History. Pp. 115-119 in Marvin A. Stokes and John H. Dieterich (technical coordinators) Proceedings of the Fire History Workshop: October 20-24, 1980, Tucson, Arizona. General Technical Report RM-81. Fort Collins, CO: USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station.

1980b Indian Fires in Spring: Hunters and Gatherers of the Canadian Forest Shaped Their Habitat with Fire. Natural History, Vol. 89, #1 (Jan): 76-78, 82-83.

1982 Fire Technology and Resource Management in Aboriginal North American and Australia. Pp. 45-67 in Nancy M. Williams and Eugene S. Hunn (eds.) Resource Managers: North American and Australian Hunter-Gatherers; Proceedings of AAAS Selected Symposium 67. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Inc.

1982 A Time for Burning. Occasional Publication No. 17. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta, Boreal Institute for Northern Studies
1985 Why Indians Burned: Specific Versus General Reasons. Pp. 75-80 in James E. Lotan, et al. (technical coordinators) Proceedings–Symposium and Workshop on Wilderness Fire: Missoula, Montana, November, 15-18, 1983. General Technical Report INT-182. Ogden, UT: USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station.

1990 Reconstructing Patterns of Indian Burning in Southwestern Oregon. Pp. 80-84 in Nan Hannon and Richard K. Olmo (eds.) Living with the Land: The Indians of Southwest Oregon - Proceedings of the1989 Symposium on the Prehistory of Southwest Oregon. Medford, OR: Southern Oregon Historical Society. [See our review here]

Lewis, Henry T. and Theresa A. Ferguson. 1988 Yards, Corridors, and Mosaics: How to Burn a Boreal Forest. Human Ecology, Vol. 16, #1 (Mar): 57-77. Notes Indian fire use in NW California and western WA in pages 58-63 .

Henry T. Lewis expanded on Omer Stewart’s general observations by studying specific cases of anthropogenic fire in California, Australia, and Canada. He interviewed Indian elders and studied the landscape to see if the ancient human-set fire patterns were still evident. He found they were, in many cases.

Lewis’ approach is called empiricism. He wanted to find out what had actually happened rather than trying to “prove” a pet theory. He saw the same empirical approach in Stewart. From Henry T. Lewis’ Introduction to Forgotten Fires:

Stewart’s presentations of his evidence on North American Indian uses of fire were fully in keeping with his approach to anthropology as a whole. For reasons partly related to his rejection of Mormonism, and what he considered to be its “vague interpretations,” Stewart considered theory just another form of dogma that threatened “his belief in the science of anthropology” (Howell 1998). He was concerned, rather, with presenting empirical examples, “facts,” which, in the case of the hunter-gatherer uses of fire, were found repeated again and again within and between geographic and cultural areas.

A paradigm exists in anthropology that “primitive” people have inferior cultures because primitive cultures are less “evolved” than the dominant Western Culture. This idea arose among Social Darwinists in the 19th Century who misapplied Darwin’s biological theories to human cultures. Human cultures are not biological organisms. They are artificial constructs created by people and do not correspond to or behave like biological organisms. Social Darwinism led indirectly to the atrocities of the Holocaust, a resoundingly tragic demonstration of the evils of bad science.

One manifestation of Social Darwinism in anthropology was the view that primitives adapted to their ecosystems, as best a primitive could, but they did not alter or effect their ecosystems in any significant way. That anachronistic view has not changed much, surprisingly:

Although archaeologists are keenly aware of the variations in and uses of other types of tools, they have either ignored or been unaware that fire constitutes a multipurpose tool that can result in a range of reasonably predictable consequences. At the same time, no studies have considered in what respects the fire regimes of foragers and farmers both differ from and are similar to each other–nor how both are significantly different from natural or lightning fires (Lewis 1982). Maintaining that fire is a “natural disturbance” or merely a “simple technique” is imperceptive in the extreme.

Essentially Stewart was pleading with anthropologists and ecologists to become meticulous historians or at least to understand that the land is partially a product of its human history, He warned that not to consider Indians as a legitimate and important disturbance factor was a dangerous oversight that would ultimately cloud ecologists’ findings, theories, and concepts.

Cloudy ecology is dangerous in and of itself, because misunderstandings about the actual historical development of forests lead to megafires.

Proof of the accuracy of his [Stewart’s] interpretations has now been provided by an enormous amount of work done in the biologicalsciences since the 1950’s. For example, it is well accepted that the prairies were shaped by both Indian and lightning fires … The landmark Leopold Report (Leopold et al. 1963) supported Stewart’s emphasis on burning …

Pyro-dendrochronology studies around the country suggest that the high frequency of fires in sequoia-mixed conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada, the oak-hickory forests of eastern North America, and the lodgepole pine forests of the Rocky Mountains could not be explained by the contemporary ignition rate from lightning alone but only in conjunction with indigenous burning (Abrams 1992; Barrett and Arno 1982; Barret 1981; Kilgore and Taylor 1979). Stephen Pyne, the acknowledged authority on the history of fire, and Thomas Bonnicksen, a renowned expert on fire and restoration ecology, have both presented major studies that emphasize the importance of understanding indigenous peoples’ uses of fire (Bonnicksen 2000; Pyne 1982, 1991, 1997).

Henry T. Lewis was a hero of anthropology. Like Omer Stewart, he practiced and stood up for good, empirical science in the face of accepted theories that were founded in cultural imperialism and bigotry, not facts.

Anthropology is usually considered a science (note the –ology suffix), while history is usually placed in the Humanities under Arts and Letters. However, this is a distinction without a difference. Historians are a kind of scientist (they seek factual truths about the past), and anthropologists study history. In the following excerpt from Lewis’ Introduction to Forgotten Fires, the anthropologist quotes historian Stephen J. Pyne:

Research over the last thirty years has clearly demonstrated the significance of indigenous burning practices and the important ways that hunting-gathering technologies have differed from natural fire regimes. To quote Pyne:

“The patterns of Indian burning did not…merely recapitulate natural fire. …At first blush it seems impossible that relatively small numbers of semi-nomadic hunters, foragers, and swidden cultivators could have exerted much influence over their environment. But fire, properly used, has a multiplicative effect. It propagates. It compounds and magnifies the effects of other processes with which it is associated. It can create, but even more powerfully, it can sustain. Intelligent beings armed with fire can apply it at critical times for maximum spread and effect. The consequences, of course, varied with environments and tribal histories, but by and large the effects were to replace woody vegetation with grassy vegetation, to keep forests (especially pine and oak) in a seral stage, and to reduce understories.”

To emphasize the point still further, neither a dependence on the random and unpredictable occurrence of lightning fires nor mere imitations of such regimes could have sustained hunting-gathering adaptations for long. Whereas hunting-gatherers normally set fires at safer, more favorable times of the year, lightning fires typically occur in environmentally disruptive periods. The intentional setting of fires at preferred times, in selected places, and under optimal conditions added considerable degrees of predictability to adaptations that depended on a range of habitats at various stages of ecological succession. In the absence of prescribed fires, survival would have been extremely tenuous, and the land could not have supported the relatively large populations found throughout much of North America.

Even where lightning fires occur with high frequency—such as California, the American Southwest, and semiarid parts of Australia—indigenous people neither could nor would have depended upon the distribution of natural fires. To assume that lightning ignitions, even in these most fire-adapted environments, are sufficient for human purposes is most naïve, furthering the misguided idea that hunter-gatherers could only exploit what nature provided. Setting fires in specific places, at designated times of the year, and under conditions that best sustain resource habitats and serve human goals is far more important than whether there is an abundance (or poverty!) of lightning fires that might somehow inadvertently serve human goals. In terms of what we now know about the ecologies of natural and prescribed fires, the important question is no longer why hunter-gatherers would have set fires but, rather, why on earth they would not have done so.

Anderson on Stewart

Omer Stewart wrote of his findings in a 1953 text originally entitled “The Effects of Burning of Grasslands and Forests by Aborigines the World Over.” The paper was never published despite repeated submittals to journals for nearly fifty years. Finally in 1992, six months before Stewart’s death, it was accepted for publication by University of Oklahoma Press. Ten years later, edited and with introductions, Forgotten Fires by Omer C. Stewart was printed and shipped to bookstores and libraries.

U of O knew they had a special piece of science history and they selected two preeminent scientists in the field of anthropogenic fire to prepare and introduce Stewart’s manuscript. The first was Henry T. Lewis, and the second was M. Kat Anderson. Dr. Anderson is an ethnoecologist with the National Plant Data Center and the Dept. of Plant Sciences at UC Davis. She is coeditor, with T. C. Blackburn, of Before the Wilderness: Native Californians as Environmental Managers (1993) and coeditor, with Henry T. Lewis, of Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness by Omer C. Stewart (2002).

Kat Anderson also wrote Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources (2005), winner of the 2007 Mary W. Klinger Book Award from the Society for Economic Botany, reviewed [here].

Tending the Wild focuses on the many uses the pre-Columbian California Indians made of native plants, and the methods the Indians used to perpetuate those plants. Contrary to some modern myths, California Indians were extensive agriculturalists who planted, tilled, pruned, and especially burned to manage desirable plants and animals.

Kat Anderson imparts a humanitarian undercurrent to her studies and writing. Indian burning may have had landscape-level effects, but the practices were also individualized and localized. They were personal. The real people who lived in California and across the West managed their properties for the greatest survival/sustenance values with the least amount of work, basically. Torching off the hillside is a lot easier than pulling weeds.

[Sidenote: I do not mean to imply that Indians were lazy or slackers, just clever and inventive like humans everywhere. Slacking is a great art anyhow, one vastly under-appreciated by many gung ho types.]

Digressions aside, M. Kat Anderson’s Introduction to Forgotten Fires is a lovely piece of writing itself, and highly quotable. Some excerpts:

Stewart’s manuscript is prescient because it implicitly challenged the idea of virgin, uninhabited wilderness. Only in the last decade have historians, geographers, ecologists, and social scientists come to these same conclusions that the wilderness idea may be a false Western construct and that indigenous influences have helped shape the forest, shrubland, and prairie in many areas…

One of Stewart’s pioneering contributions is that he elevated indigenous interactions with nature as an important part of the land’s ecological history. His manuscript stresses that many landscapes that early explorers, settlers, and missionaries found so remarkably rich were in part engendered and regularly renewed through the land management practices employed by Indians. Many vegetation types were not climax systems at the time of Euro-American contact but, rather, were mosaics of various seral stages or fire sub-climaxes, intensified and perpetuated by Native American uses of seasonally scheduled burning…

If ecologists and environmentalists were to endorse the premise that Indians shaped the ecology of certain plant communities with fire, they would have to rethink the tenets upon which their wilderness philosophies are based and would have to face up to the removal of Native Americans from wilderness areas as in at least some instances a grave ecological faux pas that would ultimately undermine the unique habitat types and the biological diversity that they sought to preserve…

More accurate reconstructions of interactions between indigenous people and the natural environment in North America have recently materialized through interdisciplinary research that combines knowledge in the realms of social, physical, and biological sciences and the humanities…

Interdisciplinary studies (unavailable to Stewart in the 1950’s), while few in number, have added rich dimensions and clarified complexities in unraveling the pervasive Indian role in shaping landscapes with fire…

What is astonishing is that after almost half a century of fire and anthropological research since the writing of this book there is so little knowledge of how indigenous fire regimes differed from lightning fire regimes…

Prescribed burning is now conducted on public lands to reduce fuel loads and simulate the natural lightning fire regime in attempts to counteract the damage done by decades of fire suppression, but the human manipulations during the Indian era are virtually ignored…

If land managers, ecologists, and archaeologists understand the intricacies and mechanics of how and why native people shaped ecosystems with fire, it will enrich their inventory of management methods, and they would be in a better position to make informed decisions about the re-introduction of human-set fires based on Indian practices…

In the highest windy passes of the Sierra Nevada one can still find mortar-cup depressions in granite outcrops formerly used by Native Americans for processing foods. Ten-thousand-year-old spear points lodged between the ribs of giant bison lie buried in clay near present-day Folsom, New Mexico. Medicine wheels (circles in stone) lie undisturbed in the Bighorn Mountains of present-day Wyoming. Rock paintings enrich the cliff faces of the Lower Pecos River in what is now southwest Texas. A clay pipe rests at an ancient Mohawk village called Otstungo in what is presently New York…

Subtle to the untrained eye of the outside observer, yet more indelible and wide-reaching than the stories in stone, are the signatures of indigenous land use and management left on the vegetation of North America. Few Westerners identify parklike oak forests, lush tall-grass prairies, or fertile desert fan palm oases with ancient Native American burning practices. Yet the wielding of fire as a horticultural tool enabled Native Americans systematically to alter the natural environment on a long-term basis and at varying scales from individual shrubs to whole bioregions…

One lone anthropologist, Omer Stewart, recognized that indigenous fire management practices had significant ecological consequences on vegetation and wildlife–a fact that is still virtually ignored by major conservationists, ecologists, and anthropologists today…

The publication of Stewart’s manuscript after all these years both honors his seminal work and is a rallying point for our plea to ecologists and land managers that present-day management and restoration of different plant communities in the united States and Canada should be grounded in historical as well as ecological research. Omer Stewart’s contributions to the fields of ecology and anthropology have yet to be fully appreciated.

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Meta