29 Dec 2007, 12:25pm
Fire History
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References on the American Indian Use of Fire in Ecosystems

Williams, Gerald W. References on the American Indian Use of Fire in Ecosystems. 2003.

Compiled and introduction by Gerald W. Williams, Ph.D. Historical Analyst USDA Forest Service Washington, D.C. June 12, 2003, containing over 1,000 citations to books and papers about anthropogenic fire.

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

… Many people believe that North America, before the coming of the Spanish explorers, missionaries, and settlers, was a totally pristine, natural, wilderness world with ancient forests covering the landscapes. This ideal world was populated by millions of Indian people who, somewhat amazingly, “were transparent in the landscape, living as natural elements of the ecosphere. Their world, the New World of Columbus, was a world of barely perceptible human disturbance (Shetler 1982: 226).” This peaceful, mythic, magical ideal has symbolized the thinking behind much of the modern environmental movement. However, as Daniel Botkin pointed out, these impressions of a “benign people treading lightly on the land” are wrong…

“Native Americans had three powerful technologies: fire, the ability to work wood into useful objects, and the bow and arrow. To claim that people with these technologies did not or could not create major changes in natural ecosystems can be taken as Western civilization’s ignorance, chauvinism, and old prejudice against primitivism-the noble but dumb savage. There is ample evidence that Native Americans greatly changed the character of the landscape with fire, and that they had major effects on the abundances of some wildlife species through their hunting,” (Botkin 1995: 169)…

…Steve Pyne put much of the Indian use of fire into perspective as he reported that:

“the modification of the American continent by fire at the hands of Asian immigrants [nowcalled 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. Even under ideal circumstances, accidents occurred: signal fires escaped and campfires spread, with the result that valuable range was untimely scorched, buffalo driven away, and villages threatened. Burned corpses on the prairie were far from rare. 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 1982: 79-80)…

Documented Reasons or Purposes for Indian Burning

Keeping large areas of forest and mountains free of undergrowth and small trees was just one of many reasons for using fire in ecosystems. What follows is a summary of documented reasons or purposes for changing ecosystems through intentional burning by American Indians. This activity has greatly modified landscapes across the continent in many subtle ways that have often been interpreted as “natural” by the early explorers, trappers, and settlers. Many research scientists who study pre-settlement forest and savanna fire evidence tend to attribute most prehistoric fires as being caused by lightning (natural) rather than by humans (Whitney 1994). This problem arises because there was no systematic record keeping of these fire events. Thus the interaction of people and ecosystems is down played or ignored, which often leads to the conclusion that people are a problem in “natural” ecosystems rather than the primary force in their development. Henry T. Lewis, who has authored more books and articles on this subject than anyone else, concluded that there were at least 70 different reasons for the Indians firing the vegetation (Lewis 1973). Other writers have listed fewer number of reasons, using different categories (Kay 1994; Russell 1983). In summary, there are eleven major reasons for American Indian ecosystem burning, which are derived from well over 300 studies:

Hunting - The burning of large areas was useful to divert big game (deer, elk, bison) into small unburned areas for easier hunting and provide open prairies/meadows (rather than brush and tall trees) where animals (including ducks and geese) like to dine on fresh, new grass sprouts. Fire was also used to drive game into impoundments, narrow chutes, into rivers or lakes, or over cliffs where the animals could be killed easily. Some tribes used a surround fire to drive rabbits into small areas. The Seminoles even practiced hunting alligators with fire. Torches were used to spot deer and attract or see fish at night. Smoke used to drive/dislodge raccoons and bears from hiding.

Crop management - Burning was used to harvest crops, especially tarweed, yucca, greens, and grass seed collection. In addition, fire was used to prevent abandoned fields from growing over and to clear areas for planting corn and tobacco. Clearing ground of grass and brush to facilitate the gathering of acorns. Fire used to roast mescal and obtain salt from grasses.

Improve growth and yields - Fire was often used to improve grass for big game grazing (deer, elk, antelope, bison), horse pasturage, camas reproduction, seed plants, berry plants (especially raspberries, strawberries, and huckleberries), and tobacco. Fire was also used to promote or improve plants (such as willow, beargrass, deergrass, and hazelnut), as many were used for important storage/carrying baskets, clothing, and shelter.

Fireproof areas - Some indications that fire was used to protect certain medicine plants by clearing an area around the plants, as well as to fireproof areas, especially around settlements, from destructive wildfires. Fire was also used to keep prairies open from encroaching shrubs and trees.

Insect collection - Some tribes used a “fire surround” to collect & roast crickets, grasshoppers, pandora moths in pine forests, and collect honey from bees.

Pest management - Burning was sometimes used to reduce insects (black flies, ticks, fleas and mosquitoes) and rodents, as well as kill mistletoe that invaded mesquite and oak trees and kill the tree moss favored by deer (thus forcing them to the valleys where hunting was easier). Some tribes also used fire to kill poisonous snakes.

Warfare & signaling - Use of fire to deprive the enemy of hiding places in tall grasses and underbrush in the woods for defense, as well as using fire for offensive reasons or to escape from their enemies. Smoke signals used to alert tribes about possible enemies or in gathering forces to combat enemies. Large fires also set to signal a gathering of tribes. During the Lewis & Clark expedition, a tree was set on fire by Indians in order to “bring fair weather” for their journey. At least one tribe in the Northwest used fires set at the mouth of rivers to “call” the salmon to return from the ocean. There is one report of fire being used to bring rain (overcome drought).

Economic extortion - Some tribes also used fire for a “scorched-earth” policy to deprive settlers and fur traders from easy access to big game and thus benefiting from being “middlemen” in supplying pemmican and jerky.

Clearing areas for travel - Fires were sometimes started to clear trails for travel through areas, especially along ridges, that were overgrown with grass or brush/chaparral. Burned areas helped with providing better visibility through forests and brush lands for hunting, safety from predators (wolves, bears, and cougars) and enemies.

Felling trees - Fire was reportedly used to fell trees by boring two intersecting holes into the trunk, then drop burning charcoal in one hole, allowing the smoke to exit from the other. This method was also used by early settlers. Another way to kill trees was to surround the base with fire, allowing the bark and/or the trunk to burn causing the tree to die (much like girdling) and eventually topple over. Fire also used to kill trees so that the wood could later be used for dry kindling (willows) and firewood (aspen).

Clearing riparian areas - Fire was commonly used to clear brush from riparian areas and marshes for new grasses, plant growth, and tree sprouts (to benefit beaver, muskrats, moose,and waterfowl). Species affected included cottonwoods, willows, tules/bulrushes, cattails, mesquite, as well as various sedges and grasses.

Suggested Readings

There are a growing number of books and articles on the subject of Indian use of fire in ecosystems, with more being added almost every day. The over 100 pages of citations that follow is one attempt to fully document the subject. Picking the best publications for suggested readings has not been an easy task, but with a couple of out of print sources, the remainder are still in print. However, the short list of 10 sources below should prove useful and informative:

Blackburn, Thomas C. and Kat Anderson (eds.). 1993. Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. Menlo Park, CA: Ballena Press. Several chapters on Indian use of fire, one by Henry T. Lewis as well as his final “In Retrospect.”

Bonnicksen, Thomas M. 2000. America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Especially see chapter 7 “Fire Masters” pages 143-216.

Boyd, Robert T. (ed.). 1999. Indians, Fire, and the Land. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press. An excellent series of papers about Indian burning in the West.

Lewis, Henry T. 1982. A Time for Burning. Occasional Publication No. 17. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta, Boreal Institute for Northern Studies. 62 pages.

Lutz, Harold J. 1959. Aboriginal Man and White Men as Historical Causes of Fires in the Boreal Forest, with Particular Reference to Alaska. Yale School of Forestry Bulletin No. 65. New Haven, CT: Yale University. 49 pages.

Pyne, Stephen J. 1982. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 654 pages. See Chapter 2 “The Fire from Asia” pages 66-122.

Russell, Emily W.B. 1983. Indian-Set Fires in the Forests of the Northeastern United States. Ecology, Vol. 64, #1 (Feb): 78-88.

Stewart, Omer C. with Henry T. Lewis and M. Kat Anderson (eds.). 2002. Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. 364 pages.

Vale, Thomas R. (ed.). 2002. Fire, Native Peoples, and the Natural Landscape. Washington, DC: Island Press. An interesting set of articles that generally depict landscape changes as natural events rather that Indian caused.

Whitney, Gordon G. 1994. From Coastal Wilderness to Fruited Plain: A History of Environmental Change in Temperate North America 1500 to the Present. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. See especially Chapter 5 “Preservers of the Ecological Balance Wheel” on pages 98-120.

References on the Indian Fire Use in Ecosystems

The following references are part of a growing literature of the intentional use of fire by American Indians in English speaking portions of North America. The compiler has shamelessly used bibliographies from the many reports, chapters, and books to build up the Indian use of fire references that will prove useful for many researchers and authors. I have not had the time to check the accuracy of every source. Also, I have not listed references from other countries (e.g. Australia), although they will certainly prove instructive. Henry Lewis has written extensively about the use of fire by the Aboriginal people of Australia. Steve Pyne, in his book World of Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth (1995) notes that use of fire by native peoples to change ecosystems or portions thereof is almost universal. In addition, Henry T. Lewis, retired professor from the University of Alberta, has put together as 16mm film (33 minutes) on Indian (First Nations people) burning the boreal forests and grasslands in northern Alberta, Canada. The film, “The Fires of Spring,” has been transferred to video tape and is available through Dr. Lewis and/or the University of Alberta. The film shows interviews of older tribal members as well as current activities in burning ecosystems.

The following list is divided into seven broad categories. References that fit into more than one category are listed twice:

General North America–where no specific tribe or location is noted.

Boreal Forests–Alaska and northern Canada.

East–East of the Mississippi River including the Great Lakes and North Central area, Appalachians, and Adirondack.

Rocky Mountains, Southwest, and Great Plains/Prairies–including the Southwest, Great Plains/Prairies of U.S. and Canada, Gulf States, Texas, and Rockies.

California–including the Sierra Nevada, Coast Range, valleys, and southern California.

Pacific Northwest–including Oregon, Washington, Cascade and Coast Ranges, and the Great Basin.

Central and South America - including Mexico.

Finally, at the end of the references, there is a summary listing of every Indian/First Nations tribe/people by tribal affiliation that have documented use of fire in ecosystems across North America. For each tribe, there is a reference to a book or article from this bibliography. Not included on the list are fire references that are broad in nature, such as the Indians of Illinois or Florida or Alberta where no tribe/First Nation/band is mentioned. The listing of the tribes and citations is incomplete, but it does give the reader a sense of the potential magnitude of aboriginal fire that was once in common use in North America.

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