7 Jan 2008, 10:18pm
Cultural Landscapes Fire History
by admin

Indians, Fire, and the Land in the Pacific Northwest

Boyd, Robert, editor. Indians, Fire, and the Land in the Pacific Northwest. 1999. Oregon State University Press.

Selected excerpts:

Robert Boyd — Introduction

In May and June of 1792, George Vancouver’s British-sponsored, exploring expedition entered the uncharted waters of Puget Sound.1 Expecting a forested wilderness inhabited by unsophisticated natives, they were surprised at what they found. At Penn Cove, on Whidbey Island:

“The surrounding country, for several miles in most points of view, presented a delightful prospect consisting chiefly of spacious meadows elegantly adorned with clumps of trees; among which the oak bore a very considerable proportion, in size from four to six feet in circumference. In these beautiful pastures … the deer were seen playing about in great numbers. Nature had here provided the wellstocked park, and wanted only the assistance of art to constitute that desirable assemblage of surface, which is so much sought in other countries, and only to be acquired by an immoderate experience in manual labour.”

Among the “pine forests” of Admiralty Inlet, Joseph Whidbey noted “clear spots or lawns … clothed with a rich carpet of verdure.” The “verdure” of these “lawns” included “grass of an excellent quality,” tall ferns “in the sandy soils” and several other plants: “Gooseberrys, Currands, Raspberrys, & Strawberrys were to be found in many places. Onions were to be got almost everywhere.” Whidbey was nostalgic: the lawns had “a beauty of prospect equal to the most admired Parks of England.”

Nearly two centuries later, in 1979, well after the “lawns” observed by Vancouver’s party had been converted to agriculture, the “pine forests” partially cut and managed for timber production, many indigenous species supplanted by Eurasian varieties, and the villages and seasonal camps of the Native Americans replaced by the cities and farms of Euro-American newcomers, anthropologist Jay Miller went into the Methow Valley [north-central Washington] with a van load of [Methow Indian] elders, some of whom had not been there for fifty years. When we had gone through about half the valley, a woman started to cry. I thought it was because she was homesick, but, after a time, she sobbed, ‘When my people lived here, we took good care of all this land. We burned it over every fall to make it like a park. Now it is a jungle. Every Methow I talked to after that confirmed the regular program of burning.

Separated by 187 years of systemic, region-wide ecological change in the Pacific Northwest, these two sets of observations address several themes central to this volume. The Pacific Northwest at first contact with Euro-Americans was not exclusively a forested wilderness. West of the Cascades, as documented in the Vancouver journals, there were large and small prairies scattered throughout a region that was climatically more suited to forest growth. And east of the mountains, as the Methow passage suggests, the forests of the past were quite different, with a minimum of underbrush and clutter. Other differences in local environments were present both east and west.

Vancouver believed that “Nature” alone was responsible for the “luxuriant lawns” and “well-stocked parks”; there is nothing in any of the expedition’s journals suggesting that the Native inhabitants of the “inland sea” had any hand in their existence. Until relatively recently, most anthropologists believed this as well. The traditional stereotype of non-agricultural foraging peoples was that they simply took from the land and did not have the tools or knowledge to modify it to suit their needs. We now know better. Indigenous Northwesterners did indeed have a tool-fire-and they knew how to use it in ways that not only answered immediate purposes but also modified their environment. We now know that the “lawns” that Vancouver observed on Whidbey Island, the prairies that early trappers and explorers described in the Willamette Valley, and the open spaces that led the Hudson’s Bay Company to select the site of Victoria for their headquarters in 1845 had been actively manipulated and managed, if not actually “created,” by their Native inhabitants. Anthropogenic (human-caused) fire was by far the most important tool of environmental manipulation throughout the Native Pacific Northwest.

David French — Aboriginal Control of Huckleberry Yield in the Northwest

Richard White — Indian Land Use and Environmental Change-Island County, Washington: A Case Study

The first settlers on Whidbey found these fires alarming, for they threatened their crops and houses. Because Whites refused to tolerate the occasional destruction of their property, the beginning of American settlement saw the cessation of Indian burning on the prairies.

Few settlers gave much thought to the reasons behind these fires. One of the few who did was James G. Cooper, a botanist with the railroad expedition that reached western Washington in 1853. Cooper recognized that the Salish had definite and sensible reasons for burning, and concluded that if they ceased the practice the forest soon would encroach on the open lands. The Indians, he wrote, “burned to preserve their open grounds for game, and for the production of their important root, the camas.” The introduction of the horse, according to Cooper, had provided a further inducement for firing the grasslands. Fresh pastures sprang up in burned-over country. Cooper’s comments on Indian land use were insightful, but were largely ignored. Actually, they fit the inland Indians of southern Puget Sound better than they did the saltwater Salish of Whidbey.

The Salish of Island County had no reason to burn to increase grazing areas, for they had no horses, nor were they dependent on large game animals for food. Even deer, a relatively minor source of food, were browsers that did not require extensive grasslands for feed. Undoubtedly, Indian burning encouraged game animals by enlarging their feeding areas, but this was not necessarily the rationale for burning. More likely, the initial impetus for fires was to increase vegetable production.

The desire to encourage the growth of bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), a fern which reached heights of seven feet on the prairies, and camas (Camassia quamash)-which Cooper noticed dominating large expanses of open land were the main reasons for setting fires. Both plants were staples of the Indian diet. The Salish ground dried bracken roots into flour, which they baked for bread. They boiled the fresh camas, eating them like potatoes, or dried and preserved the bulbs. The abundance of these plants on the prairies was not fortuitous. Rather than being major Indian food sources because they dominated the prairies, bracken and camas more likely dominated the prairies because they were major Indian food sources. According to Carl Sauer, the noted geographer, the very existence of people like the Salish depended on “acting intelligently within the range of their experience.” Observing the changes that fire brought in its wake and using the altered landscape to their own advantage were “advantageous behavior” that enabled the Salish to survive.

Stephen Barrett and Stephen Arno — Indian Fires in the Northern Rockies: Ethnohistory and Ecology

Helen H. Norton, Robert Boyd, and Eugene Hunn — The Klikitat Trail of South-central Washington: A Reconstruction of Seasonally Used Resource Sites

Robert Boyd — Strategies of lndian Burning in the Willamette Valley

Omer Stewart stated that “Historical and anthropological records indicate that nearly every American Indian tribe set fire to the grass and woody vegetation in the area it occupied.” In the Northwest Coast and Plateau culture areas south of the 49th parallel, available records indicate that, out of a total of forty identifiable ethnolinguistic units, twenty-six (65%) practiced some kind of patterned burning (exclusive of burning as a part of tobacco cultivation). The total number that actively managed plant and animal resources with fire probably is larger, since historical and ethnographic data on some groups in this region are exceedingly sparse.

Patterned burning is reported from the Rocky Mountains, Columbia Plateau, Middle Fraser, northern British Columbia, Pacific Coast, and Western Washington (see introduction). Some of the most impressive evidence for the aboriginal use of fire in the Northwest, however, comes from that special cultural subdivision which David French called the “Interior Valley Province.” The historic records for the Kalapuya and the ethnographic data on the Karok, in particular, suggest that fire was important in a wide range of subsistence related activities. The research of Johannessen etal. (1971) demonstrates that the Indian use of fire in the Willamette Valley was so frequent and widespread that it maintained what ecologists would call a “fire climax” biotype.

Clearly, fire was an important component in both the cultural and ecological systems of the prehistoric Willamette Valley. The Kalapuya Indians used fire in a wide range of subsistence activities, and fire was essential for maintaining a fire climax biotype. The link between the two systems was the natives’ use of fire as a tool-a tool that simultaneously improved the subsistence quest while maintaining ecological diversity. With control over and knowledge of the ecosystemic effects of fire, the Indians established an important symbiotic relationship with their environment. Put in other words, the Kalapuya, like other Native North Americans, became an environmentally selective force, acting through their agent, fire.

Estella B. Leopold and Robert Boyd — An Ecological History of Old Prairie Areas in Southwestern Washington

Battleground Lake: The Chronology of Vegetation Change

In western Washington, when ice of the last glaciation draped the landscape north of Olympia (about 18-15,000 years ago), an odd mixture of herbs, shrubs, and conifers comprised an open type of vegetation near Vancouver: abundant grasses with snakeweed (Polygonum bistortoides), corn-salad (Valerianella), and Sitka berry (Sanguisorba) suggest mountain tundra-like habitats. But sagebrush (Artemisia), which was fairly abundant, implies summer-dry, perhaps steppe-like conditions. Lodgepole pine, that cosmopolitan tree which invades disturbed areas, was associated with spruces, probably including Engelmann and Sitka spruce (Picea engelmanii and P. sitchensis), and firs (Pacific silver fir and/or grand fir; Abies amablis and A. grandis). The dominance of diverse herbs and shrubs suggest a steppic parkland tundra with spruce as a major tree species. Initial vegetation might have resembled modern high-altitude communities east of the Cascade crest, according to Barnosky’s interpretation.

As continental ice began to melt in the lowlands (15-11,200 years ago), some temperate plants appeared and tundra types were gone. Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), Sitka alder (Alnus sinuata), lodgepole, and perhaps ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) appeared and increased; vegetation became more luxuriant (based on increased pollen abundance), and diverse herbs and sagebrush still were present. Barnosky interprets this as parkland with little evidence of tundra plants. The vegetation cover suggests cool and more humid conditions south of the retreating ice sheet.

Early humans saw this landscape; a broken spear point (made of bone) embedded in the rib of a mastodon bears witness to humans’ probable hunting activities near Sequim, Washington, some 12,000 years ago. There the pollen mix was similar to that at Battleground Lake. Other extinct megafauna are recorded at Sequim (bison, caribou) and in the coastal region, i.e., at Beacon Hill, Seattle (mastodon), and Hillsboro/Portland, Oregon (tapir, mastodon).

Western hemlock and red alder arrived in the Vancouver area by 11,000 years ago, and according to Barnosky’s data were followed within 500 years by many temperate types including Douglas-fir. The earlier absence of Douglas-fir in southern Washington has led to discussions of where this tree was during the full glaciation. Barnosky feels it probably was eliminated from the area north of the Columbia River, but the tree came back about 16,000 years ago just after the full glacial period. Then there is no record of it until ca. 11,000 years before present (B.P). Within 1,000 years it spread virtually all the way to the Canadian border.

Douglas-fir quickly became the dominant tree in the western Washington lowlands, where it was associated with an abundance of two successional species, red alder (Alnus rubra) and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum). These forests also contained western hemlock, probably grand fir, poplar (Populus), and white pine (Pinus monticola). The successional plants connote frequent fires and suggest open forests or forest in a mosaic with prairie patches.

In southwestern Washington at Battleground Lake, however, the vegetation was more savanna-like, particularly between 9500-4500 years B.P; Douglas-fir and oak (Quercus garryana) were the main trees associated with prairie and meadow grasses, camas lily (Camassia quamash), Polygonum, and various Compositae. Sporadic pollen peaks of camas lily, Umbelliferae, and alumroot (Heuchera) type suggest prairie plants flourishing periodically, perhaps after local fires. Bracken was widespread and abundant. During this warm, dry interval chinkapin (Chrysolepis or Castanopsis), which has schlerophyll leaves adapted to drought, expanded its range as far north as Seattle, and it became abundant in the southwestern part of the state. (At present, chinkapin is endemic along the Columbia Gorge and has only one outlying relict stand on the eastern side of the Olympics.) Between 9500-4500 B.P, the rich black prairie soils of southwestern Washington began to form. Associated with the prairie biome were the developing Indian cultures of southwestern Washington.

Between 4500 years B.P and the present, a climatic cooling brought an increase in pollen of many conifers near Vancouver-Cupressaceae (probably western red cedar), Douglas-fir, western hemlock, ash, and others-while oak and prairie herbs and grasses declined. These data show that conifer forest expanded at the expense of grasslands in southwestern Washington; in the northern Puget Lowlands, forest composition shifted toward an increase in moisture-loving trees; especially notable was the rising importance of western red cedar (Thuja plicata).

Henry T Lewis and Theresa A. Ferguson — Yards, Corridors, and Mosaics: How to Burn a Boreal Forest

Although sounding somewhat contradictory, it is now accepted wisdom among fire ecologists that prescribed fires should be used to establish natural fire mosaics, at least in wilderness areas and in national parks where management can be practiced. The desirability of fire management in the northern boreal forests has been discussed in a number of published studies. We must recognize that much of what is designated today as “wilderness” once was exploited and manipulated with fire by North American Indians.

The “virgin lands” first observed by Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not an untouched wilderness. As several writers have noted, the “forest primeval” was a later, romanticized creation of the Euroamerican imagination. The forests, parklands, and prairies of North America already had been greatly influenced and actively managed by aboriginal peoples’ widespread uses of fire.” The goals of Indian uses of habitat fires were predominantly technological, with the added awareness that fire is a tool of enormous potential and that it has complex and important ecological consequences.

Nancy J. Turner — “Time to Burn” Traditional Use of Fire to Enhance Resource Production by Aboriginal Peoples in British Columbia

William G. Robbins — Landscape and Environment Ecological Change in the Intermontane Northwest

From time immemorial, humans have been great modifiers of the ecological niches they occupy. That observation also is a proper fit for prehistoric North America, where archaeological evidence shows purposeful human manipulation of the environment to be an incontestable fact. Indeed, the great weight of scientific evidence and hypotheses argue against the notion of the continent as a pristine, Eden-like world where the human imprint was barely perceptible. Scholarly research in the past two decades indicates the existence of sizable prehistoric populations that influenced the extent and composition of forests, established and expanded grassland areas, and altered landscapes through myriad human devices. According to the geographer William Denevan, the important question is “the form and magnitude of environmental modification rather than … whether … Indians lived in harmony with nature with sustainable systems of resource management.”

Leslie Main Johnson — Aboriginal Burning for Vegetation Management in Northwest British Columbia

Jeff LaLande and Reg Pullen — Burning for a “Fine and Beautiful Open Country” Native Uses of Fire in Southwestern Oregon

John Alan Ross — Proto-historical and Historical Spokan Prescribed Burning and Stewardship of Resource Areas

The relationship between humans and fire is intricate and dramatic, and recently has become a major concern to anthropologists, biologists, foresters, and Indian resource-management personnel. Since Omer Stewart’s classic paper of 1956, in which he identified more than 100 Amerind groups that utilized forest and grassland burning, there has been an effort to reexamine existing ethnographies and ethnohistories that make specific reference to Indians who not only recalled such fire-technology, but who practiced burning and were able to provide partial explanations of the effects that prescribed burning had upon the environment and specific plant-animal communities.

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of detailed descriptive data of this trait complex in the ethnographic literature from the Columbia Plateau. Although relatively few early historic references specifically describe prescribed burning,3 prescribed burning during the late historical period has been studied for some Plateau and neighboring peoples.

For the Spokan (/spo’qe’ni/) there are some ethnographic data and linguistic classifications on floral/faunal folk taxa6 that demonstrate that the Spokan understood and practiced the management of indigenous plant-animal associations, and knew how to maintain certain economically significant grassland and forest plant communities by utilizing fire technology. Moreover, it has been documented that the Spokan were cognizant of benefits derived from selective burning. In contrast, most of the area’s Euro-American settlers’ interpretation and policies suggest that they did not understand the ecological benefits of prescribed burning. By opposing Indian prescribed burning, EuroAmericans created an environmental situation that actually encouraged the heavy accumulation of dead vegetation, windfall, and deadfall; as well as a change in certain species types, seed propagation, and alteration of fire resistance of some plants; increasing diseases caused by bacteria, fungi, parasitic plants, and viruses.

Robert Boyd — Conclusion: Ecological Lessons from Northwest Native Americans

Like the rest of the Americas, the environment of the Pacific Northwest was not pristine when Europeans first encountered it. It was actively managed and shaped by the hand of its native inhabitants. The primary tool of this indigenous, non-agricultural environmental management was fire. Native Americans used fire purposefully and in patterns that reflected a traditional ecological knowledge that was both broad and deep.

Throughout the pre-White Pacific Northwest, Indian cultures used fire in different yet internally consistent ways. In the “interior valleys province,” between the Coast and Cascade ranges, repeated firing maintained open prairie lands where the native peoples’ most important wild plant foods grew. In the Columbia Basin, regular firing held back the growth of sagebrush and promoted the growth of bunchgrasses and forbs. Anthropogenic burning kept the understories of the ponderosa pine forests open and extended into higher elevation, dry eastern forests where fire use was spottier. Along the Cascade crest, Indian-caused fires maintained mountain huckleberry patches, and in the upper Fraser highlands it promoted the growth of important root crops. Along the wet coastline, burning was less common, though locally intense, and mostly associated with the regeneration of various species of wild berries.

Several of the papers in this volume provide glimpses of what once must have been a considerable amount of traditional ecological knowledge underlying regionally patterned uses of fire. Through more than 10,000 years of occupation, Northwest Native Americans learned the intricacies of their local environments and how to use fire to create desired effects. People of Euro-American descent, however, have occupied the lands of the Pacific Northwest for less than 200 years and have been slow to understand the role of fire in Western North American ecosystems. We need to know how our predecessors used fire in the environment so we can best manage those same lands today.

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