21 Feb 2010, 6:52pm
Case Studies
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A Qualitative Study with the Eastern Band of Cherokee and Southern Appalachian Community Members

Nicolette Cooley. 2004. Understanding Traditional Knowledge for Ecological Restoration: A Qualitative Study with the Eastern Band of Cherokee and Southern Appalachian Community Members. Masters Thesis, NAU School of Forestry.

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


The primary objective of the research project, Understanding Traditional Knowledge for Ecological Restoration: A Qualitative Interview Study with Cherokee and Southern Appalachian Community Members, in North Carolina was to gather data concerning historical land management practices exemplified by traditional ecological knowledge and practices of the Cherokee Nation, specifically burning. This particular research project was established due to a collaborative effort between the Ecological Restoration Institute (ERI) at Northern Arizona University (NAU) and Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory in Otto, North Carolina. The study was designed to collect information about the fire history of the Southeast focusing on the region historically and currently occupied by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (E.B.C.I) within a two year time frame.


The use of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of fire has been debated since the mid sixteenth century (Goodwin 1977) when non-Native American people viewed Indians as not being civilized enough to know the uses and effects of fire. This view brought about the belief that the Indians could not have had any significant influence on the environment (Kretch III 1999). The arrival of European explorers and settlers brought on a number of changes for the Indians and the land they occupied. Indians have brought on a number of changes for the Indians and the land they occupied. Indians have used fire to clear land for agriculture, improve visibility for hunting and traveling, and reduce the accumulation of fuels to prevent catastrophic wildfires (Noss 1983). Particularly in the Southern Appalachians Native Americans have been burning for agricultural and hunting purposes for 10,000 years (Keel 1976 in Van Lear and Waldrop 1989). Instead of acting as a destructive force, the Indians were acting as a functioning component of the ecosystem (Goodwin 1977). As a functioning component in the ecosystem, Native Americans were intentionally burning and cutting trees down because they knew burning and cutting created specific effects. For example, Goodwin describes how Indians burned forests to prevent uncontrolled fires, to clear heavy fuel loads, and undesirable weeds for cultivation. He goes on to discuss how Indians burned longleaf pine (Pinus palustrus) forests to eliminate brown-spot needle disease and competitive vegetation. Goodwin describes the importance of longleaf pine to build shelter, build canoes, and for firewood.

Before the arrival of European explorers, the Cherokee and other Native American tribes occupied present-day North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia (Hudson 1976). The Indians utilized local varieties of wood such as white oak, pine trees, and hickory to build their homes, weave baskets, for firewood, and to make weapons (Hamel and Chiltoskey 1975). The Cherokee knew resources gathered from the forest had to be sustained to ensure adequate materials for future use. People intentionally modified the environment to produce resources that they needed to survive. The ecosystem and landscape modifications greatly influenced present conditions of Southeastern forests. European contact brought new leadership and lifestyles, which in turn influenced how Cherokee managed their land (Ehle 1988).

There is also a lack of consensus among scientists and land managers about the extent of Native American burning because available evidence is “scattered 17th and 18th century descriptions of forests and Indian activities” (Russell 1983, p 78). One article implied that the Cherokee of the Southeast could not have had any significant use for fire except for cooking because of the lack of direct evidence. In the “Ecological Indian,” Shepard Kretch (1999) illustrated how people in the nineteenth century viewed Native Americans as “technologically incompetent” to even know the effects and outcomes of fire. Kretch also cited the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the 1940s, stating that there is absolutely no proof that “Indians regularly set” fires because they “lacked matches.” Finally, Kretch cited forest ecologists that claimed fire to be destructive and “made every effort to halt them in national forests and parks” (p 102).

On the other hand there are several articles that describe how Native Americans used fire to improve subsistence and economy. Gordon Day (1953) cited numerous texts that imply Native Americans of North America used fire for significant reasons. Burning was used to improve visibility, facilitate travel, increase supply of plant species, and reduce fuel accumulation. Day refers to Maxwell (1910) and Swanton (1928) who stated that fire was a common practice in the southeast. In comparison, Stephen Pyne (1983) reiterated Day’s reasons for Native American use of fire in maintaining that Native Americans were dependent on fire for their economies. Gary Goodwin (1977) states fire was a “tremendous economic advantage (p 64)” to Cherokee lifestyle. Fire was used to communicate through smoke signals, fell trees, shape canoes, drive off mosquitoes/flies, and reduce the buildup of fuel (Pyne 1983). Native Americans continue to use different types of shrubs and trees to produce desired basket, weapon, and housing materials.


As research assistants Lisa Dunlop and I acted as the primary investigators (PI) during the duration of the study. The research project included two types of data sources; written records and qualitative interviews. …

The qualitative interview process began with a network of people Lisa and I contacted through the Cherokee Artist Directory (Duncan et al. 2001) that the Cherokee Museum provided. Once the people were contacted by telephone, others in the local communities of western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and northern Georgia whose family tradition or research provided information about historic land management practices in the region were contacted. …

The qualitative interviews that were conducted revealed two preliminary themes. The first theme we found was that fire was an intricate part of Cherokee land management practices, and the Southeast landscape was burned annually. Jerry Wolf, a Cherokee elder in his late sixties, was born and raised in the township of Big Cove, which is one of the communities in the Cherokee Nation. Jerry is one of the elders who possess traditional knowledge passed down from his elders and was willing to sit down with us for an interview. We posed two questions to him, “What did [the Cherokee people] burn and when did they burn?” which revealed the first theme.

“The whole, all the mountains. The fire didn’t get big in those days when they burned they were seasoned, annually because fire has taken care of all the, you know, the debris that would, that’d been piled up. You know, whereas if ah, you left, if you don’t burn then it begins to accumulate and you have a lot of grass and a lot of leaves and you know, it’s piled up and you when you burn lets say four years later, you burn and you have a gigantic fire cause you have a lot to burn and you could, it gets big and its destructive. It’s more destructive than it is ah, you know, to preserve. Whereas if you burn it every year then you know, you’re preserving the forest. And you got better timber, too, when you burn, cause it burns it, it again all the worms, insects that would destroy it.” …

Finally, we discovered the second theme when we asked if fire should be reintroduced as part of contemporary land management practices because it would be beneficial to the landscape and would the Cherokee people be accepting. Marie’s answer was:

“I think the older people would be [accepting] because they understand. They used it. And thinking about [that] there is trees that are being eaten by some kind of a worm, a kind of bug, I think. And it’s killing these pine trees. But I think when they use the fire they burn the underbrush, you know, that kills the insects. (And it kills trees too). And I think that would help today if we did that. But my Mom says we can’t hardly do that now because the leaves are so thick.”

These are preliminary themes that were gathered from the qualitative interviews conducted in summer of 2001 and more themes shall be gathered from interviews in the summer of 2002.

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