19 Nov 2009, 1:28pm
Saving Forests
by admin

Thompson Smith On Native Fire Regimes

Note: Thompson Smith is the coordinator of history and geography projects for the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Among other accomplishments, Mr. Smith co-directed The Place of the Falling Waters, a powerful documentary about the Salish and Kootenia tribal histories and the building of the Kerr hydropower dam on Montana’s Flathead Lake [here]. The following essay appeared today in the Missoulian.

Native fire regimes a must to return to ‘the way it was’

by Thompson Smith, Guest column, the Missoulian, November 19, 2009 [here]

Thanks to Michael Jamison for his excellent article in the Oct. 25 Missoulian, “Tracking science,” about Cristine Eisenberg’s research on the complex ecology of wolves in the Northern Rockies. Dr. Eisenberg’s brilliant, painstaking work is revealing the unexpected ways in which the wolves’ return is increasing, not decreasing, the biodiversity and ecological resilience of the North Fork.

If Jamison’s account is accurate, however, Eisenberg appears to have a major blind spot. She concludes that with the re-establishment of wolves, the North Fork, once again, is “the way it was.”

We can only reach that conclusion if we erase Indian people from our understanding of Montana’s past. For many thousands of years, tribal ways of life shaped the environment of the Northern Rockies. Guided by a profound cultural ethic of respect, the Pend d’Oreille, Salish and Kootenai people used the region intensively but sustainably; today, their vast aboriginal territories remain of great importance to them.

Tribal people, not wolves, were the dominant hunters in these areas –- as well as highly knowledgeable managers of the land and its resources. A landscape that once again includes wolves, but in which native ways of life remain marginalized, certainly differs in important respects from “the way it was.”

Jamison notes that “predators are, perhaps, something like forest fire -– highly controversial, once maligned as a controllable evil, later understood to be one of the keys to overall forest health.” He’s right, but it’s an odd disjuncture, for fire was one of the primary tools used by tribal people in managing the land prior to the arrival of non-Indians.

Over their millennia of occupancy, tribal people developed a sophisticated understanding of how, when and where to apply fire. Both oral histories and the written record relate how they carefully used fire to revitalize food plants such as huckleberries and camas; to clear trails and camp areas; to enhance feed for game, and more recently, for horses. (Some elders also stress that they regarded fires set by lightning as the creator’s way of cleaning up the land.)

Forest scientists studying tree rings have found that across much of western Montana, fires occurred more frequently than could have been caused by lightning. Sometime after 1850, government officials began suppressing the traditional use of fire by native people. The great fires of 1910 were in part the result of fire suppression through cultural repression over the preceding decades.

Jamison may recall this information from another excellent article he wrote, “Researchers look to Native history to gather ideas about forests and flames” (Missoulian, Oct. 16, 2005), about the interactive DVD project Fire on the Land [here], directed by Germaine White of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. David Rockwell created the award-winning DVD, and I served as project historian. The DVD innovatively combines interviews with tribal elders, the written historical record and the science of forestry and fire. It has been available through the University of Nebraska Press since 2007.

Eisenberg is certainly not alone among scientists in omitting native peoples from her insights into “the way it was.” Even after the release of “Fire on the Land,” published articles addressing fire history in western Montana have continued the pattern of largely ignoring the role of indigenous peoples. The cumulative effect is the erasure of tribal people from the environmental history of the Northern Rockies.

Correcting this error is not only a matter of fairness or justice, but also accuracy. If the removal of wolves had such extensive ramifications, then the marginalization of native ways of life certainly had an even greater impact. Clearly, there is much we still need to understand about the whole ecological dynamic that existed here until the late 19th century – and what we would need to do to restore that older environment. For example, if the re-establishment of wolves has caused elk to linger less in the North Fork prairies, might that change result in those open areas disappearing over time – unless native fire regimes are also reintroduced?

With great appreciation for the crucial work being done by Eisenberg, it is our hope that the scientific community will begin recognizing that we cannot fully reconstruct the past ecology of the Northern Rockies without serious engagement with its human history.



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