Monday, October 9, 2017

Forgotten Fires, A Book Review

Wíačhéič’thi, "The Sun Makes A Campfire For Itself." In English, you'd call these "Sundogs."
Forgotten Fires, A Book Review
Historic Narratives Of Fires
By Dakota Wind
Stewart, Omer C. Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness. Edited by Henry T. Lewis. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. 364 pp. $24.95 (paperback). Illustrations, bibliography, and references.

As a boy, my younger brother and I were fascinated with fire. Sometimes, around the Fourth of July, Golf Hill (aka “Boot Hill,” “Agency Hill,” or even as the Cheyenne knew it, “The Hill That Stands Alone”) would burn. It was an annual occasion. At some point, before I cared, someone had arranged and painted white some stones to say on the hillside, “WARRIORS.” Following one of the fires, my brother and I took to rearranging the letters to spell, “ASS.” You could see it fifteen miles away.

We loved fire. Especially starting them. My enthusiasm for fire waned one day after burning myself on the smoker in the backyard. My brother’s infatuation continued unabated. He’d carefully cut open fireworks to light the powders. One day he almost burned down the house when he lit our mother’s god’s eye that hung in the corner of the dining area. I still remember him saying, “It started by itself!” I threw a pitcher of water on it, and he hung it back up after turning it around. When our mother discovered it, she thought it was the result of one of her parties.

Omer’s Forgotten Fires is a great resource for all things fire related in native North America. Historic fires, like the Chicago Fire, isn’t included here, and with good reason. One can find a number of resources on that one topic. Omer has combed through the journals of explorers, traders, trappers, and artists and has delivered an astonishing read that challenges the notion of Indians living harmoniously in a pristine Garden of Eden.  

There are several reasons to start fires on the Great Plains and Omer explores them all. From renewing the grass so that horses could consume fresh green grass and driving game to signal fires and maintaining trails.

Omer perfectly captures George Catlin’s fascination with the great prairie fires, “sparkling and brilliant chains of liquid fire.” Catlin also describes a firestorm, “…there is yet another character of burning prairies…that requires another letter, and a different pen to describe – the war, or hell of fires!” The kind of firestorm that creates and sustains its own weather, drawing in air with hurricane force winds, which overtakes the swiftest horses, and animals coming to an immutable and terrified stop when such fires cross the plains.

The German traveler Maximilian Wied-Neuwied mentions that some of the fires were caused by the natives in order to escape the pursuit of their enemies, and witnesses fire whirls or, “graceful undulations, to the zenith.” Catlin and Bodmer never seem to run out of adjectives and adverbs to describe the wildfires.

Other firsthand accounts of fires range across North America from the woodlands to the mountains, plateaus, and valleys. Omer’s book is an amazingly fast read because of it. And suffers because of it. These accounts are overwhelmingly non-native, that the book title should perhaps be instead Forgotten Fires, Forgotten Resources: Non-Native Accounts of Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness.

There is no mention of sedentary agricultural tribes like the Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan, or Pawnee burning their fields in the fall after a harvest, or why. The resources to draw from are out there, like Bowers’ Mandan Social and Ceremonial Organization or Hidatsa Social and Ceremonial Organization. These two tribes are still with us today, it’s not as if one couldn’t ask them “why?”

While there’s some mention of fire used in warfare, there isn’t one native narrative regarding the use of fire in war. Garrick Mallery’s Picture Writing of the American Indians, Vol. 1, contains part of such a narrative when the Cheyenne resorted to prairie fires in retaliation against a Thítȟuŋwaŋ (Teton; Lakota) war party in the 1760s.

Lastly, what’s missing is an inclusion of the living memory of Native Americans regarding fires, actual and metaphorical. There are many descriptions for fire, but here’s a basic few to consider: óna (prairie fire), pȟetá (fire), and očhéthi (the council fire). Fire is for more than burning, cooking, signaling, and destruction. It’s constructive, has spiritual significance, and for gathering the community together.

If one is studying the Great Plains, one needs this book. It contains immense ecological value about establishing a balance on the Great Plains between natural and human benefit. It is worth one’s time to revisit it a few times more, and certainly worth referencing Omer’s scholarship. Forgotten Fires is a good book, it's only missing a little. If it’s worth this much time to read and re-read, get a copy for yourself. 

Dakota Wind is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He is currently a university student working on a degree in History with a focus on American Indian and Western History. He maintains the history website The First Scout.

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