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Native Americans Used Fire to Protect and Cultivate Land

Native Americans Used Fire to Protect and Cultivate Land

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When naturalists like John Muir first entered the Yosemite Valley of California in the 19th century, they marveled at the beauty of what they believed to be a pristine wilderness untouched by human hands. The truth is that the rich diversity and stunning landscapes of places like Yosemite and other natural environments in the United States were intentionally cultivated by Native Americans for thousands of years. And their greatest tool was fire.

“Fire was a constant companion, a kind of universal catalyst and technology,” says Stephen Pyne, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University, author and fire historian.

Yosemite itself was routinely burned to clear underbrush, open pasture lands, provide nutrient-rich forage for deer, and to support the growth of woodland food crops to feed and sustain what was once a large and thriving indigenous population.

“If you look at the early photographs of Yosemite and you see the great big majestic stands of oaks, you would be led to believe that those are natural,” says Frank Kanawha Lake, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, wildland firefighter and Karuk descendent.

“But those trees are a legacy of indigenous acorn management. Those are tribal orchards that were managed for thousands of years for acorn production and for the geophytes or ‘Indian potatoes’ that grow beneath them.”

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Seasonal Wildfires vs. Cultural Burning

The hugely destructive seasonal wildfires that consume millions of acres of forest across the Western United States every year are mostly triggered when lightning strikes a stand of trees that’s dangerously dry from late-summer heat or drought.

While those types of natural fires have always existed, indigenous people have also practiced what’s known as “cultural burning,” the intentional lighting of smaller, controlled fires to provide a desired cultural service, such as promoting the health of vegetation and animals that provide food, clothing, ceremonial items and more.

“[Cultural burning] links back to the tribal philosophy of fire as medicine,” says Lake. “When you prescribe it, you’re getting the right dose to maintain the abundance of productivity of all ecosystem services to support the ecology in your culture.”

Examples of Native American cultural burning can be found across the American landscape. In the Appalachian forests of the Eastern United States, the dominance of oak and chestnut trees was the product of targeted burning that resulted in vigorous resprouting of the desired nut crops. The iconic tall grass prairies of the Midwest were also likely cleared and maintained by indigenous burning as pastureland for herd animals.

READ MORE: Why America's Deadliest Wildfire Is Largely Forgotten

Multiple Different Uses of Indigenous Fire

Anthropologists have identified at least 70 different uses of fire among indigenous and aboriginal peoples, including clearing travel routes, long-distance signaling, reducing pest populations like rodents and insects, and hunting.

It’s well-established that native peoples used fire to both drive and attract game herds. For example, some tribes would open up patches of grassland inside forested landscapes that drew herds of deer and elk to the protein-rich new growth every spring. In the fall, they’d burn the grass to drive animals back into the woods where the tribe overwintered. And in the spring, they’d light fires in the woods to push the animals back into the prairie.

The tribes of the northern Great Plains were some of the few to light very large fires rather than smaller, contained burns. These prairie fires—miles-long conflagrations that raged across dry grasslands—were an effective way to drive large herds of buffalo in a desired direction. Other tribes used fire to herd grasshoppers, a tasty delicacy.

Food was not the only incentive to employ fire. For some Western tribes, a consistent crop of plant materials was essential for making woven baskets. By burning patches of land, they could ensure the regrowth of the type of straight, slender shoots that made the strongest and most artistic baskets. Others used fire to cultivate specific tree species that provided roosts for woodpeckers, whose feathers were prized for ceremonial regalia.

European Arrival Brings Disease and Outlawing of Fire

One of the reasons why John Muir and other naturalists would have believed that the grandeur of the Western United States was shaped entirely by natural forces is that they had no idea how many Native Americans had once lived there. When the Spanish established missions and settlements in “Alta California” in the 18th century, they brought smallpox with them, which decimated an estimated 70 to 90 percent of the indigenous population.

“A lot of what we think of as wilderness was a temporary artifact of the depopulation of the native people—It was a major crash,” says Pyne. “Explorers and early travelers didn’t believe that such small groups of Native Americans could make significant changes in the landscape. Well, there were a lot more of them in earlier times.”

READ MORE: Did Colonists Give Infected Blankets to Native Americans?

European colonists brought with them an attitude that fire was a destructive force with no beneficial applications. Lake points out that one of the first official proclamations by a Spanish bureaucrat in California in 1793 was to outlaw “Indian burning,” which was viewed as a threat to the Spanish cattle herds and pastures.

“With attention to the widespread damage which results to the public from burning of the fields, customary up to now among both the Christian and Gentile Indians in this country, whose childishness has been unduly tolerated,” wrote Don José Joaquín de Arrillaga, “I see myself required to have the foresight to prohibit for the future…, if it be necessary, of the rigors of the law all kinds of burnings, not only in the vicinity of the towns, but even at the most remote distances … [t]o uproot this very harmful practice of setting fire to pastureland.”

Successive waves of colonists brought the same dismissive attitude toward the benefits of controlled burns, even though European farmers and herdsmen had practiced it for centuries.

“Europe’s elites treated their own farmers and pastoralists and their knowledge of fire with the same disdain,” says Pyne. “Europe had thousands of years of agriculture and they used fire very widely, but it was a mark of ‘primitivism.’ To be modern and rational, you had to find an alternative to fire.”

The ‘Paiute Forestry’ Debate

Not everyone agreed that outlawing cultural and other controlled burns was best for America’s forests. Throughout the late-19th and early 20th century, millions of acres were destroyed by a series of deadly wildfires, many caused by sparks thrown from the new transcontinental railroad.

The trouble with fire suppression laws is that they create a buildup of “fuel” in the forests, fallen trees and drought-ridden undergrowth that feed and spread a wildfire. In the early 20th century, some forestry scientists were calling for a return to the indigenous practices of “light-burning” to keep fuel supplies low.

Opponents of light-burning dubbed it “Paiute forestry,” meant as an insulting reference to the Paiute Indians of Nevada and California.

“The question was, ‘Do we burn like the heathen Indians or do we protect our forests and timber interests?’” says Lake.

The answer came in 1910 with one of the largest wildfires in American history. Known as the “Big Blowup” or simply the “Great Fires of 1910,” this multi-state conflagration consumed more than 3 million acres and leveled entire towns. Lake says that on one tragic day, 78 firefighters were killed by the blaze.

Rather than renewing calls for a traditional approach to forest management that incorporated cultural burning, a traumatized U.S. Forest Service doubled down on fire suppression. In response, Congress passed the Weeks Act of 1911 authorizing the government’s purchase of millions of acres of land in which all fires would be outlawed.

What Native Americans Can Teach Us About Using Trees For Survival

Native Americans, like many other indigenous tribes that lived off the land, practiced a sustainable way of living. They hunted, fished and cut down trees to provide for food, fuel and shelter, but we can see that they had a need-based lifestyle, not a pleasure-based one.

The great reverence Native Americans had for trees, mountains, water bodies, and even the animals they killed for food, protected the world around them from exploitation. It also helped subsequent generations to continue with their traditional way of life.

The Native American tribes maintained a unique relationship with trees, in particular. The associations they drew between different types of trees and divine forces or ancestral spirits bear evidence to it. Among living things, trees grew taller and stronger with every passing year, outliving several generations. They provided almost everything the people needed.

Trees were a reliable source of food to many Native American tribes. While berries and other fruit were seasonal, pines, pecans, walnuts and other nut trees provided year-round nutrition. Oaks were valued for acorns. The leached flour made from acorns was a staple of Northern Californian tribes of Miwok, Karok, Yurok, Hupa and Pomo. These tribes are known to have cultivated orchards of these useful trees.

Pine trees that grew abundantly in the northern regions provided pine nuts, and tribes even used their bark in times of scarcity. The Adirondack tribe of upstate New York earned its name, which means “bark eaters” in Iroquois, from its consumption of pine bark. Early European visitors to the continent found large stretches of pines with the bark stripped, but it should be noted here that it was done without killing the trees. Birch, spruce, slippery elm, tamarack and balsam fir are some of the other trees that provided edible bark.

Medicinal Use

The indigenous people of America met most of their medicinal needs with herbal remedies that included the use of leaves, bark and other parts of trees. Willow bark tea is the most famous among their concoctions. This potent brew of the “toothache tree” is effective in bringing down fever and relieving headaches and arthritic pains. This is not surprising, since the tree contains salicylic acid, the ingredient that gives aspirin its analgesic effect.

Image source: Jamesayers.com

Beech was another tree with medicinal properties. Even the water collected in the hollows of these trees was used to treat skin problems. The Iroquois used the boiled leaves as dressing for burns and prepared a salve with beechnut oil and bear grease to ward off mosquitoes. Rappahannock people found beech tonic to be effective against poison ivy.

Sumac, white pine, slippery elm, red cedar, oak and maple also figured in the medicine man’s chest.

Native Americans often attributed symbolic characters to medically important trees. Such as:

  • Cedar – Used for respiratory ailments, it symbolized cleansing, healing and protection. People used to wear pieces of red cedar to around their neck for prosperity and protection from illnesses.
  • Willow – Anti-inflammatory and analgesic, willow symbolized wisdom, strength and stability.
  • Oak – Known to improve circulation and to remove blood problems, these large trees symbolized courage and strength of character.
  • Pine – A popular cold and flu remedy, pine tea was used for treating sore throat, chest congestion and lung infections. The tree was symbolic of peace and harmony and enhanced creativity.
  • Maple – Providing a sweet remedy for digestive troubles, maple was a symbol of generosity, promise, offering and balance.

The branches were always taken with the permission of the respective tree and with elaborate rituals. This prevented mindless vandalism and opportunistic trade that would have led to their extinction.

Totem Poles

The Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest traditionally fashioned totem poles out of tree trunks, particularly the western red cedar. These sculptures probably depicted important historical events or family legends. Some of them might have been made out of pure artistic expression too.

The gigantic, free-standing ones we see today are thought to have been made after the arrival of the Europeans. The totem poles of Tlingit, Haida and Kwakiutl tribes were originally smaller indoor structures. They were carried into the houses by men, and made into decorative structural supports for their homes.

Practical Use

Many tools of the trade such as weapons, implements, utensils, items of clothing and canoes were fashioned out of wood and bark. Oak wood was used for bows. The Caddo tribe from East Texas found bois de arc trees growing among the pines to be extremely useful. The strong and flexible wood of this tree was excellent for bows and arrows. Since these trees were not found elsewhere, the tribe profited from trading the weapons to other people. The Cahuilla tribe made bows with mesquite or willow wood, and they strung them with mescal fiber.

People extracted fiber from the inner barks of trees to make skirts and sleeping mats. The Chilkat blankets of the Tlingit tribe, made of mountain goat hair and cedar bark fiber, are real works of art and are extremely practical.

Houses were made of wood or supported on thick wooden frames. Red cedar was favored because of its lasting quality and insect-repellent properties, not to mention its unique and long-lasting smell. Flexible saplings were used as structural elements in some cases. Whole villages were often protected by walls made of tree trunks and branches.

Tree bark was used like shingles for roofing along with animal skins and mats woven from the thin inner bark of trees. One important point to note here is that the people never wasted any part of the tree.

Some Native American tribes had unique relationships with particular trees, such as:

The Tree of Life

The western red cedar (Thuja plicata) has aromatic wood used for furniture and ceremonial burning. The bark is used as shingles and the inner bark fiber for clothing and mats. Besides totem poles, the Northwestern tribes made large canoes from hollowed-out logs of red cedar, some of them measuring 60-feet long. Every part of the tree has some use even the roots are woven into watertight baskets.

Most Native American tribes, and the Anishinaabeg tribe in particular, hold this tree as sacred. The Cherokees maintain that their ancestors and protective spirits abide in these trees, and they often carry a piece of cedar wood with them. Special rituals accompany the cutting of a cedar tree. It is the clan symbol of the Hopi tribe.

The Little Cedar Spirit Tree

Known as Manido Gizhigans, it is a white cedar perched precariously on a rocky outcrop on the edge of Lake Superior at Hats Point in Minnesota. This crooked little tree that is over 400 years old is sacred to the people of the Grand Portage Ojibwe reservation nearby. People sailing past often offer a pinch of tobacco to the Tree Spirit.

The Sacred Oak

The Lenape Indians of the mid-Atlantic hold the Sacred Oak dear as it saved them from death and war. According to legend, the Great Spirit in the majestic Chinkapin oak tree, which stands tall in the Oley Valley of Pennsylvania, healed the wife of a Lenape chief. The Great Spirit later counseled the chief to offer gifts of peace to the enemies.

The Tree of Peace

Another legend describes how six warring tribes united into the powerful Iroquois League, thanks to a large white pine tree. They brought their weapons to the tree and buried them beneath it. The roots of the tree are thought to have carried away the weapons to the underground waters, and with them, the differences between the clans.

The Trail Trees

These are a series of crooked oak trees that native tribespeople bent as saplings to mark their trails. They have a horizontal branch that points in the right direction to follow. They might have marked sites of importance, such as water sources or mines. Series of trail marker oaks and maples are found in several states.

Caring for the Trees

Although native people had a healthy reverence for the trees, that reverence did not deter them from making use of these important resources. Wherever possible, they avoided cutting down trees, and instead harvested useful parts in a sustainable way. The elaborate rituals associated with the felling of trees helped people think twice before taking such drastic measures.

Native Americans also protected trees by setting fire to the undergrowth periodically in fall or winter. While the fire destroyed the small plants that crowded the base of the trees, the tall trees themselves were not affected. Clearing the undergrowth prevented wildfires in summer that could inflict more damage. The tough seeds of certain trees sprout only after being subjected to the heat of fires, so this practice could have helped sustain plant diversity in the woods.

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Learn and Explore

Fire in Yosemite has many faces. It is a phenomenon that is both fascinating and dangerous, instilling fear in some people while inspiring others. In Yosemite, the park's staff manages fire carefully and continues to study how it interacts with the park’s ecosystems.

Yosemite has an extensive fire history. For over 4,000 years, American Indians frequently used fire in this area to shape the landscape to their uses. In historic times, fire was often seen as a negative force, but years ago scientists realized that fire is an integral part of forest ecosystems—and has been for millions of years. Yosemite's fire management program is designed to balance the protection of life, property, and natural and cultural resources with the continuation of fire as a natural process. Due to decades of fire suppression (actively putting out any fire that starts), forests have become overgrown and unhealthy. Naturally occurring fires allow forests to be thinned, opening the canopy and allowing sunlight through, while reducing the hazardous accumulation of dead, woody debris. Fire also allows for the recycling of nutrients to the soil, which encourages the germination and regrowth of plants, shrubs and trees.

Despite these ecological benefits, fire managers must also consider other park resources. In this interest, the park will immediately suppress any fire that poses a threat to people or property, or any that are human-caused.

Farming, Native American style

As farmers north of the equator get ready to plant their seeds, we’ve started wondering about agriculture before Columbus. Conventional wisdom says Native Americans were mostly hunters and gatherers. When they did farm, their slash-and-burn techniques exhausted the soil, forcing them to clear new fields.

Although Native Americans domesticated corn, tomatoes and potatoes, their farms were generally unproductive, and most of their plant food came from gathering tubers, greens, berries and shoots.

But as we learned at a series of talks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this picture needs editing:

* Three centuries ago, corn-farming Indians in today’s New York State were out-producing European wheat farmers

* The lack of plows in the Americas was not a hindrance but rather helped sustain soil fertility

* Stable, sophisticated food-gathering systems in parts of the Great Plains succumbed not to careless farmers but were drowned by dams on the big rivers

* Natives in British Columbia used a sophisticated permaculture to harvest the same plants year after year

The provision of permaculture

Until the 1960s, the government of Canada enforced assimilation of First Nation children at boarding schools that banned ancestral languages and practices. The goal was to homogenize Canada’s population, but suppressing culture also squelched knowledge of the traditional methods for raising and gathering food.

When the police boats arrived in British Columbia in the 1930s, to take children to boarding schools, Adam Dick (tribal name Kwaxsistalla) escaped, and went to live in secluded locations with his grandparents for about a decade.

Dick, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw (formerly Kwakiutl) tribe, has become a link to a vanishing past. “His people have learned from him, they all benefit from his teaching,” says Nancy Turner, in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria (Canada).

Turner, who has spent a career studying indigenous agriculture, says knowing what to look for is key to understanding native agriculture on the coast of British Columbia. “They used perennial cultivation. ‘Keep it living’ was part of their philosophy, and it shows the way they value other life. A lot of perennial plants were being cultivated, but outsiders saw this as random plucking.”

People in the First Nations of British Columbia ate 35 species of roots, 25 greens, berries, even the inner bark of some trees, Turner says.

Overall, coastal people used 250 species of plants for food, tea, fuel, construction, fiber, canoes, dye and glue, Turner says.

When the natives harvested bark and wood from a living tree, they took what they needed without killing the tree. “They believed trees have sentient life, and called these ‘begged from’ trees,” Turner says. “‘We have come to beg a piece of you today.'”

“Gardens” in the water

The same attitude of “stewardship and caring” also applied to aquatic food, Turner says, especially the all-important salmon. “The salmon streams were carefully tended, and even cleaned. If the stream changed course, Adam and the others were taught by the elders to transplant [salmon] eggs to the new stream channel.”

Similarly, she says, people moved rocks to “create the most productive clam beds on the coast.”

This was more like farming and harvesting than hunting-and-gathering, Turner insists. But the colonists, more interested in survival and profit than the people they were displacing, “were blind to these practices. They had in mind Mr. McGregor’s garden, with a fence and rows you can harvest. They looked at these things, but they did not see them.”

Restoring the foods

Most cultures give a central role to the production, preparation and consumption of food. What happens when the land that grew traditional foods is drowned by dams?

That’s the conundrum facing Linda Different Cloud Jones, an activist and student from the Lakota Sioux Nation. “The loss of biodiversity is the greatest challenge on traditional lands,” she told an audience in March at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “and the loss of one culturally important species has significant impact.”

The Lakota people “are stereotyped as the people of the plains,” says Jones, “but we are also people of the river, or were a people of the river, until, in the 1950s and 󈨀s, when dams built in the Pick-Sloan project changed the way of life for the Lakota forever.”

Standing Rock, the Lakota reservation, is sandwiched between the Dakotas, and borders the Missouri River. “Overnight, hundreds of thousands of acres of native land was underwater,” said Jones. “All the plant and animal species in the riparian cottonwood forest were gone.”

The underground seedpods of the hog peanut (AKA mouse bean), were collected by prairie voles. These small mammals, which the Lakota called “mice,” cached the big seeds underground.

Lakota women found the caches with a stick and removed the seeds, Jones said, but “They always left a gift, dry berries, animal fat or corn. They would sing, ‘You have helped sustain my children during this coming winter, and we will not let your children go hungry.’ Their song echoed from the trees, and it seriously breaks my heart that my young children will never see that.”

A sustainable yield?

The song revealed that “an entire world view and behavior went along with this one plant species,” Jones said, and both suffered when dams flooded the forest. “We haven’t eaten these for 50 or 60 years. With the death of this one plant was the death of a little piece of our culture.”

The hog peanut was part of a larger cycle, Jones says. In spring, “We would tap box elder maples for syrup, then collect biscuit root, wild strawberries, currants, juneberries, cattail shoots, and acorns in December. Nothing was ripe at exactly the same time. When the plants are no longer there, the cycle is broken.”

Jones, a Ph.D. student at Montana State University, is attempting to grow the hog peanut as a form of “ecocultural restoration.” “Research for the sake of research was not what I wanted to do,” she says. “I wanted to change the world for my people, to make their lives better.”

Millions of people made a living for thousands of years in the New World, she says. “Everyone always thought that when European people colonized the Americas, they were coming into a pristine place, but we were managing the landscape for thousands of years.”

Iroquois corn

Corn is an indisputable triumph of Native American agriculture. The plant, domesticated thousands of years ago in Mexico and Central America, was a staple of the American diet and is now the largest crop in the world (global production in 2009 was 819 million metric tons).

Although natives also invented the highly productive “three sisters” companion-cropping technique, their agricultural prowess has been underestimated, says Jane Mt. Pleasant, an associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University.

Although the Native Americans had transformed a weed into the phenomenally productive crop maize, “There are claims by scholars, archeologists, geographers and historians that native agriculture was predominantly shifting cultivation… largely marginal, not too productive,” Mt. Pleasant says.

In “shifting cultivation” (a politically correct locution for “slash and burn”), farmers move to new plots as they exhaust their soil. According to this logic, native farmers in North America “sowed the seeds of their own destruction through environmental degradation,” says Mt. Pleasant, who directs the American Indian Program at Cornell.

But Mt. Pleasant says this is bunk. Rather, she contends that:

* Much indigenous agriculture was permanent cropping

* Maize farmers in east-central North America produced three to five times as much grain per acre as European wheat farmers

* Indigenous cropping was often sustainable and since it did not deplete the soil, farmers did not need to create new fields by burning forest

The soil should be the starting point for understanding agriculture, says Mt. Pleasant. While many soils on the Eastern Seaboard are not great, large parts of upstate New York had good soil that still supports productive farms.

About 300 years ago, the Iroquois Confederacy, a union of five (later six) tribes, lived in the area, and evidence for their farm productivity comes, ironically, from armies that sought to destroy them. “The quantity of corn which we found in store in this place, and destroyed by fire is incredible,” wrote the governor of New France in 1687. 2

The French attacked the Iroquois, who were allied with France’s great enemy, Great Britain.

Slash ‘n burn, or sustainable agriculture?

Then in 1779, a soldier sent by General George Washington reported that his unit had destroyed at least 200 acres of Iroquois corn and beans that was “the best I ever saw.”

“This was not backyard gardening, not primitive farming,” Mt. Pleasant says. “They were dynamic, producing farmers on really good soils.”

In modern tests of corn varieties believed to resemble those grown by the Senecas, one of the Iroquois tribes, Mt. Pleasant got yields of 2,500 to 3,000 pounds per acre (45 to 54 bushels per acre or 2,800 to 3,400 kilograms per hectare).

This was far above the 500 kilograms per hectare of wheat grown in Europe.

Turner calculated that the Iroquois could support roughly three times as many people on an acre as contemporaneous Europeans could with their wheat crops.

Part of the advantage, she says, comes from maize’s inherent productivity. But observers have long wondered how this production could have occurred with neither plow nor draft animals, usually deemed the hallmarks of agricultural progress.

Plows, however, are now viewed as mixed blessing by many soil scientists. Although they prepare a good seedbed and bury weeds, they expose soil to the air, which encourages oxidation of humus, the organic content that supports essential microorganisms.

Although, after plowing, the humus briefly releases a burst of nitrogen, the depletion of organic matter and increased erosion continue for decades.

And thus on balance, Mt. Pleasant says the lack of the plow was an advantage, because planting with hand tools saves soil organic matter.

“If you are not tilling, and start with good soil, you are not going to lose fertility,” Mt. Pleasant says. “The system is stable as long as the crop yields are moderate and there is no plowing.”

But without plowing, there was no need for slash and burn.

Overall, Mt. Pleasant says, the new data provide a “quite different” perspective on agriculture. “Who were the primitive farmers? This is sustainable agriculture at its highest level.”

Rethinking agriculture

This type of revelation changes our view of the origin of agriculture, says Eve Emshwiller, an assistant professor of botany at UW-Madison who organized the seminar on native agriculture and who studies oca, a root crop grown in the Andes. “We have always talked about hunter-gatherers as if one day they were gathering food and noticed a plant growing from seed and thought, ‘We could gather seeds and start farming,’ as if this brilliant idea happened all of a sudden.”

Aside from historical curiosity, why worry about how native Americans grew their crops? One reason is the growing interest in sustainable agriculture, says Emshwiller. As agriculture faces the challenge of feeding more people without further damaging soil and water, older traditions could contribute.

Looking at other ways to grow and gather food will broaden our perspective, Emshwiller says. “There were a lot of people who were not considered agriculturalists, who were [supposedly] just gathering from the wild. But if you really understand what they were doing, there is not a sharp line between gathering and farming. There is a huge continuum of ways that people manage resources and get more from them.”

Native Tribes Are Taking Fire Control Into Their Own Hands

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The Klamath region near the California-Oregon border is home to indigenous tribes that once used controlled burns to prevent wildfires. Now, their role is being restored. Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

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Sometimes Vikki Preston is inching her way through the forest when she comes across a grove of tan oak trees that feels special. The plants are healthy, the trees are old, and their trunks are nicely spaced out on the forest floor. “You can feel that the grove has been taken care of,” she says. “There’s been a lot of love and thoughtfulness.”

Tan oak groves have long been tended by indigenous people who still live along the banks of the forested Klamath and Salmon Rivers near the California-Oregon border. Preston, a cultural resource technician for the Karuk tribe, grew up watching her grandfather tend just such a grove—by burning it. Fire helped cleared away small pines, alders, and willows. It killed pests like weevils that ruin acorns, and allowed for new, straight shoots of hazel to grow that can be used for basket-weaving. It left a forest sentineled with sugar pine and oaks, scattered with meadows full of wildflowers and ferns.

Such scenery is rare in the western US today, a result of 1911 federal legislation that made it illegal to ignite fires on public forest lands. That legislation curtailed centuries of forest management by the native Karuk, Yurok, and Hupa people, who had long lived in villages dotted throughout these forests a 1918 US Forest Service ranger’s memo declared that “renegade Indian” fires were rooted in “pure cussedness.”

A hundred years later, though, western science and policy-makers are rethinking the subject. Federal forests are now choked with dead leaves, brush, and dense fir trees, a tinderbox for wildfires whirling out of control. Between 1975 and 1985, wildfires burned just over 2,000 acres a year in the Klamath area. In the decade from 2005 to 2015, that number averaged more than 350,000 acres a year. So in a new policy, the Forest Service on July 27 signed an implementation plan for managing public forest lands—an agreement in which both fire and the Karuk play a vital role.

The first project will burn 5,570 acres near Somes Bar, California, with the Karuk, NGOs, and state and federal agencies all working to manage the project’s contracts and workforce for the next 10 years. To prepare the forest, Karuk and other local work crews will first saw away some brush and thick vegetation, lightening the load of flammable material, explains Bill Tripp from the Karuk Department of Natural Resources. They will also use heavy equipment to thin out some dense stands of conifer trees, opening up room for hardwoods that are being shaded out.

A few landowners whose homesteads are tucked within the public forest are wary of the controlled burns. But Will Harling, codirector of the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council, says most of them have come to see the logic in it. It’s the difference between having a few days of smoky air and long months of wildfire smoke. And part of the work crews’ task is to dig up a bare-soil buffer to protect private lands.

Usually, if a prescribed burn gets out of control, it’s due to inexperience. But among the Karuk, Yurok, and Hupa, fire knowledge is deep—and now that laws are changing, that knowledge can finally be applied. Preston attends a yearly managed-fire training program, TREX, in her small hometown of Orleans. The two-week program attracts about 80 to 100 participants, who learn to spray water, create fire buffers, and determine safe temperature and wind conditions for managed fires. At the end, the teams conduct a prescribed burn on a few hundred acres of forest. Trained youth teach their new skills to their parents, filling in generational gaps where traditions were lost (federal policies separated Karuk children from their families for “re-education” in the early 1900s).

Getting to this point took a lot of work. In 2009 a previous collaboration between the Forest Service and the Karuk fell apart when a ceremonial trail was damaged by loggers. During discussions, the Karuk had pointed out the significance of this trail, but their requested protections never made it into the Forest Service logging contract. Resentment built and all sides found themselves in court, where the contract was ordered to be rewritten with cultural protection in place.

Just around that time, Randy Moore became the regional forester for the Forest Service in the area. Moore grew up in Louisiana and moved to North Dakota to work with natural resources. “I was shy and reserved,” Moore recalls, and he stood out as an African-American man. “I didn’t think anyone wanted to know what I think. What made a difference to me was when people invited me into the conversation.”

Moore remembered that feeling when he started working in the Klamath River area. To rebuild trust, he hired two Hupa members, Merv George and Nolan Colegrove, to his team. “They were both highly qualified,” Moore says, “and I really mean that.” In 2013, the Karuk and NGOs led the formation of the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership, with members including indigenous people, the Forest Service, landowners, and fire safety councils. The Nature Conservancy facilitated the hodgepodge of interests through public workshops, out of which emerged the first pilot project at Somes Bar. It was just awarded $5 million from Cal FIRE, besides other funding from the Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

On July 27, about 40 people assembled around a table placed at Camp Creek in the forest outside of Orleans to watch the Forest Service sign the project implementation plan. “We had elders crying their eyes out. They never thought they’d see this day,” says David Medford Rubalcaba, who heads the Karuk’s Integrated Fire and Fuels Management Program and is in charge of the Karuk work crews who will carry out the project. “There’s still some people around here who think natives are savages. But western science is catching up. They’re finally realizing that Native Americans have had this [forest management] knowledge all along.”

One day, Rubalcaba hopes they will manage the entire 1.4 million-acre area that comprises Karuk aboriginal lands, almost all of it administered by the Forest Service today. But in the near future, they at least want to clear away enough brush and forest litter so it will be safe enough to perform ceremonial burning for the Karuk’s World Renewal Ceremony at Offield Mountain. Ceremonial burning has been absent for over a century.

American Indians across the US are now contacting Tripp, Rubalcaba, and others in the Klamath River, wondering what chances they have for similar partnerships. Many tribes in different parts of the country are in conflict with local authorities—from state agencies controlling reservation water resources in Wyoming, to oil and gas companies threatening to disrupt reservation lands in Oklahoma. Rubalcaba offers them advice and some hope: “Washington, DC, is watching what’s happening here they’re aware. If you can’t convince your local agencies to help, what about Congress or your governor? If you can’t build it with them, go higher up, go to Washington, go to the media. You’ll get somebody’s ear. Talk to other tribes, find out what ear they have. But don’t wait, don’t waste time.”

Native Americans Describe Traditional Views of Land Ownership

The Dawes Act of 1887 sought to assimilate Native Americans by, among other things, transforming their traditional uses and attitudes about land and land ownership to more mainstream American values of private ownership and settled farming. Some Native Americans did become farmers, convinced that assimilation into white society and a property deed were their only protection against those who would rob them of their lands. Others rejected the white man's world of markets, deeds, schools and Christianity. Encouraging resistance, they deemed the government's allotment strategy a conspiracy to destroy tribal culture and organization.

I wish all to know that I do not propose to sell any part of my country, nor will I have whites cutting our timber along the rivers, more especially the bark. I am particularly fond of the little groves of oak trees. I love to look at them, because they endure the wintry storm and the summer's heat, and--not unlike ourselves--seem to flourish by them.

--Sitting Bull, Lakota warrior, quoted in 1932

Our land is more valuable than your money. It will last forever. It will not even perish by the flames of fire. As long as the sun shines and the waters flow, this land will be here to give life to men and animals. We cannot sell the lives of men and animals therefore we cannot sell this land. It was put here for us by the Great Spirit and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us. You can count your money and burn it within the nod of a buffalo's head, but only the great Spirit can count the grains of sand and the blades of grass of these plains. As a present to you, we will give you anything we have that you can take with you, but the land, never.

--Crowfoot, chief of the Blackfeet, circa 1885

You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom? You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it and be rich like white men. But dare I cut off my mother's hair?

Yale Climate Connections

They’re among North America’s most vulnerable population groups, and their 95 million acres of tribal lands present Native Americans with a complex array of challenges and opportunities as they confront a warming climate.

Native Americans are expected to be among the population groups most vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change.

“The tribes are on the front lines of climate change,” Garrit Voggesser, national director, tribal partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, said in a recent phone interview. The organization’s August 2011 report, “Facing the Storm,” found that extreme heat waves and drought projected in a warmer climate can harm plants, increase wildlife mortality and heighten risks of wildfires and habitat loss.

Garrit Voggesser of National Wildlife Federation

Noting their heavy reliance on natural resources and their subsistence from plants and animals, Voggesser emphasized that Native Americans are wedded to their land and resistant to relocating to escape harsh consequences.

Tribes manage 95 million acres, 11 million acres more than the National Park Service, with many reservations home to diverse habitats. The Wildlife Federation’s report seeks to demonstrate the tribes’ needs for more resources to adapt to a changing climate.

Noting the public’s romantic notion of tribes and their connection to nature, Voggesser points to substantial variation among the 565 recognized tribes. “They’re a microcosm of American society. Some are very concerned about the environment,” while others are more focused on short-term jobs and, for instance, increased drilling for oil and gas, he said. With overall unemployment rates at 45 percent, many tribes are eager to tap into resources on their land that generate revenue. However, he said, most also recognize adverse impacts of climate change and see a need to address those concerns.

‘… the Guardians of Mother Earth’

Native Americans’ drive to protect the earth is of course steeped in history. Alfredo Acosta Figueroa, now 77 and a descendant of the Chemehuevi Tribe, recalled in a phone interview a 113-day peaceful occupation he led to protest The Ward Valley Nuclear Waste Dump, leading to the government’s 1998 decision to abandon its plans for radioactive waste disposal.

Alfredo Acosta Figueroa, a long-time Chemehuevi Tribe activist

“We were placed here on Earth to be the guardians of Mother Earth,” he said.

Many Native Americans revere the inter-connectedness of the natural world. You can’t take action in one part of the environment and have no repercussions elsewhere, says Bob Gough, a descendant of the Lenape Tribe in Canada who is secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, a non-profit representing 15 tribes in the Upper Great Plain states. “We are all related,” so “you behave differently” and treat resources as part of a big family, he said.

James Steele, former chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, represented his tribal leadership at 2010 climate negotiations in Copenhagen. He said in a phone interview that other countries have done more than the U.S. to officially and effectively involve native populations in climate change talks.

Native American tribes’ climate-related activities span numerous initiatives. Some focus on moving to “clean” renewable energy to bring electricity to those not now on the grid. Others are developing climate change action plans and fighting actions they see endangering the environment.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 2006 passed resolutions calling for a mandatory national program to address climate change. In December 2010, it sent a formal recommendation to the White House Tribal Nations Summit asking that tribes have a formal consultative role in developing federal climate change policy and seeking equal access to climate change adaptation funding. In 2011, the organization passed a resolution opposing the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Research Under Way on Adaptation Strategies

A number of activities are under way to address Native Americans’ approaches to adapting to a warmer climate.

The U.S. Geological Survey seeks this year to wrap up a six-year geological mapping project for the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribal Lands to provide information for land use planning. “Climate change adaptation at the very core is land use planning,” said Margaret Hiza Redsteer, project chief of the USGS Navajo Land Use Planning Project in a phone interview. The maps are to be used to look for oil shale or find aquifers, for example, to help developers avoid inadvertently drilling through an aquifer in pursuit of energy resources.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Law School have used a seed grant to draft climate adaptation and renewable energy reports for the Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe under a program called The Native Communities and Climate Change Initiative. The effort, now funded primarily by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, began with seed money from the University of Colorado’s Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute.

Sara Krakoff hopes to see tribes ‘leapfrog’ problems associated with fossil fuels.

Sarah Krakoff, who is involved in the initiative, said in an e-mail that reports for both of these tribes also outlined funding opportunities in renewable energy, helping tribes ensure a strong economic base while reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses. In a phone interview, she said many tribes take advantage of renewable energy to “leapfrog” problems associated with fossil fuels while providing adequate energy supplies for their people. For example, she said, 18,000 households in the Navajo Nation are off the grid, relying on such primitive power sources as kerosene and propane.

Renewable energy could help provide economic opportunities and “get electricity to their own people” without increased reliance on environmentally damaging sources of power, she said. In a follow-up e-mail, she said that tribes are generally receptive to ideas about how to reduce emissions and adapt to changing natural resource conditions. But she said each tribe’s capacity varies, “depending on economic resources and other pressing natural resource concerns.” She said tribes in the Pacific Northwest are leaders in climate adaptation and that the Swinomish, Tulalip, and Quinault Tribes, in particular, have taken important steps toward comprehensive climate and natural resources planning.

A Flood as an Omen … and a ‘Need to Deal with It’

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in LaConner, Washington, is the first tribe to undertake a comprehensive assessment study and develop climate adaptation plans. The impetus behind the effort appears to have been a strong 2006 storm that pushed tides two to three feet above normal, resulting in flooding.

In a telephone interview, Ed Knight, a senior planner for the tribe, recalled thinking, “if this is a taste for things to come, we need to deal with it.” With federal funding, the group put together a two-year project, initially assessing impacts, including those associated with sea level rise, in various areas. The second part, completed in 2010, included an action and strategies plan in response to anticipated impacts. A shoreline protection recommendation seeks to protect various areas from sea level rises, and another is aimed at preventing wildfires.

One of the most expansive tribal solar projects is being spearheaded by Lakota Solar Enterprises, located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. One of the nation’s first 100 percent Native American-owned and operated renewable energy companies, the tribal renewable energy program provides reasonably priced solar heating and installs solar air heaters on tribal homes, saving families 20 to 30 percent on monthly heating costs in an area where unemployment levels have reached 85 percent.

That kind of success doesn’t hold, however, for all tribes’ renewable energy efforts. A four-megawatt solar project proposed in 2006 for the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico recently was discontinued, when the tribe’s Governor suspended efforts to develop the project. The tribe would have been among the first to sell solar energy on the open market, but it could not find a buyer for the power.

Greg Kaufman, director of the Pueblo of Jemez Natural Resources Department, in a phone interview pointed to the challenges of the tribe’s rural location. Still, he said the tribe has a $5 million Department of Energy-funded geothermal exploration under way, to be completed by 2014. “We’re far more optimistic about this than with solar” since it will be a consistent, rather than intermittent, power source, Kaufman said.

Jose Aguto fears some problems from mainstream cultural influences.

Jose Aguto, until this past January a policy advisor for the National Congress of American Indians on climate change, clean energy, natural resources, and the environment, said in a phone interview that he believes the traditional relationship Native Americans had with the land has been tarnished by the influences of mainstream western culture. By forcing Native Americans to become part of the economic stream of commerce rather than being sustained by resources on their own lands, Native American values have been altered, he said.

Pointing to troubling economic and social conditions and high unemployment, “What choice does a tribal leader have but to search for any and all ways to care for his people?” he asked. “The resource curse visits the indigenous people, and they’re forced into the most profound conflict: do I extract coal, uranium, and oil and gas inconsistent with my values, yet knowing my people are unemployed? That’s the cosmic choice that so many tribes have tragically had to encounter.”

‘They always say it is safe, but …’

Fracking activities related to North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation some 10,000 feet underground illustrate the tensions dividing different tribes. New fracking practices promising to bring shale oil to the surface have led to an explosion in land-leasing activities on tribal lands, elevating North Dakota to second among the states in oil production. Most of the oil production is occurring at The Three Affiliated Tribes.

Theodora Birdbear, a member of The Three Affiliated Tribes, says she is concerned about impacts on groundwater supplies as wells are drilled under a lake that is the tribes’ primary drinking water source.

“They always say it’s safe, but we don’t know that,” she said in a phone interview. She worries too about health effects from dust that’s stirred-up by numerous heavy vehicles and trucks.

Birdbear is concerned also because she feels the tribal government has a history of poor enforcement. “I feel that there will be long-term impacts, and I fear our government is not up to the level it needs to be to adequately address these corporations,” she says. “I think when you rush into something like this, it can jeopardize your future. There’s just a need to slow down” and better examine impacts.

Weighing Economic Costs and Benefits

Others, however, point to economic gains associated with the energy development.

Fred Fox, who oversees oil and gas production for The Three Affiliated Tribes, said in a phone interview that the tribes see oil production as a huge economic opportunity in an area which long had suffered high unemployment. And Dewey Hosie, deputy director of the tribal employment rights office, said that now “most of our people who want to enter the work force are working.”

In the first five months of 2012, the tribes earned $21.5 million in royalties, and the numbers are likely to be double what they were in 2011, Fox said. He acknowledges that the activity has a price: Some roads are severely deteriorated and repairs will cost $1.2 million per mile because they weren’t built for the heavy oil fields traffic they now experience, and there are one to two oil spills a week.

Joe Gillies, Jr., the tribes’ environmental division director, acknowledged Birdbear’s concerns in a phone interview, but pointed to the nature of the business, and said his division seeks prompt cleanups of spills. “We’re trying to be stewards of the land as much as we can and investigate environmentally cutting-edge ways for this production to use less water and inject less into the ground,” avoiding contamination, he said.

Wahleah Johns, with The Black Mesa Water Coalition in Arizona, is focused on transitioning coal plants located near low-income areas that surround the Navajo Nation into cleaner sources of energy, like wind and solar. The group successfully opposed an effort by owners of the Mohave Generating Station to use the tribe’s groundwater as a source of transport for the coal, helping to shut down that facility in 2006. In July 2009, the Navajo Nation Council adopted efforts to develop green businesses, and Johns says a key goal is to create jobs to address the tribe’s 48 percent unemployment rate. For example, she said her organization is encouraging finding a market for wool provided by sheep on the reservation. It’s also looking at former mining site brownfields for a possible utility-scale solar project.

Utah’s Green River: ‘Where they were born … where they’ll die’

Green River nuclear project protesters in Utah

One of the most controversial current disputes on Indian land involves the nuclear plant proposed on the Green River in Utah by Blue Castle Holdings, a project Figueroa and other tribes are protesting.

Bradley Angel, executive director for the secular environmental group, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, said in a phone interview that tribes feel obliged by their creator to protect the river. “If the power plant caused damage, they would have to move. They believe this is where they were born and this is where they’ll die, so they take these threats extremely seriously.”

He argues that nuclear power is not the answer to the need for more energy resources and says the tribes bring “an unwavering commitment” to protecting a river that “is the lifeblood for tens of millions of people.” Angel said his group has also united with lower Colorado River tribes, such as the Fort Mojave, Quechan and Chemehuevi Tribes, to oppose industrial scale solar projects in sensitive desert ecosystems and also those on or next to sacred and culturally significant sites.

Such projects, proposed for the Mojave desert, have been supported by California Governor Jerry Brown, President Obama, and Department of the Interior, Angel said. “We want to see solar panels on rooftops, not in sensitive desert ecosystems or on top of Native American sacred sites.”

For veteran Native American activist Acosta Figueroa, “it’s really never over.” With so many projects being proposed that pose potentially dangerous impacts to native lands, he said, tribes will have to “continue the struggle to protect Mother Earth to maintain the harmonious equilibrium.”

Native Americans Used Fire to Protect and Cultivate Land - HISTORY

The role of fire was dramatically increased with the arrival of aboriginal man in America about 14,000 BP (before present). Hunting and gathering characterized their progressively more sophisticated cultures until the advent of settled societies after 3,000 BP in the eastern woodlands (Fagan 2000). Beginning about 6,000 BP (Middle Holocene), warmer climates and final wastage of the Laurentide Ice Sheet (Delcourt and Delcourt 1981, 1983) translated into increased food resources and rapid population growth. By 5,000 BP, sea level had stabilized, and vegetation patterns were essentially as we find them today.

After this rapid population growth, more or less permanent settlements appeared, primarily in river valleys and rich bottomland soils from the Coastal Plain to the mountains (Fagan 2000). After 3,000 BP, population pressures led to cultivation of native plants typical of disturbed habitats. After 1,000 BP, corn cultivation was widespread (Hudson 1982) and bean cultivation by 800 BP (Smith 1994), but hunting and gathering were still prominent activities. Population density was probably greater in the southern than in the northern part of the eastern woodlands and greater on the coast than inland, but higher densities extended inland along major rivers (Driver 1961).

Judging the extent to which forests and other vegetation were influenced by Native American use of fire requires knowledge of the typical pattern of land use and the population levels before European contact (Kemmerer and Lake 2001). Williams (1992, p. 40, fig. 2.8) presented a concept of a typical southern woodland village. Located on a stream or river, the clearing for the village and surrounding fields of mostly corn, beans, and squash extended for 4 miles. Girdling larger trees and burning the undergrowth cleared this area originally, and burning kept it open, in much the way that swidden agriculture occurs in the tropics today. The field zone was buffered by a further 1.25-mile-wide zone that was burned annually for defense (visibility), where fuel wood and berry gathering took place. Another 1- to 2.5-mile-wide zone was burned frequently for small game and foraging. This entire disturbance complex was surrounded by closed forest. Nearby was a large zone kept in open grassland by burning for large game animals. Except in river floodplains, this village complex had to be moved periodically as soil fertility was reduced in the continuously cropped fields and as nearby fuel wood was exhausted. To maintain proximity to open grassland for hunting, successive village sites were probably within 6 to 25 miles of each other.

Pyne (1997) described the careful use of fire by Native Americans. Cereal grasses were fired annually, basket grasses and nut trees every 3 years, and the grassy savanna hunting areas annually. Brush and undergrowth in forests were burned for visibility and game every 7 to 10 years. Fire also was used to drive and surround game (Hudson 1982) and reduce the threat of wildfires, especially along the coast, where pines dominated and lightning provided an ignition source. Even in areas of the Southern Appalachian Mountains that were sparsely settled and not prime hunting ground, major trails that followed rivers were kept open by burning, and escaped campfires probably caused large areas to burn.

The preponderance of anecdotal (Stewart 1963, Williams 1992), archeological (Dobyns 1966, 1983 Jacobs 1974), ecological (Delcourt and Delcourt 1997, 1998 Hamel and Buckner 1998), and meteorological evidence supports the conclusion that fire was a widespread occurrence in the pre-European landscape. The full extent of Native American impact, however, hinges on estimates of population levels. Until recently, it was thought that the earliest estimates, made after European settlement, represented precontact levels, and Native American populations declined only after sustained exposure to European diseases. A contrasting view, first presented by Dobyns (1983) but built on earlier work, assumed diseases were spread even without direct physical contact between Europeans and Native Americans. Thus, even the earliest census estimates reflected populations already decimated by disease, by as much as 95 percent. Dobyns (1983) estimated North American populations as high as 18 million at the beginning of the 16 th century, in contrast to previously accepted estimates of less than 1 million (Fagan 2000). Archeological evidence in the Lower Mississippi River Valley was used by Ramenovsky (1987) to test contrasting hypotheses of how diseases spread and their effect on Native American populations. She found evidence of widespread declines during the 16 th century, after the DeSoto expedition (1538󈞕) and before French settlement began in the late 17 th century. Generally accepted estimates of population levels are more conservatively placed at between 9.8 million and 12.25 million for North America (Fagan 2000, Ramenovsky 1987, Williams 1992).

Estimates of the cleared land needed to support a person range from 0.33 acres (2.3 acres when fallowing is taken into account) to 30 to 40 acres for all cleared and burned land (Williams 1992). For argument’s sake, we can assume that half the population of 12 million was part of the eastern woodland culture involved in the sedentary lifestyle described above, and that each person represented 10 to 20 burned acres. The 60 million to 120 million acres thus estimated to be affected by clearing and burning would constitute 22 to 44 percent of the cropland acreage presently farmed in the 31 Eastern States (Williams 1992). The point is not to accept the size of the number but to appreciate the magnitude of Native American impact on the landscape through the use of fire.


Washington's soils and climate make it one of the most productive agricultural states in the union. When explorers and fur traders from the East Coast and Europe reached the Northwest in the late 1700s they brought new animals, plants, and agricultural practices to a region where Native Americans had long cultivated a variety of crops. By the 1840s more U.S. citizens were moving to the area and establishing farms. Wheat, apples, potatoes, grapes, sheep, and cattle were early commodities raised. On the east side of the state, ranchers used free-range practices on the vast prairies and crop farmers broke sod on the lush grasslands. On the wetter western side, immigrants drained bogs near the coast and developed small mixed farms, raising a wide range of crops. Railroads reached the Northwest in the second half of the nineteenth century, opening markets across the nation to Washington farmers. By the end of the century, agriculture was not only a major state industry but a subject of study at Washington State College (later University) and elsewhere, and a hundred years of increasingly intensive agriculture had brought major changes to the people and landscapes of the region.

Forts, Gardens, Livestock, and Fruit

Agriculturally, Washington is divided into two sections by the Cascade Mountains. The west side of the state has a wet, coastal climate. The eastern side of the state is dry with a more desert-like climate. While the weather varies year to year, patterns of rain, sunshine, and heat make both sides of the state well-suited for growing various crops and raising herd animals. Washington's soil history can also be divided north to south. The northern half was covered by glaciers that did not finish retreating until around 10,000 years ago and so has younger soils than the southern half to which glaciers did not extend. Much of the state holds volcanic ash deposits within its soils, from the eruption of volcanoes in the region throughout the ages. The various climates, vegetation, geology, and age of the soils make Washington home to 12 different soil types. This diverse soil makeup helps Washington farmers grow more than 300 different crops and makes the state a haven for livestock.

Native Americans across what would become the state of Washington cultivated a variety of plants and crops for millennia. Many tribes on the western side of the mountains maintained herds of dogs as a source of wool for weaving, and after Europeans introduced horses to the Americas, the animals were traded northward, by the early 1700s reaching Columbia Plateau tribes in Eastern Washington, who made horses a centerpiece of their lifestyle. When explorers, traders, and settlers from Europe and the United States began reaching the Pacific Northwest later that century, they brought more new plants and animals to the region.

In the spring of 1792, Spanish Captain Salvador Fidalgo established a military fort at Neah Bay on the Northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula and planted a garden from "seedlings transported and carefully nurtured in containers ready for planting" (Bradsher). The explorers also brought cows, sheep, hogs, and goats to sustain their fort. The outpost did not last more than a few months before the Spanish abandoned the area.

American President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) hoped to lay claim to the Pacific Northwest before the British. In the spring of 1806 the Lewis and Clark expedition noted the fertile prairies of the Walla Walla area.

"It possesses a fine dry pure air. The grass and many plants are now upwards of knee high. I have no doubt but this tract of country if cultivated would produce in great abundance every article essentially necessary to the comfort and subsistence of civilized man" (Meinig, 31).

But it was British fur traders, not American farmers, who first brought new agricultural traditions to the inland Northwest. Fur-trading companies established trading posts in the region with gardens to help sustain those stationed there. In 1818 Donald McKenzie of the North West Company used early irrigation practices to grow a garden at the Fort Nez Perce trading post near the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia rivers, which thrived for years. In 1824, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) began building Fort Vancouver on the lower Columbia River, at a location chosen in part for its farming potential, and the farm there became the first to introduce many new agricultural products to the future state of Washington.

"Coincident with the first blows of the axe which felled the timber for the new buildings was the laying out of Governor Simpson's cherished farm. Sod was broken on the upper prairie adjoining the construction site, and a field was laid out for potatoes and other vegetables" (Scouler).

Fort Vancouver housed one of the earliest cattle herds in the state. Other livestock, such as hogs and goats, also filled the stomachs of early settlers and fur traders. The fort was also home to the first apple trees and grape vines in Washington, and life continued improving for the trappers as the abundance of food increased. "[A]fter 1828 the wheat grown at Fort Vancouver would supply all the flour needed in the Company's establishments west of the Rockies" (Hussey).

The Oregon Trail emigrant route from the eastern United States to the Northwest barely existed and the journey was long for missionaries and settlers making their way to the region. When young American missionary Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847) finally arrived at Fort Vancouver in the fall of 1836 with her husband Marcus (1802-1847) after their long trip across the continent, she was happy to enjoy some variety.

"We entered the Fort and were comfortably seated in cushioned armed chairs. They were just eating breakfast as we rode up and soon we were seated at the table and treated to fresh salmon, potatoes, tea, bread and butter. What a variety, thought I. You cannot imagine what an appetite these rides in the mountains give a person" (Whitman).

Managing the growth of the HBC's footprint in the region, George Simpson (ca. 1787-1860), governor of the company's Northern Department, often sent supplies and seeds to other company outposts. A bushel of seed wheat was sent to Fort Colvile, near today's Kettle Falls in Northeastern Washington. Like Fort Vancouver, Colvile functioned as a center of supply for the sparsely populated upper Columbia area. A farm there supplied the fort with wheat, oats, barley, corn, and potatoes that fed trappers and miners in the area. Later the company added a flourmill and bakeshop, as well as blacksmith and carpenter shops. The HBC also established a farm on the Cowlitz Prairie along the Cowlitz River south of Chehalis.

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman traveled onward from Fort Vancouver and established their mission near where Walla Walla would later be located. They hired Hawaiian laborers from Vancouver to get the mission and farm up and running. It became the first major inland farm site in the region. The Whitmans maintained a herd of Durham dairy cows, tended sheep, and grew crops. The mission had to be self-sustaining, as it was 25 miles from the nearest trading post, Fort Walla Walla.

Traditions Collide

Beginning in the1840s, more American settlers moved west and settled in the Northwest. Britain gave up its claims to land below the 49th parallel, and the Oregon Territory became an official region of the United States in 1848. As more settlers arrived, Native Americans in the region adopted some of the agricultural practices, plants, and animals the newcomers brought with them. Many members of the Cayuse Tribe began farming near the Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu. They fenced off their fields and planted wheat, corn, peas, and potatoes. They raised cattle, hogs, chickens, and sheep. "In 1842, several went down to the Willamette to trade horses for cattle. Two years later, Narcissa Whitman reported that some were going out eastward along the Oregon Trail as far as Fort Hall to trade their 'cayuses' (Cayuse horses) for emigrant cattle" (Stern). Some Native Americans also worked on settlers' farms both east and west of the mountains as hired help.

But the new settlers' practices also interfered with land-management techniques that the Indians had long employed. Fire was a tool Native Americans used to cleanse the land, maintain healthy prairie ecosystems, and prepare ground for planting and cultivation of camas, berries, and other crops. For generations, tribes shaped the habitat of the region through low-intensity, controlled burns, usually set in the late summer. But as the settlers built their farms and houses on the land, fire was not welcome. Their reaction was to suppress the management fires that tribespeople set.

The United States Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act, which granted 320 acres to each adult U.S. citizen who arrived in Oregon Territory before December 1850, made a claim and resided on the claimed land for four years. This encouraged more pioneers to move into the region. These new settlers built roads, plowed the land, and brought more new plants and animals with them. Wheat and potatoes, cattle and pigs spread across the countryside in 320-acre chunks. These additions did not always coexist easily with the region's native plants. The spread of new crops and livestock, along with other habitat changes -- the arrival of new kinds of weeds, the outbreak of disease, the suppression of tribal fires -- greatly altered existing ecosystems. The newcomers were aware of the changes, which many saw as an improvement: One farmer explained that the goal was "to get the land subdued and the wilde nature out of it. When that is accomplished we can increase our crops to a very large amount and the high prices of every thing that is raised heare will make the cultivation of the soil a very profitable business" (White, 215).

Hostilities between the new settlers and the longtime inhabitants grew as more farmers, ranchers and miners moved to the area. Territory Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) signed multiple treaties with individual tribes throughout the region. The treaties, however, were confusing and unclear in many respects. Under the treaties Native Americans were to move to designated spaces known as reservations. These lands prohibited non-Indian settlement, but many reservations were not the traditional homelands of those required to move there. These treaties, along with other factors, ultimately provoked warfare between the U.S. Army and various tribes in Washington Territory between 1855 and 1858.

More Mouths to Feed

After the majority of fighting ended in 1858, mining increased in the region. This in turn increased the need for more food sources, and that led to efforts to increase agricultural productivity through such measures as irrigation. While the wet coastal climate brought ample rain to farms west of the Cascades, settlers east of the mountains faced life in a desert climate, in the lowlands of Central Washington, and a semi-arid one farther east. As a result farmers looked to bring in a reliable source of water. "The first large-scale irrigation project in the Columbia River Basin was built in 1859 in the Walla Walla River valley" and others soon followed (Harrison).

In 1860, the U.S. census (which excluded most of the Indian population from its figures) counted roughly 12,000 people in Washington Territory. Largely removed from the Civil War that began the following year, Washington farmers continued to reshape the landscape slowly. Gold was discovered in the mountains of western Montana, northern Idaho, and British Columbia. Walla Walla became the supply center for equipment and livestock for miners and mule packers traveling to the mines. Merchants and farmers came to the area to claim land and build a community.

Wheat was the main crop grown in the Walla Walla area, along with apples, peas, and grapes. Sheep and cattle ranchers often established a homestead and then allowed their livestock to graze the land freely on the open range. Cattle from two or more owners often mingled on the same land. Ranchers branded their cattle with unique marks to identify ownership. Winters were mild for the first few years of ranching in the area, and ranchers maintained their herds with minimal supervision or assistance throughout the year. Then the weather changed, and they learned that area winters were anything but mild. The winter of 1861-1862 was especially hard. One of the first settlers recorded the devastation:

"[We had wheat] intended for seed for the coming year but the hard winter of 1861 and 1862 followed when food for man and best became so scarce that most of it was sold to the needy for food, and to keep the teams from starving . This was the most terrible winter ever experienced in the valley. The snow drifted so deep that many of the cattle were frozen standing up . [and] only a narrow trail could be kept open to Walla Walla by miners coming to and from the Idaho mines" (Kirk and Alexander, 179).

The range was a graveyard of livestock by spring. Some ranchers lost entire herds. Starvation and exposure killed thousands of sheep and cattle that season.

In the Puget Sound region, settlers transformed bogs near the saltwater shoreline into farmable land. As early as 1863, settlers built dikes to drain wet marshy flats in the Skagit River delta near present-day La Conner. This process made farming possible on the swamplands that ebbed and flowed with the tidal cycles. Logging camps also grew in number, which opened up additional land for farming. Locals used the waterways to transport products and supplies up and down the coast, but logjams in most rivers made it difficult for them to navigate smoothly.

More immigrants moved to the region after Congress passed the Federal Homestead Act of 1862 to encourage the nation to expand west. For a small fee, settlers purchased 160 acres of land from the federal government. Settlers had to "prove up," or improve, the land by building a homestead and living on it continuously for five years. The new homesteaders often fenced their land with barbed wire to keep open-range livestock away from water holes, streams, and newly planted crops. By the 1870s many of the mines were exhausted and wheat farmers quickly came to rely on exporting their crops to overseas markets.

Tensions on the Open Range

As America rebuilt after the Civil War, eastern businessmen wanted a better way than wagon trails to get goods and people to Washington Territory. Construction of the Northern Pacific Railway began in 1870 with the goal to connect the Great Lakes and the Northwest coast. The rail line became a vital partner for farmers and ranchers and provided a more efficient way to get crops and livestock to cities on the East Coast. The Great Northern Railway moved into the region and completed construction in Washington in 1893.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers was also interested in the potential of the less-populated Central Washington area. It surveyed the desert of the Columbia Basin and in 1882 Lieutenant Thomas Symons charted the region. Although he called it "a desert pure and simple, an almost waterless, lifeless desert," he went on to predict that, "With irrigation properly conducted, it is safe to say that every foot of land now classed as desert will be found as productive as the regions more favored by rain" (Harrison). Symons's proposal was popular among local settlers who hoped for federal funding to build irrigation infrastructure throughout the state. But the U.S. Congress was not willing to spend millions to irrigate the Central Washington desert at that time.

Farther east in the hills of the Palouse and Big Bend region, the ample supply of grass created a healthy stock of cattle. Buyers in Wyoming were reported to consider cattle from the Northwest superior to those of Texas. The cattle rancher of that time was chronicled as a special type of character:

"The old-time cattleman, the rangeland operator of 1850-1890, was probably the toughest, most courageous, most independent, sometimes the kindest, and often the orneriest character this country ever produced. From where we are now, he appears to have been in some respects a man of vision and in others a man without foresight . Let's look at some of the facts of life that faced him. First, he had to acquire a few head of cattle and get them to the open range. Then his troubles really began. To name a few, there were marauding Indians rustlers (other men trying this method of getting a start for themselves) natural predators such as coyotes, wolves and cougars poison weeds and roots which cattle often ate rattlesnakes natural disease grass and forest fires and bitter cold winters. These things the cattleman accepted, fought, and finally overcame. His real fight for existence was yet to come" (Galbraith and Anderson, 8).

Dairy farmers also found Washington to be a prime place for milk production and marketing. The first creamery in the state opened in Cheney. In the 1880s farmers brought the first purebred dairy-cattle herds into the region: Jerseys to Ellensburg, Holsteins to Skagit County, and Guernseys to Island County.

Some settlers took up other occupations before becoming farmers or ranchers. Some were placer miners and railroaders, others merchants and hired hands. For many, raising sheep was the cheapest and easiest way to start ranching on their own. Men who were short on capital often started their herds by working for larger herdsmen on a "shares" system. "They took only minimal pay and exchanged their talents for part ownership of future lamb crops" (McGregor, 23). The Northeastern Washington town of Sprague in Lincoln County served as the main sheep-shearing ground for the region. From there, the Northern Pacific shipped wool to the East Coast. As more sheep arrived on the open range, they competed with cattle and horses for forage on lands that were not able to sustain the growing numbers of grazing stock:

"Basic to all this mismanagement was the inability of the stockmen to understand the fragile nature of the local vegetation. Forage grasses here had developed over the ages without grazing pressure, and thus were not prepared to stand up to intensive grazing" (Harris, 224).

The increase in homesteaders created additional tension among cattle ranchers. Fences and barbed wire were seen as a noose on the open range system. In the Creston area, feuds between homesteaders and ranchers were notorious. "In frustration and vengeance, ranchers occasionally drove their herd through fields. They also pulled up surveyors' stakes to stymie homesteaders intending to file legal claims" (Kirk and Alexander, 86).

Railroads also added pressure to the open range. To encourage westward expansion by the railroads, the U.S. government granted land to railroad companies. Some railroads allowed open grazing on their lands, and intense grazing continued where fences didn't exist. Cattle ranchers competed among themselves for rangeland and waterholes, but sheep became the focus of their hatred. There was constant friction between cattle ranchers and sheep herders. Sheep could be fed and cared for on the range at much lower expense than cattle. Cattlemen argued that sheep stamped out grass with their small hooves. Another brutal winter in 1889 devastated herds throughout Eastern Washington. Douglas County ranchers saw as many as 90 percent of their herds starved or frozen.

Expanding and Studying Agriculture

By the time Washington became the 42nd state in the union in 1889, farmers were growing a diverse number of crops on the state's western side, including oats, spinach, hops, flax, sugar beets, cabbage, flower bulbs, potatoes, lettuce, celery and berries. New settlers from Europe liked the area because of its rich timber resources, coal, metal ores, fisheries, and the prospect of highly productive farmland. The region developed a population of small mixed farms, cultivating a wide range of different crops. Near Auburn, in southern King County and northern Pierce County, hops became a dominant crop until hop lice wiped out much of the crop and many farmers switched to dairy cows.

Many Norwegian and Dutch immigrants settled in the northwest corner of Washington, as the wetlands and forests of Whatcom and Skagit counties reminded them of their home countries. They introduced Holstein cows, making Northwest Washington the state's largest milk-producing area at the time. Dairy farmers created creameries and sent fresh milk to customers by steamship. Fruit and vegetable processors also formed, and Seattle's first commercial winery opened in the Pioneer Square neighborhood. Olympia Brewing Company began brewing beer in Tumwater.

Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act in 1887, authorizing the government to survey Indian reservation land and divide it into allotments for individual ownership. Prior to this, reservation land was held in common by all tribal members. These new allotments allowed individual Indian families to claim farmland within the reservation for themselves. It also gave them the opportunity to sell or lease their lands out to be farmed by others. Some non-Indian settlers bought lands on reservations, including in the Yakima and Colville areas.

In 1891 the Washington State Agricultural College, Experiment Station, and School of Sciences was established in Pullman. The citizens of Pullman donated 200 acres for the new school. Researchers at the agricultural college worked to find improvements in plant breeding and growing techniques for farmers. One was William J. Spillman: "He was a plant scientist, mathematician, and the first wheat breeder. His job was to improve the economic health of farmers" (Von Bargen). Courses such as soil analysis, plant chemistry, crop rotations, and manures and fertilizers were offered. Faculty also taught classes and conducted research in entomology, dairying, livestock, and poultry. Forestry and range management programs and farm economics were also studied. Washington State College became home to the foremost experts on agricultural science in the state.

As more immigrants moved west the 1890s, cities in the region grew at the same time the entire nation was rapidly shifting from a focus on agriculture to industry. At the same time, gold reserves dropped and a national depression hit in 1893, affecting every citizen and farm community. Mines shut down, and the lumber industry slowed. Banks closed throughout the state. The panic ended for most of the state in 1897 when gold was found in Alaska and the Klondike gold rush began. Seattle became the outfitting hub for those trekking to the frontier. Miners stocked up on food and supplies as they moved north. Farmers again had a strong market for their abundant crops. They used railroads to move their products. Steamships traveled up and down waterways in the Puget Sound region moving food and goods. Steamboats operated on inland waterways, including the Okanogan, Snake, and Columbia rivers. Wheat farmers used tramways to transport grain sacks from the top of the Palouse coulees down to river's edge to load steamboats. Horses and wagons also moved farm products to storehouses and urban communities. By 1900, 70 percent of Washington wheat was exported overseas and urban port cities, such as Tacoma and Seattle, became headquarters for large shipping firms.

The first hundred years of non-Native settlement in the Northwest bought significant change to the region's people and landscape. The introduction of new animals, plants, and agricultural practices, and the ongoing expansion of both farming and herding, transformed the grasslands, forests, rivers, and communities of Washington. The next hundred years of agriculture in Washington would mark new transformations in and understandings of how to care for the land and to feed people.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.

To see "Agriculture in Washington since 1900," click "Next Feature"

For the History of Our State's Food, Land, and People curriculum, click here

Burge Homestead, Wenas Valley, Yakima County

Courtesy WSU Special Collections, Cull A. White Photographs and Negatives, PC 86

Aeon for Friends

It has become commonplace to attribute the European conquest of the Americas to Jared Diamond’s triumvirate of guns, germs and steel. Germs refer to plague, measles, flu, whooping cough and, especially, the smallpox that whipsawed through indigenous populations, sometimes with a mortality rate of 90 per cent. The epidemics left survivors ill-equipped to fend off predatory encroachments, either from indigenous or from European peoples, who seized captives, land and plunder in the wake of these diseases.

Guns and steel, of course, represent Europeans’ technological prowess. Metal swords, pikes, armour and firearms, along with ships, livestock and even wheeled carts, gave European colonists significant military advantages over Native American people wielding bows and arrows, clubs, hatchets and spears. The attractiveness of such goods also meant that Indians desired trade with Europeans, despite the danger the newcomers represented. The lure of trade enabled Europeans to secure beachheads on the East Coast of North America, and make inroads to the interior of the continent. Intertribal competition for European trade also enabled colonists to employ ‘divide and conquer’ strategies against much larger indigenous populations.

Diamond’s explanation has grown immensely popular and influential. It appears to be a simple and sweeping teleology providing order and meaning to the complexity of the European conquest of the Western hemisphere. The guns, germs and steel perspective has helped further understanding of some of the major forces behind globalisation. But it also involves a level of abstraction that risks obscuring the history of individuals and groups whose experiences cannot be so aptly and neatly summarised.

Invoking guns, germs and steel, or Alfred Crosby’s older catchphrase ‘Virgin Soil Epidemics’ (1976), as a blanket explanation for colonial American history can fundamentally misrepresent the historical experience. It can both erase the experiences of some Native peoples that did not adhere to these schemas, and reduce the staggering violence that Euro-Americans inflicted on Native people to a kind of over-determined background noise.

At a time when people are debating the nature and origins of globalisation, and the making and meaning of modern American society, we need a careful and more sophisticated understanding of this crucial chapter in history. Similarly, thinking of Indians as pawns in a fixed game overlooks how many of them harnessed colonial forces to their own agendas, for greater or lesser periods of time. Many Native peoples carved out lives for themselves amid the destructiveness and degradation of Euro-American rule.

Scholarship is uncovering the myriad ways that Native people addressed the ruin of epidemic disease. These responses included binding together with previously distinct communities to form more viable tribal groups or confederacies, raiding neighbouring peoples for captives to buttress their populations, instituting quarantines to check subsequent outbreaks, and experimenting with Christianity or new Native religious rituals in search of spiritual succour. Through such measures, some groups, the Cherokees, Iroquois and Blackfeet, for example, not only managed to rebuild their numbers, but probably grew more powerful than before.

European technological superiority, particularly in terms of guns, cannot serve as a blanket explanation for Euro-Americans’ ultimate triumph over Native North Americans. In early Quebec, Jamestown and Plymouth, colonists held an advantage in firearms only for a handful of years before Native people began building their own arsenals. The founders of later colonies, such as Pennsylvania or Georgia, arrived to find indigenous people already furnished with the best gun technology Europe could produce and keen to acquire more. Except under the rarest circumstances, no one state authority had the ability to choke Indians off from guns, powder and shot. There were just too many rival imperial powers and colonies in North America, their governments were weak, and the trade ran through a labyrinth of unofficial channels such as itinerant fur traders, Native middlemen and smugglers. Indians often wielded better weapons than Euro-Americans, including their armed forces. Europeans and, later, white Americans, controlled the manufacturing of firearms technology, but their leaders exercised little authority over its distribution in Indian country.

Macro-historical analyses such as Diamond’s cannot fully account for this history. It was a product of on-the-ground politics, of individuals and groups, including indigenous people, making decisions. Their actions created a world awash in guns and, with it, waves of terrible gun violence.

A ttributing too much explanatory power to European technological superiority has obscured this critical story. So too has the stubborn presumption that Native people valued firearms less for their capacity to kill than for their ‘psychological effect’, which is to say, for the terror induced by their pyrotechnics. Without question, Indians were generally awestruck when they first experienced the firing of a gun. But it took little time for them to grow accustomed to the sound and flash, and to learn the practical applications of this tool. They traded for firearms in large quantities and used them in warfare and hunting because they recognised that guns were superior to the bow and arrow, especially for setting ambushes, besieging fortified settlements and hunting deer.

Native tribes competed furiously to control emerging gun markets. They knew that firearms were the new key to military and political dominance, and if they did not seize the opportunity, their enemies would. As a result, indigenous arms races erupted across North America. The deep consequences of these arms races for intertribal politics, Indian-colonial relations, imperial rivalries and the fur trade made them among the most formative influences in North American history between the early 17th and late 19th centuries.

Indians’ military need for guns rarely translated into subservience to a particular European colony

If Indians competed with each other to engross the colonial arms trade, so too did colonial interests vie for Indian favour through the sale and gifting of munitions. The Indian trade was a basic source of colonial wealth and an essential part of the colonies’ recruitment of Indian military allies. What Indians wanted most in exchange for their friendship was guns, powder and shot. It is testimony to the Indians’ influence that colonial states complied with this demand to the point that the Iroquois, the Creeks and other prominent groups often received most of their arms and gunsmithing free of charge. Indian commercial leverage is also evident in the black markets for weapons that emerged whenever colonial authorities tried to institute bans on the arms trade. Indian-colonial interdependence meant that Indians’ military need for guns rarely translated into subservience to a particular European colony or empire.

These features of Native Americans’ adoption of firearms come into relief through the life of one of the most important figures of 17th-century New England, the sachem (or chief) Ninigret of the Niantics and Narragansetts of what is today Rhode Island. Ninigret was always acutely concerned with guns. He tried to direct arms toward his people and away from his enemies, and formed alliances with well-armed tribes and colonies to fend off other Indian-colonial blocs. Ninigret’s story is a window into how Native Americans used guns to transform their world and that of colonial North America.

N inigret came of age during the early 1600s when military considerations loomed large in the politics of Native New England. In the previous centuries, the emergence of corn-beans-squash horticulture and competition for prime planting grounds had encouraged indigenous people to centralise their fluid, kin-based hunting bands. Their new social formation was the sachemship, a town-sized territory of up to a few thousand people under the leadership of a sachem from an elite lineage.

By Ninigret’s time, sachemships also confederated into tribes, sometimes voluntarily, at other times out of force. Ninigret’s Niantic people, for instance, belonged to a regional network of sachemships known as the Narragansett tribe. The Narragansett sachems Canonicus and his nephew Miantonomi collected tribute from and directed the foreign affairs of the Manisses of Block Island and the Cowesetts, Shawomets and Patuxets of northwest Narragansett Bay. Ninigret’s Niantics served as the front line of the Narragansetts’ western military frontier with the Pequots of what is now Connecticut. In turn, Narragansett and Niantic elites formed ‘continual intermarriages’, as Miantonomi put it, to strengthen the bond.

By virtue of their ferocious reputation and their membership in the Iroquois League, the Mohawks of the Mohawk River Valley in upstate New York were the great wildcard in the Northeast. The Iroquois League was, in essence, a nonaggression pact that provided the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas with peace in their backyards, even as it freed them to direct their warriors against outsiders. The ceremonies that held the League together involved the ritual exchange of strings of wampum (shell beads) manufactured by the Indians of coastal New England and Long Island. The Narragansetts and Pequots competed to supply the Iroquois market and, in turn, to acquire wampum-paying tributaries in order to win Mohawk friendship and escape Mohawk aggression.

European colonists became crucial players in the Indians’ multipolar politics. To be sure, the first colonies in the Northeast – New France on the St Lawrence River, Plymouth near Cape Cod, and New Netherland on the Hudson River – were unimpressive in terms of population. But they had substantial commercial reach. In the 1630s, a true swarming began. English puritans arrived by the thousands to create the colony of Massachusetts, and quickly spread into the Connecticut River Valley, Narragansett Bay and eastern Long Island. These developments were the real first stage of European conquest, but that is only clear in retrospect. Indians, by contrast, saw the colonies as potential trade partners, especially for firearms, and new, powerful allies to direct against their Native rivals.

The Mohawks were the first group to take advantage of the opportunity. Within a decade of the Dutch establishment of Fort Orange (Albany) in 1626, right on the Mohawks’ doorstep, the tribe had an arsenal of 400 muskets and plenty of ammunition. As a whole, the Iroquois League possessed at least twice as many guns. The Mohawks and members of the Iroquis League used this weaponry to wipe out rivals in the fur trade and seize their people as captives. The Hurons, Eries, Susquehannocks and many others in the Great Lakes and Ohio country met this unfortunate end. New England tribes trembled at the thought of becoming the next victims. To avoid this fate, Ninigret and the Narragansetts made regular gifts of wampum to the Mohawks to cultivate them as friends. The Narragansetts also pursued colonial trade and alliance, only to have the strategy backfire.

The intensity of intertribal rivalry meant that those who failed to build up their arsenals would suffer at the hands of those who did

In 1636-37, the Narragansetts supported the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut in a war against the Pequots. The English wanted to chastise the Pequots for refusing to turn over accused murderers to colonial justice. The Narragansetts participated as English allies in the hopes of reducing their primary rival and claiming the spoils. But, instead, the Mohegans under the sachem Uncas stepped into the Pequot vacuum, adopting most of the Pequot survivors and claiming the Pequot tributary network. In this, Massachusetts and Connecticut supported Uncas. The English colonies saw Uncas as a wedge against Narragansett expansion. Thus, the Pequot War had barely ended before the Narragansetts and Mohegans were at blows. The Narragansett-Mohegan conflict culminated in Uncas capturing and executing the great Narragansett sachem (and Ninigret’s brother-in-law) Miantonomi. Ninigret then made it his life mission to revenge this murder on Uncas regardless of who tried to stop him, including the English. Firearms would prove critical to his ambition.

It is common to deride early modern firearms as slow to load, inaccurate and undependable in wet weather. Indians had a more favourable opinion of these weapons, particularly of the flintlock muskets that became available at the beginning of the 1630s. Older matchlocks operated by lowering a lit wick into a pan of gunpowder. Firing the flintlock, in contrast, involved pulling the trigger to thrust a clamp (or ‘cock’) holding a piece of flint against a small metal plate (or ‘steel’), creating a shower of sparks that ignited the priming powder and then the main charge. Flintlocks were still cumbersome. They required about 25 seconds to load, and were accurate only to about 100 yards. Yet Indians did not intend to use the weapon in open-field, pitched battles. Rather, they wanted flintlocks to fire on human or animal targets from ambush at close range. After firing, they would rush in with hand weapons. The manner in which Native peoples used guns is critical to understanding their demand for them.

Indians valued the flintlock less for the terror it instilled than for its power. Unlike arrows, which needed a clear path to their target, bullets could pass through the camouflage of tall grasses and even thickets without being diverted. Whereas arrows shot from long distances could be dodged, musket balls could not. The damage inflicted by a bullet wound was far greater than that of an arrow. Killing an enemy with an arrow required hitting a vital organ. By contrast, when a lead ball struck its victim, it carried roughly six times more kinetic energy than an arrow, expanded to the size of a large fist, and left behind a medical disaster. A direct hit dropped an enemy or deer in its tracks. At especially close range, gunners could load their weapons with small shot consisting of several small lead balls instead of a single slug. What this approach sacrificed in terms of accuracy and force, it compensated for in the large, cloud-shaped area covered by the blast, which could disable more than one person at a time.

Though Indians continued to use bows and arrows, hatchets and clubs alongside muskets, they could not mistake that warriors with guns routinely won victories over those without them. The intensity of intertribal rivalry meant that those who failed to build up their arsenals would suffer at the hands of those who did. For this reason, the opening of colonial markets set off Indian arms races throughout Native America.

N ew England presented Ninigret with as favourable a gun market as anywhere else on the continent. Among the English alone there were five different colonies competing for the Indian trade. The French and especially the Dutch, the premier arms producer of Europe, were also accessible trading partners. The Dutch manufactured light, short, durable guns specifically for the Native American market. The craggy coastline was ideal for smuggling, and most of Indian country was so remote from colonial centres that magistrates could do little to police the arms trade even when they wanted to.

Gunsmithing was an essential part of Indian-colonial relations. Diplomacy often involved colonial governments providing Indians with free gun repairs, including sending smiths to live in Indian villages. A handful of Natives developed their own gunsmithing skills after apprenticing under English masters. More generally, Indian men learned to cast musket balls from cheap bar lead and to make minor repairs to flintlock firing mechanisms and gun barrels. This Indian self-sufficiency, like the multilateral, lawless nature of the gun market, robbed the colonies of leverage stemming from the Indians’ growing dependence on European technology.

Led by Ninigret, the Narragansetts built up a formidable arsenal in their quest to exact revenge on Uncas and the Mohegans. In May 1645, a Narragansett army wielding 30 guns made a surprise assault on the Mohegans, killing six and injuring numerous others, ‘most of which were wounded with bullets’, according to an eyewitness. The puritan colonies demanded Ninigret to pay for the damages, but instead he warned them to quit protecting Uncas or else he would call on Mohawk gunmen for support. Together, he threatened, the Narragansetts and Mohawks ‘would lay the English cattle on heaps as high as their houses, that no English man should stir out of his house to piss, but he should be killed’.

To counter English support for Uncas, Ninigret turned to the Dutch for guns. In 1653, rumours spread that Ninigret had gone to Manhattan to meet with Peter Stuyvesant, New Netherland’s governor-general, and collect a large Dutch gift of munitions. Afterward, Ninigret was said to have called on other Indians to join him and the Dutch in a strike against the New England colonies and the Mohegans. Many feared that a great war was brewing.

English, Dutch and French competition for Indian trade meant that Ninigret’s warriors were as well-armed as Englishmen

Shortly after his return from New Netherland (which he admitted visiting), Ninigret led his warriors on four consecutive raids against Long Island Indians that the English counted as protectorates. He even burned one of his Native prisoners at the stake within sight of an English town. In September 1653, Ninigret greeted an English delegation sent to question him by presenting a company of ‘many armed men’, including a Mohawk, ‘…and himself a pistol in his hand … and some of them charged their guns with powder and bullets and some primed their guns’. Ninigret had signalled his readiness for war.

In 1659, Ninigret’s Dutch armament and Mohawk support emboldened him to revive his war against Uncas. Narragansett gunmen fanned out in pursuit of the Mohegans wherever they could find them, including at the farm and trading post of the Englishman Jonathan Brewster, just outside the walls of Uncas’s fort. The warriors killed one of Brewster’s Mohegan servants clinging to the waist of Brewster’s wife. They forced themselves at gunpoint into his house and then finally riddled his home with bullets from 11 guns. The Narragansetts’ explanation was that Brewster ‘did furnish Uncas with guns, powder, and shot’.

Ninigret could afford to ignore English threats. The competition between multiple English, Dutch and French colonies for Indian trade, combined with the black market of gunrunners, meant that Ninigret’s warriors were as well-armed as Englishmen. Furthermore, the Narragansetts’ wampum trade meant that they had the backing of formidable Mohawk gunmen. From Ninigret’s perspective in the late 1650s, he had every reason to believe that these conditions would last indefinitely. But that was not to be.

T he 1664 English conquest of New Netherland and the creation of the colony of New York destroyed Ninigret’s leverage with the New England colonies. It robbed him of using Dutch material and political aid to counter Uncas’s English support. Ninigret also lost his valuable alliance with the Mohawks. With the Dutch authority gone, the Mohawks were unwilling to risk alienating the English, especially in light of the tribe’s ongoing hostilities with New France and a variety of indigenous nations. Suddenly, Ninigret could no longer use the Mohawks and Dutch to offset the English-Mohegan axis.

Ninigret had been the likeliest candidate to lead an intertribal anticolonial resistance but, after the 1664 defeat of his Dutch allies, that possibility was gone. Ninigret knew it too, and when King Philip’s War broke out in the summer of 1675, he refused to join the Wampanoags, Nipmucs and even his fellow Narragansetts against the English. The sachem distanced his Niantic community from the uprising by calling in his warriors from abroad, delivering colonial authorities to a number of Wampanoag heads, and proposing a grand peace plan. He took these actions not out of any warmth for the English, but realpolitik. He knew that, without the Mohawks, the campaign against the English was doomed.

Initially, the warring Indians had the upper hand. They devastated English military forces and more than a dozen towns by employing their firearms expertly in ambushes and dawn-light strikes. Each victory netted them untold amounts of military plunder for use in the next strike. At least two Native gunsmiths and probably some captive English smiths served the Indian resistance.

The most important sites for the warring Indians to replenish their arsenals were along the Hudson River. The warring Indians made their winter camp near the confluence of the Hoosick River and the Hudson, just north of Albany, which turned into a rendezvous visited by Abenaki middlemen peddling muskets, powder and shot from French sources along the St Lawrence. English captives reported that, after one of these trade fairs, the warring Indians could boast 2,100 young men ‘most of them armed with good firelocks, and full of ammunition’.

The governor had promised the Mohawks ‘ammunition, arms, and all they wanted’. The Mohawks wanted guns

It’s the Dutch merchants who remained in Albany after the English conquest who also served as a source for munitions. The New York Governor Edmund Andros prohibited any trade with Indian militants, but arms dealers could operate through Native middlemen. An Indian who spied for the English told that the warring Indians were able to acquire Dutch gunpowder from the neutral Mohicans, Wappingers, and Paugussetts.

Ninigret’s concerns about New York’s Mohawk allies proved prescient. In February 1676, hundreds of Mohawk gunmen fell on the Hoosick rendezvous, driving the warring Indians back into the heart of New England where English soldiers and their Native allies awaited. The Mohawks kept up the pressure into the summer with raids against militant camps in the upper Connecticut River Valley and even farther east. Part of their motivation came from governor Andros, who had promised the Mohawks ‘ammunition, arms, and all they wanted’. Like the Narragansetts, the Mohawks wanted guns.

Within a few months, the warring Indians were nearly out of gunpowder. English victories grew increasingly lopsided. For instance, in July 1676, the Connecticut Major John Talcott, at the head of 300 colonial soldiers and 100 allied Mohegans and Pequots, clashed with the Narragansetts at Nipsachuck in northern Rhode Island. In less than three hours, the English and their Native allies killed or captured 171 of the enemy while suffering just two casualties. Two days later, this same army killed 67 Narragansetts and captured 27 on Warwick Neck, with no losses. By late summer 1676, the conflict in southern New England was essentially over. Quietly, Ninigret’s Niantics offered refuge to Narragansett survivors fleeing death or slavery at colonial hands. As soon as this new phase of Anglo-colonial dominance began, in the fall of 1676, Ninigret died. He must have been unable to bear the thought of it after fighting for so long, as he put it, ‘to right my own quarrel’.

G uns played a decisive role in the outcome of King Philip’s War. But the story is easy to get wrong. After decades of steady access to a dynamic gun market supplied by multiple colonies, empires and Indian middlemen, anti-colonial Indian warriors had grown dependent on firearms. When the war began, they had ample martial stores. They were also more skilled with firearms than their English counterparts. Colonists felt the deadly effects throughout the first months of the conflict. The New England colonies tried to cut off the warring Indians’ access to guns and ammunition by threatening capital punishment on anyone who dared to supply the Indian enemy. Yet as long as the Natives had access to Dutch traders in Albany and the French on the St Lawrence, directly or through Indian brokers, English measures to stop the arms flow were not enough to seriously inhibit the Indians’ war effort. The warring Indians were dependent on guns, powder and shot. But they were not dependent on the English.

What ultimately turned the anti-English Indians’ reliance on firearms from a strength to a liability had little to do with the New England colonies themselves. Rather, it was the Mohawks, whose interest in protecting relations with New York led them to drive away the New England Indians from the Hudson River arms markets. This was doubly unfortunate for the anti-English Indians. Deprived of access to the arms trade, and driven back from the Hudson River Valley by the Mohawks, they found a reinforced enemy awaiting them, including hundreds of Wampanoags. These Wampanoags had switched sides in exchange for their lives and for munitions from the English, to protect themselves from the Mohawks. The outcome of New England’s great Indian-colonial war, like most Indian-colonial wars, rested less on brute colonial strength, than on multilateral political dynamics in Indian country, tied to the Indian demand for guns and ammunition.

For indigenous people all across North America, European colonisation meant more than withering in the face of epidemic diseases and European technological superiority. It also meant the opportunity for Indians to adopt firearms, to transform their ways of war, to change intertribal relations, to engage in colonial diplomacy, and to try new economies. They sought to empower themselves, not in accordance with some general pan-Indian identity, but as particular communities, tribes and confederacies. They almost always saw their own rise as predicated on the exploitation of other indigenous people.

Native Americans’ zealous adoption and use of guns against their neighbours dramatises that the problem of guns in America is centuries old

Thus, the spread of guns meant the spread of awful gun violence. The availability of guns gave rise to societies of predatory Indian gunmen who terrorised entire regions. Attempting to counter the threat, weaker indigenous societies allied with each other and with colonial powers. Worse still, while Native people turned their guns on each other, colonial societies grew stronger and stronger. Eventually, they became the greatest danger to Indian life. Ninigret had to confront this hard lesson at the end of his life amid King Philip’s War. Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, many other Native societies would face similar dilemmas.

There is so much to learn about the world through the study of Native America. For instance, one realises that this supposedly New World was, in fact, quite old, full of ancient, complex societies of remarkable diversity. The myth of the noble savage, which has sprung back to life in New Age religious circles, shatters as one confronts indigenous people in three-dimensional form. They possessed all the ambition, jealousy, violence and Machiavellian spirit that one would expect to find among any other human population.

Recognising that North America was full of millions of indigenous people and not an empty wilderness also reveals the violence inherent in the spread of European colonies and the United States across the continent. Not least, grappling with Native Americans’ zealous adoption of guns, and use of them against their neighbours, dramatises that the problem of guns in America is centuries old. It long predates the birth of the US, the writing of the Second Amendment, and the modern mass killings and street shootings that have become signatures of the nation.

is professor of history at George Washington University, where he specialises in Native American, Colonial American, and American racial history. His latest book is Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America (2016).


  1. Prescot

    Agree, a very useful message

  2. Marshal


  3. Malakasa

    Perhaps I agree with your opinion

  4. Maurn

    Happens even more cheerfully :)

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