Indians, Fire, and the Land in the Pacific Northwest
(IFFN No. 21 – September 1999,p. 93-94)
Instead of discovering a land blanketed by dense forests, early explorers of the Pacific Northwest encountered a varied landscape of open woods, spacious meadows, and extensive prairies. Far from a pristine wilderness, much of the Northwest was actively managed and shaped by the hands of its Native American inhabitants. Their primary tool was fire.
“Indians, Fire, and the Land in the Pacific Northwest,” edited by Robert Boyd, offers an interdisciplinary approach to one of the most important issues concerning Native Americans and their relationship to the land. Hans Page from the Fire Ecolgy Research Group read the book:
Robert Boyd, the editor of “Indians, Fire and the Land in the Pacific Northwest”, is an anthropologist and ethnohistorian from Portland and author of a series publications about the aboriginal cultures in the USA. His new book volume contains a collection of 12 contributions withn additional introductory and final chapters written by the editor. The contributions are from different disciplines. They approach the role and importance of aboriginal fire and the resulting consequences for the landscape development in the Pacific Northwest of the USA from distinct perspectives and with different methodologies. The contributors range from ethnobotanists, anthropologists, archeologists, historians to botanists and foresters. The papers cover all parts of the native Northwest, and nine of them were previously published in different journals. In this book they are presented in chronological order from 1957 until 1999.
The main approach of this complete volume is that most parts of the Pacific Northwest were not wilderness untouched by humans when the first Euro-Americans arrived at the beginning of the 19th century. The collection of these articles refutes in an impressive way the old prejudice that the north American aboriginals were “children of the nature” who only took what nature gave them. It is shown that the hunter and gather communities who lived here for some thousands of years systematicly formed the ecosystems for their needs. Fire was one of the most important tools they had in their hands, and they knew how to use it in ways that not only met immediate demands but also modified their environment. Today it is known that the most lawns and prairies in the Pacific Northwest, which impressed the early trappers and explorers, had been actively manipulated and managed, if not created, by their native inhabitants. The main reasons for this type of fire management were to stimulate the productivity of different useable plants, for example different berry species or camas (Camassia quamash) and to create attractive habitats for game. With the replacement of aboriginal inhabitants by the white Euro-Americans, the treatment of the landscape changed fundamentally because the white settlers and the young, upcoming industrial society had totally different demands on the environment than the old gather and hunter societies. Therefore former prairie plant communities are mostly extinguished and with them many currently threatened species of the Northwest which inhabited such ecosystems.
This book is not only interesting for ethnologists or (landscape) historians. The compact arrangement of articles highlighting the native influence on the landscape history in the Northwest also provides an important background for the development of todays’s landscape conservation and management strategies for this part of the U.S.A., especially for maintenance of the remaining prairies and related ecosystems.
Although mostly nearly all the articles of this book concentrate on aboriginal gather and hunter societies of the Pacific Northwest the volume also provides interesting basic material for the understanding of landscape and environmental history in other parts of the world. H.T.Lewis and T.A.Ferguson (in this publication) highlight the cross-cultural and intergeographical parallels in the ways in which hunter-gatherers use habitat manipulation fires. For example it is probable that nomadic or half-nomadic societies in Europe during the middle and younger stone age, with a comparative cultural level as historical Indians of the Pacific Northwest, used fire for simular reasons and in a comparative way. This could explain how so many species, adjusted to open and more continental stands, spread and survived in the post-Ice Age Central Europe in which natural forests dominated.
Hans Page / GFMC
R.Boyd (ed.).1999. Indians, Fire and the Land in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, Oregon, 320 p. (ISBN 0-87071-459-7). Paperback, $34.95.