§ In 1842 Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet traveled by invitation to the Coeur d’Alene tribe to begin missionizing. Later that year he was joined by another Jesuit priest, Father Nicolas Point, and a lay brother, Charles Huet. Originally from Belgium (as was Point), DeSmet had emigrated to the U.S. in 1821, ran a school for American Indians in Missouri, established the Potawatomi mission at Council Bluffs, and in 1840 had traveled to the Northern Rockies at the request of the Flatheads, where he was greeted enthusiastically and traveled widely around the region. The excursion to the Coeur d’Alene, another Salish-speaking people, was an echo of that momentous event.
While there DeSmet wrote accounts of what he found, and Point sketched and painted people and scenes – a kind of Jesuit George Catlin. Among that record is a painting of a fire hunt in which flames are driving deer into the lake where hunters in canoes can easily kill them. This was not an uncommon technique; there are reports of indigenes similarly driving deer into the tidewater of Virginia, and Fenimore Cooper describes hunting deer from canoes in The Pioneers. But the painting records something else, for it depicts the same flames as savaging the hunters’ village. Almost certainly the immolating encampment is something Point inserted into whatever he and DeSmet witnessed.[i]
In a few strokes, however, Point’s painting captured an ethnographic practice, an ethnocentric perspective, and the seemingly exclusive interpretation that could overlay them as two peoples viewed the same scene with different eyes. For the Belgium-born Jesuits burning the landscape was the same as burning one’s house, for it destroyed habitat and was an expression of what, as much as with spiritual beliefs, they had come to reform. For the Coeur d’Alenes landscape fire was part of what made that land habitable. They burned seasonally for hunting, for camas and berry production, for pasture, and for the protection of villages. For the Jesuits landscape fire was, in a sense, hellfire on Earth and a symbol of the perdition they had come to replace. For the Coeur d’Alenes – and the other tribes that inhabited the Northern Rockies – fire was a gift of the Coyote and its possession was much of what made them human.
That well-intentioned and mutual misunderstanding of what fire meant would continue. Point’s painting is a visual metaphor of what was to follow with regard to people, land, and fire, and the way each side could read the other wrongly. In reality, two images coexisted, not so much side by side, as overlaid, as though viewed through a stereopticon. They might appear to the casual observer as one, but they were less a synthesis than a holographic card that assumed one image or another as the card tilted. They remained separate, however much blurred by visible emblems of acculturation such as religious conversion, adoption of farming, or going to school in brick buildings.
§ At the time of the DeSmet mission, Salish speakers claimed most of the Northern Rockies and spilled west and north. Three tribes became especially significant: the Flatheads in the Bitterroot Valley and the Pend d’Oreilles and the Kootenais, a non-Salish group, both further north. Remarkably, observing the thickening swarm of white transients and settlers, the Flatheads requested the Black Robes to visit them as they sought to learn about the newcomers and their powers. The missions commenced in 1841. Acculturation was seen by many as a means of resisting, or at least allowing the option of a choice to retain power over their lives not possible by overt fighting. The Nez Perce and Blackfeet, west and east, showed the alternatives.[ii]
The larger trends were determined by powers far removed from the mountains. In 1846 the U.S. and Britain divided the collectively held Oregon Territory along the 49th parallel, accelerating the political assimilation of the Northern Rockies. Subsequent history hinged on the Hellgate Council (near Missoula), convened in 1854 by Governor Isaac Stevens to present the terms of a treaty that would establish a common reservation, formally identify tribes and chiefs, and create terms of engagement. Stevens insisted on a single reservation for the Flatheads, Pend d’Oreilles, and Kootenais, all of whom he treated as a single tribe. The reservation’s location would be determined in the future. Other peoples might also be housed there.
Each side viewed the incident and its outcomes differently. Discussions were conducted through interpreters, refracting through terms and concepts peculiar to each people. “Very likely,” as historian John Fahey observed, “neither the white nor the Indian negotiators understood one another well.” In the end, Stevens got the Hellgate Treaty, signed in 1855, on the terms he wanted, and the newly confederated tribal nation got a chief they didn’t recognize, a collective polity they didn’t seek, and a reservation they couldn’t yet locate. The Flatheads, in particular, worried that they might lose their Bitterroot Valley homeland, which proved correct.[iii]
What followed was viewed by white observers as a story of successful acculturation and by the tribes as one of alienation. Through the usual political pathologies and legal shenanigans, the confederated Flathead nation lost most of its ancestral homelands. While their new reservation in the Flathead Valley was large by the standards of small-settler homesteading, it was tiny for a people who were accustomed to seasonally migrating over the mountains and to the plains for sustenance. Even that reserved land began to flake off. In 1882 the Great Northern Railroad bought, against tribal wishes, a 53-mile right-of-way that cleaved through the collective allotment. Forest reserves spalled off some two-thirds of the reservation: the Flathead and Bitterroot national forests (1897); the Missoula, Kootenai, and Lolo (1906); the Cabinet (1907); and the Blackfoot (1908). The Dawes Act of 1887 fractured the tribal commons into 2,460 parcels of 80 and 160 acres, along with a dozen townsites, a survey not completed until 1909. That year a National Bison Range was established on 18,500 acres of reservation land. Meanwhile a 1907 agreement allowed the U.S. Forest Service to oversee the tribe’s still-retained wooded lands.
But population and identity were lost as well. Smallpox and other introduced diseases swept away significant fractions. Treaties reconstituted the extant population by combining tribes, and adding peoples even outside the Salish linguistic orbit. At one point, despite tribal protests, Canadian Crees and metís were folded into the demographic mix. Intermarriage was common, not only among the subtribes but with the surrounding white communities. In 1900 the reservation held a population of 1,734 persons, half of whom were classified as mixed bloods (mostly French Canadian). With the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe replaced the misnomered Flatheads. Like its reservation, a tribal identity was both displaced and imposed.
The losses reached a climax in 1910. The tribe lost further control over its lands when unclaimed homestead lots were opened to the public, which hollowed out the arable middle of the reservation (of 1.3 million acres, some 700,000 remained tribal). It lost further local control over its forests as the agreement with the Forest Service was terminated, and a Forestry Branch, authorized the year before, was funded and established within the Office of Indian Affairs. And it lost control over fire, as the Great Fires – “in nearly every point” – swept over the reservation. The Flathead Agency was wholly unprepared for flames of this magnitude. It hired gangs of workers, and when they proved ineffective, it twice requested assistance from the U.S. Army, which dispatched two companies from Washington and North Dakota and two from Fort Missoula. The fires gutted the embryonic forestry plans; some 60,000 acres of mostly young timber burned off, and the salvage logging of the killed mature timber was undercut by a market flooded with dead forests throughout the region.[iv]
Even amid a tribal history replete with symbolic inflections, the year stands out.[v]
§ Like a campfire, so common and expected that it is as unnoticed as it is essential, landscape burning had always been a part of the annual circuit of the Salish economy. Every season had its fire: the winter buffalo hunt, the spring harvest of camas and bitterroot, the summer hunting and fishing, the fall gathering of berries and roots. The Point painting of a fire hunt was inaccurate on several counts, but one was its alignment of where people lived and where they burned. They resided one place, with campfires; they burned in other places, with broadcast and spot fires.[vi]
As the tribes contracted, pressed by enemies on the Columbian Plains and the Great Plains, and by white intruders, their fires no longer remained in the old mosaic. To live the old way was to burn the old way, but the newcomers sought a novel pattern of land ownership that left fires to the mountain reserves. During an 1875-76 hunt two Indians were shot by settlers for setting the prairie afire. Even when escorted by troops on their circuit, they slipped their leash long enough to kindle traditional grass and camas prairie fires and prompt complaints by settlers. The 1910 fires began as spring burns by berry-pickers, later supplemented by the promiscuous kindlings of white prospectors. Probably, as J.W. Powell had documented along the Utah mountains, settlement pressures were also forcing old fire practices to push into new settings. The mixing of tribes had also mixed fire habits for which a common land did not provide a common policy. The sequestering of the indigenous burners went a long way to sequestering fire. But railroads added new ignitions. Then, as wooden towns arose, fires even swept through stores and schools.[vii]
The new order of fire began with forestry, and it dates, as so much of the Northern Rockies fire scene does, from the Big Blowup. The fires coincided with the creation of a Forestry Branch within the Office of Indian Affairs, which put fire protection on the national agenda and confirmed forestry as the received oracle for all matters pertaining to fire. The Flathead Agency began hiring seasonal forestry guards who could serve as an on-site fire crew. By the late 1920s some 15-26 guards served each summer. Improved roads and mechanical transport quickened initial attack; a speeder patrolled the Northern Pacific Railway lines; and an annual campaign of fire prevention was inaugurated. Cooperative agreements with the U.S. Forest Service helped align practices on the reservation with those on the national forests, which also provided the only fire lookouts.
The big change came with the New Deal. The Indian Reorganization Act helped modernize the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the Civilian Conservation Corps almost overnight created the infrastructure needed for fire control in the Mission Range, Salish Mountains, and Hog Heaven Range. In 1931 the Flathead reservation had a solitary lookout on Saddle Mountain. By 1942, when the CCC ceased, it had seven, all joined by telephone lines and a radio station. More roads divvied up the unbroken countryside, providing better access. The CCC furnished fire crews. Moreover, the Corps served as interagency sinews to bind fire protection on the reservation to the neighboring forests. Cooperative fire protection expanded from mutual aid agreements with the Forest Service to include contracts with the State of Montana and private lands under the Northern Montana Forestry Association. The Flathead Agency (after 1934, the Consolidated Salish-Kootenai Tribe) created a facsimile of Forest Service programs. It did so, however, without a comparable funding mechanism. Its annual report for 1959 noted that, while they appeared similar, the CSKT’s fire program – personnel, equipment, maintenance of trails and repair of towers – was rapidly falling behind its federal neighbors. Everything needed updating. The stereopticon effect that had characterized fire understanding since Nicolas Point’s allegorical painting had assumed a modern, mechanized update.
Fifty years after the Great Fires, the reservation suffered a bout of big burns that began in early July, 1960 and, bolstered by dry lightning storms, had reached over 100 ignitions by July 20. The fires blew away the increasingly flimsy tissue of fire protection erected over the past decades. The CSKT doubled down. It signed a cooperative smokejumper program with the Aerial Fire Depot in Missoula; later created an helitack crew; trained fire crews on call-up out of forest workers; and hired professionals out of the Forest Service. It started a prescribed burning program to handle the fast-amassing slash from accelerated logging operations. It joined the USFS in constructing a lookout on Baldy Mountain. Over the next decade the program rebuilt. It hired fire officers from the Forest Service. It looked like fire programs elsewhere in the region. It became a part of the Missoula matrix, although like the Flatheads it had relocated from the Bitterroot Valley proper northward.
By the late 1970s the image of the Flathead Reservation resembled the scenes around it, save for poorer funding. Tilting the image a bit, however, revealed another image beneath. Like Point’s painting, reality was an unstable composite made from an overlay. Already events were twisting in ways to bring the two images into sharper parallax.
§ What happened was the fire revolution with its ultimate ambition to restore free-burning flame. For the national forests and parks of the Northern Rockies, this meant allowing natural fires to burn, or creating the conditions that would permit such fires, or substituting prescribed fires where untrammeled burns could not be tolerated. For the Flathead Reservation, however, it meant restoring something of the landscapes and fire practices that had prevailed in Precolumbian times. This was a deeper reform made possible by a parallel revolution in Native American governance. The two restorations overlay each other.
In the 1950s the long trend to assimilate had led to a policy of outright termination – the cultural equivalent to the fire suppression. The resulting reaction occurred in lockstep with the fire revolution. In 1961 a pan-Indian conference convened at the University of Chicago and led in 1962 to a “Declaration of Indian Purpose” presented to President Kennedy. At the same time a National Indian Youth Council organized as an advocacy group for a new generation. A series of reform legislation and court decisions began addressing education, health, tribal courts, access to natural resources (notably, fishing and water rights) – these culminated as a protest movement in the American Indian Movement and as a legal regime in the American Indian Civil Rights Act (1968) and then the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act (1975). An American Indian Policy Review Commission oversaw a panoramic survey, which led to a report in 1977. All this set in motion a series of restorations – of tribal identity, of religious sites, of historic sites, of control over natural resources and even the return of some ceded lands. What happened in fire, as a national program moved from a hegemonic agency with a single policy to a pluralism of lands and practices, had a parallel in American Indian history. At places like the Flathead Reservation the two movements braided together.[viii]
Throughout the 1970s the CSKT acquired more control over its forestry and fire programs, even as it emulated the planning guidelines and practices of the other federal agencies and commissioned a detailed history of its forestry program. In principle, the BIA’s charge to hold the land in trust obligated it to emulate the best programs, which also meant funding them at comparable levels. In practice, it had tended to add encumbering layers of bureaucracy while never financing programs adequately. What had been a separate but equal doctrine had inevitably proved neither separate nor equal. In 1992 the CSKT accelerated its move toward self-government, including its management of woods, waters, and lands generally. It sought working landscapes; production forestry continued; and revenue helped finance other programs. But it also wanted special areas, the equivalent of wilderness. A primitive area had been proclaimed in 1979; in 1982 it became the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness – the first tribally mandated wilderness nationally. This was supplemented by three special use areas; the South Fork of the Jocko, Lozeau, and Chief Cliff. Throughout, the proclaimed norm was a restoration to more Precolumbian conditions or at least ancestral attitudes adapted to more modern times. That included fire.
A complex process of planning commenced that resulted in a kind of alternate version of multiple-use land. An interim forest management plan emerged in 1997, an EIS in 1999, and a new forest management plan in 2000, coincident with the National Fire Plan, with a dedicated fire management plan in 2007. Mostly prescribed fire remained in logging slash, but some underburning was spreading particularly in ponderosa pine savannas, and there was a willingness to grant fires in the wilderness some play, especially since much of the adjacent lands were Forest Service wilderness. Yet tribal wilderness was not the same as wilderness on federal lands, and an acceptance of fire did not originate solely from the same wellsprings, so as part of the commitment to restore something of the old fire regimes was to recover the old lore that had underwritten human occupation of the land. The upshot was a remarkable summary of legends, techniques, and regimes coded into an interactive DVD and website, Fire on the Land: a Tribal Perspective, released in 2004. Where the national forests and parks looked to natural science for a foundation to practice, believing that the best landscape was one that was as wholly “natural” as possible, the CSKT accepted a former cultural landscape as its ideal. Both perspectives looked to the past, but one peered into a past before humans and the other into that past before Europeans. One appealed to wilderness and natural science, both presumed transcendent and above culture. The other appealed to culture, from which concepts like wilderness and practices like science derive and through which they must be nourished.
Today, the Flathead Reservation has a fire program that looks much like those around it. It fights fire on its timber lands and burns slash. It prescribe-burns select tiles in its landscape mosaic. It encourages, on a case by case basis, some wilderness fire, and may intervene to put more black in if needed. It suppresses fire under contract for some state and rural lands. It supplies 20-person crews for work off the reservation. It meets comparable standards for training, operates identical equipment, attends the same conferences, and serves on shared NWCG panels. For all intents and purposes, it is interchangeable with other major players within the national system and regional complex.[ix]
And yet it has fashioned an alternate vision, an overlay in which the commonalities, on casual inspection, have blurred the distinctions. While the CSKT fire program is encumbered by layers of bureaucracy and oversight and legal filters not true of its allied fire agencies, it is also spared some of the public and political scrutiny that constrain the others. It has freedoms to act that they lack. It has what it calls wilderness, but is not subject to the Wilderness Act. It can have its own airshed plan, and managed smoke accordingly. Even when it engages in endeavors similar to those around it, those practices are refracted through a different perspectival prism. It tells a counter narrative in parallax.
§ In the modern era the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribe’s most famous member has surely been D’Arcy McNickle. His biography encapsulates perfectly both the blending of peoples and the incomprehensions that divide them. He had an Irish father and a Cree metís mother; he could live in both tribal and white worlds; he could seem to whites both acculturated and progressive, and to Indians a defender of rights and tradition. He became a major figure in the movement for national reform. And he wrote three novels that exactly pan those times and illustrate brilliantly how two people could, even with the best of intentions, read a scene in diametrically opposite ways.
The first, The Surrounding, was published in 1936, two years after Indian Reorganization Act. The last, Wind from an Enemy Sky, appeared in 1978, posthumously, three years after Indian Self-Determination and Education Act. The plot of Wind turns on the construction of a dam. To whites it is a marvel of applied science, a taming of natural processes to better economic purposes. To Bull, the Indian protagonist, the act is insane. “They can’t stop water. Water just swallows everything and waits for more. That’s the way with water.” Worse, the dam buries a sacred site. Each side holds to its culture and the perspective it encourages, while their interaction unfolds into tragedy. What McNickle wrote about water might equally apply to fire, except the tragedy is borne by the land not persons.
Throughout, the two cultures have not only viewed fire differently, but have incommensurate understandings about how to view a firescape at all. Today, it is possible to imagine a remake of Nicolas Point’s painting in which crews light the woods to promote ecological benefits while deer and bison forage on the refreshed browse. The prevailing perspective would explain that scene as a reinstatement to a better, more natural world in which fire has returned to work its biotic alchemy, with the implication that keeping the fire and removing the fire-starters would improve the scene even further. The firescape should be viewed through the moral prism of wilderness and the analytical prism of science. Another perspective would parse that image as a restoration to a former world in which people had co-existed with those woods and grasses and creatures and did the task uniquely assigned to them; they burned. In this rendering to remove the people would unhinge the fire and unbalance the prelapsarian order – the Fall in this case resulting from the encounter with Europe. It is a firescape encompassed by culture, however decorated along its margins, like an illuminated manuscript, by the machinery and clothing of modern technology.
That the two visions can co-exist is possible because places like the Flathead Reservation survive.