Friday, May 13, 2011

Living with Boreal Forest Fires (and Bears and Thunderbirds)

Anishinaabe Perspectives on Disturbance and Collaborative Forestry Planning, Pikangikum First Nation, Northwestern Ontario.

 (A Thesis found at:

 Some interesting quotes:
"According to the elders the Creator (Keechee manidoo) is responsible for the community of beings and forest in which the people of Pikangikum live. This community is composed of animals, plants, environmental features and processes that possess agency and maintain reciprocal relationships with other community members.

Renewal within this network of beings is facilitated through the Creator's Plan (Keechee manidoo oohnuhcheekayween), in which all beings are provided with the things that they need in order to live well.

Illustration of these principles is demonstrated by Pikangikum elders' understanding of lightening caused fires (beenaysee eshkotay Thunderbird fire). These fires are considered to be alive (auyuhshuhwuhtuhn). Plants, animals, rocks, standing snags, water and other features of the environment are all considered by the elders as living things which possess agency - the ability to make choices (Giddens, 1979) (Appendix 2).

Figure 5.2. Beenaysee eshkotay – Thunderbird fire, comes from the thunderbirds’ eyes and strikes whatever it is looking at. Renewal begins with the roots that remain underground.
The Creator has a match and that match is the Thunderbird. He brings that match to the land when the forest gets too old and can’t grow anymore. So the Thunderbird comes to earth. After the forest is burnt new growth starts. Animals get tired of eating old food. Just like you and me. The Creator knows that animals need new food. The fire there brings fresh food to eat. As an example: rabbit [sic - snowshoe hare] favors new growth area. When you look at rabbit I think it is like a food chain for animals. Rabbits have three litters a summer. Fox, lynx, marten all depend on rabbit. The Creator has to care for all animals so he sends Thunderbird to earth to make food for rabbit. We like to eat rabbit too. So he burns for us too." - The late elder, Whitehead Moose, community meeting June 10, 2006

"Elder Gideon Peters related a story told to him by his father of black bear (Ursus americanus makwa) being able to start forest fire by lifting up rocks and slamming them down to produce sparks. ―They do this because they know there will be berries there and it will get to eat. What do you think of that? ‖ 1 (Community meeting, March 6, 2007).
 Humorously, other elders said they didn't think OMNR would believe Mr. Peter's story. They joked that OMNR believes in Smokey the Bear, a bear who wears pants and a hat and tells people to put out fire. While they are clear Smokey is a fictitious character, a bear who doesn't like forest fire is clearly ridiculous." by sustaining the ahkee. I don’t believe the theory that leaves die. This chair here is another example. It is made of wood and metal. It is a chair here and now, but it is…it possesses auhyuhshuhwuhtuhn.

"Disturbing rocks and soil demonstrates a failure to show respect (cheepuhpeenootuhmun) and carries the potential for repercussions (Appendix 4.2)." (page 89)

Appendix 4.2. Interview with Elder Mathew Strang March 1, 2007. Translated by Paddy Peters.

Q: I’m trying to review some of the ideas that Norman Quill gave me and I was hoping you could give me a second opinion on what some of the phrases mean. Paddy and I were just talking about auyuhshuhwuhtuhn which I understand to mean that all things have a will to exist in a certain way. I am wondering how this relates to cheeyahweesaag. Cheeyahwaysaag, that's the word that Norman gave me to mean that things want to return to a certain condition after they are disturbed. He said that many times a fire could burn a place and it would return to how it was. But sometimes this cheeyahweesaag is disturbed and it does not. Can you tell me how you understand these ideas?

PP - [translating]:


PP [trans.]: All things have life. A stick – White people would describe it as dead, a piece of wood, sand, water. All have life which I call auhyuhshuhwuhtuhn. Everything is alive because everything is connected to the Creator. Even the dead tree across the road is alive. For example auhwaycheekay, a dead head, a log in the water is actually alive. For this reason you never point at it. Deadheads are connected to the weather conditions. It will bring bad weather, a storm. You have to respect the dead head. You don’t drive your boat too close to it or create waves. You don’t want to cause it any undue stress. Another example is peetay, the white foam on the water that can be seen on the shoreline. You are not supposed to touch that. It is an indicator. If it leaves the shore and drifts onto the water it means it is a calm day and the water will be calm. Auhyuhshuhwuhtuhn refers to us all.

As for cheeyahweesaag, it means to look the same as the original. In a clearcut area, what the Whiteman is doing is breaking the ground this term should not apply. Everything is broken up and destroyed, the plants the roots, etc. Fire will destroy the top but eventually everything will go back the way it was in the original. Clearcutting actually wounds the ahkee severely. It is wounded to the point that that area will never be the same as it was originally. Cheeyahweesaag would not apply here.

Q - If I understand you correctly it does not apply because people who are doing that have not taken into account the auhyuhshuhwuhtuhn. It has not been respected.

PP -

MS -

PP - [trans.] That is absolutely correct. Rocks and stones have to be left in their proper place. Bulldozing after a clearcut moves them all. See that hydro pole across the road? That also has auhyuhshuhwuhtuhn. It was once a tree and was taken off the land and made for this purpose into the pole. One day, maybe it will be replaced when it is too old and maybe it will be put to some other use – maybe fire wood. That will turn the pole into ashes that will go back onto the land to reenter the cycle. Another example is the leaves that grow on the trees during the summer. When they fall off in the fall they go to the ground and reenter the cycle

Q - Let me ask, do some things require that we show greater awareness of auhyuhshuhwuhtuhn than others? Say for instance do rocks and lakes require more respect than a chair or a power pole?

PP - [trans.]

MS -

PP - [trans.] There is a balance for all things, but the teaching that I received when I was young was that it was wrong to go into the deep forest and disturb rocks and trees for no reason. When I was young, the area across the lake had been burned and we used to go over there to collect blueberries. The women would collect berries and we boys would go up the stream where we found a cliff. We made a game of taking big rocks and throwing them off the cliff. We got in a lot of trouble about that from those women. They said that those rocks one day would surprise us by getting even with us.

Q - So then constructing a driveway at your house out of gravel is not showing disrespect to the rocks, while going into the forest and digging around or cutting down trees is?

PP - That’s right.

MS - Cheepuhpeenootuhmun is failure to show respect.

PP – It is not being disrespectful, it’s more that you are not being mindful, you are not being aware.

MS -

PP - [trans.] When I go into the woods and I want to make a pot of tea I cut a small green tree to hold up my tea pot over the fire. I cut the tree for a reason. That is why it is there – for me to use it like that. Afterwards I will leave it and it will maybe go back into the ahkee. Or maybe the following year I’ll return and find the stick that is now dried out and I’ll break it up and burn it in my fire making ashes. I have not disrespected the tree. I used it for a reason and that is part of why the tree is there. These things happen for a reason. But if I go and I shoot a duck and I don’t intend to eat the duck then I have insulted it by showing cheepuhpeenootuhmun. I have wasted that duck.

In this study we examine the role of fire in the construction of Anishinaabe cultural landscapes in the boreal forest of northwestern Ontario. Much recent literature explores controlled burning practices used by people of different cultures to manipulate vegetation communities within sites or small scales. Because humans have only recently been able to suppress fires occurring at larger scales these studies focus on activities occurring at the scale of sites as making the greatest contribution to creating cultural landscapes...American cultural geographer Carl O. Sauer (1889 – 1975) introduced the concept of cultural landscapes to foreground the role of humans in shaping landscapes (1925; 1927). ―The cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agent, the area is the medium, the cultural landscape is the result,‖ (Sauer 1925: 343). His approach emphasized the ―centrality of the material and observable record of humans‖ in shaping biophysical structures of landscapes (Agnew et al. 1996, 240). Through extensive documentation of the ways humans shaped landscapes Sauer realized that cultural landscapes are fashioned in many ways that include one‘s own labor and directing others‘ labor in association with a variety of materials and technologies. Sauer‘s work opened up an interest in how human agency fashions landscapes...
...Thunderbirds are born in nests located on islands or hill tops where geologic formations consisting of heaps of rounded stones occur. According to oral tradition, long ago there were no trees on the land, so thunderbirds constructed their nests of rocks. These features are locations of power and are treated respectfully. Young thunderbirds arise from these nests in the early summer. Among the stories told about thunderbirds are several in which humans marry thunderbirds (Appendix 5.1). Although potentially dangerous, thunderbirds are generally beneficial for their role in renewing forest growth and for protecting their human relatives from horned serpents who live underground (meshekenaybegook). Were it not for the lightning wielding thunderbirds, these serpents would surface and destroy the Anishinaabeg (Quote 5.4.1 d.). Anishinaabe communities in the Great Lakes region also recognize the conflict between the thunderbirds and their counterparts the horned serpent or as it is also known, the water lynx (meshebishew) (Johnston, 1976; Smith, 1995). Elders point to the sounds of frequent thunder in the early summer as an indication that older thunderbirds are teaching the younger ones how to use their bolts of lightning. Thunderbirds are related to all birds but have a special affinity to solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria, chedooae), common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor, payskik), swallow (Family: Hirundinidae, shashawahnepesee), belted kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon, ookeshkemahnesee) and kestrel (Falco sparvarius, pepekooshaense). Hallowell (Brown and Gray 2009) further identifies white pelicans and hawks as being allied or protected by thunderbirds. Mistreating these animals, destroying their nests or eggs will cause thunder to sound, a sign that the thunderbirds have been angered and may seek revenge upon the offender.

Black bears (makwah, Ursus americana) are frequently found in berry patches following fires. Several elders express the opinion that bears are capable of starting fires by scraping their claws against rocks to throw a spark. Bears do this because they know that berries will grow after a fire and be available as food. This statement is a clear expression of the view that bears are sentient and capable of starting fires in order to improve availability of forest resources.   -144

6.3 Indigenous fire management

It has become increasingly accepted that indigenous peoples managed vegetation communities across North America through selective controlled burning (Williams, 2000a). Fire was utilized across many ecosystems for purposes as varied as: tree felling; managing pests; improving forage for prey species; clearing agricultural fields; maintaining open travel corridors; creating fuel breaks around camps and villages; increasing productivity of berry patches and root crops; producing basketry material; and warfare (Williams 2000a; Stewart et al. 2002). It has been documented that these practices diminished due to processes of colonization that included European occupancy, the imposition of state fire management regimes and the demographic collapse of Indigenous populations (Cronon, 1983; Kimmerer and Lake, 2001). Ethnoecologists, anthropologists, historians, and ecologists have worked with historical documents, biophysical remains, and with surviving practitioners and Elders to refine regional pictures of the methods and the scales of burning practices.

This renewed interest in human uses of fire in shaping landscapes is often traced to the work of Carl Sauer (1947) and Omar Stewart (1955; 2001). Since that time, research has documented the specific linkages between indigenous burning practices and vegetation in California (Anderson, 2006), the Pacific Northwest (Boyd 1999; Deur and Turner 2005), the boreal forest (Lewis and Ferguson, 1988; Davidson-Hunt, 2003), as well as a broader North American overview (Pyne, 1997). Much of the focus in previous research was in reconstructing fire practices and fire ecologies for such regions. This was a necessary step to correct the colonial perspective of indigenous lands as a wilderness, or ―terra nullius‖, and thereby free to take up and occupy (Cronon, 1983; Richardson, 1993).6.7.2 Teachings - Elders desire community-based research and education programs to document and transmit their customary pyrotechnology.

Respect for fire, an element that makes life possible in the north, and the necessity to abide by rules for its safe use, pervades all discussions of fire. Controlled use of fire is necessary for providing warmth in winters that routinely reach -40°C. Fire is also used for cooking, hide preparation, smoking and preserving fish and meat, and tool production since time immemorial. Young people are taught that once snow is gone from the forest interior, fires should be built on rock outcrops beside the water. This minimizes the danger of fire burning into the dense organic soil and escaping control. It also places the fire right next to water to douse it when no longer needed or if it begins to get out of control. Other lessons include recognition of fuels that do not throw sparks, soil types that are effective for suppressing fire, and making fires no larger than necessary to accomplish the desired task.

When asked if they were interested in reclaiming traditional controlled landscape burning practices, elders said that in the past it was done for a purpose, mainly to create a more abundant food supply and provide access to valuable muskrat furs. This was never an activity the day they refreeze at night. Wind is also an important consideration. Ideally, the wind should be calm or in the direction of open water so that the sparks from burning grass will be carried out over the water. Fires should not be set when the wind is blowing toward the bush. Fires are set in the afternoon at the peak of the day‘s heat but when there are only a few hours remaining before the temperatures drop and the strength of fire behaviour diminishes. Elders did not recall a fire escaping control when this system was followed.

When fires are set around the grassy margins around streams this practice is termed peeshashkooseewuhseekaag [pl.]. These fires were set to remove dead grass from the previous year. The ash from these fires fertilized as well as darkened the ground surface so that it warmed more rapidly to produce a more productive meenoonihtaawigan, a beautiful birth. Ducks and muskrats benefit by the new growth of several named varieties of grass which they use for nesting and food (Figure 6.2). By making these areas more attractive for ducks and muskrats they became more predictable producers of food and valuable furs. In the late summer people would return to these areas to harvest tall grass which would be dried for use as insulation in winter dog houses and potato storage pits.

Peeshashkooseewuhseekaay [sin.] […] was to burn the old grass so that new grass would grow. As a young boy I would see my father perform this, perform this burning the old grass. He usually did it in the early spring when the ice was still on the lake. Emijayskwaak - clear ice. It was the time when the ducks were back, when they were hunting ducks. That was the time. The real reason was to burn the old grass out. To burn the old year-before-grass – keteymushkoosee.

Elder Norman Quill, Interview. October 30, 2006.

Fire is also used to burn brush from new areas to make potato gardens and to clear debris from sites used in previous years to prepare them for planting. Fire is also used to clean up around cabins. Garbage and organic debris is raked from around cabins and in gardens into piles and lit following the guidelines outlined above. Springtime burning around cabins both on the traplines and in communities clears living and working spaces of brush and refuse, produces grass for aesthetic reasons and, limits fire hazards.

Elders report that by the 1940‘s they began to be afraid of laws banning the use of fire that were put in place by the ―Fire Bosses‖ (Department of Lands and Forests, the precursor to OMNR). Fines amounting to the cost of suppression and imprisonment for the duration of the fire season (April to October) were threatened for those caught starting fires. This is a source of bitterness among some elders. Today, those younger than 30 years old have little knowledge of former fire practices. One reason the elders were interested in entering dialogue with the OMNR about fire management was they wanted to know if the OMNR was now ready to respect the customary use of fire by Pikangikum people within the Whitefeather Forest. They realize that their generation is the last who has direct experience with the practice of customary fire and if they are to pass it on to the youth an understanding with the OMNR will have to occur fast.

171- 174

(Painting by Mario Peters 2007.)

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