|Fire as a Tool: Native Americans use of
Fire was an important tool widely used by Native
Americans. It was part of their everyday life. Fire had many uses: reducing the
undergrowth thereby opening up the area for more food plants such as berries;
clearing the land for crops; and hunting-driving game in an open woods was
quieter and easier to move through when hunting. For a long time it was
believed that the Native Americans had little impact on the land they
inhabited, taking only what was needed and moving on. However this version of
history is not true. Native Americans and in fact all people have changed the
landscape they live on to meet their needs for survival and growth. Fires were
purposely set by Native Americans for many reasons all critical for their
survival: providing food, places to live, safety, and in warfare.
course naturally caused fires such as those started by lightening or volcanoes
did happen but the fires set by Native Americans were different in three ways:
- Time of the year. Native Americans set their fires at certain
times of the year depending on what the purpose of that fire was. For example
fires set to clear land for growing crops and stimulating berry growth were set
in the early spring in the northern part of North America just as the new
growth was starting.
- Timing. Fires were set at regular intervals, often as
frequently as every 5 years. This was more often than naturally occurring
- Intensity. Because fires were set more frequently than normal
there was less time for larger plants such as shrubs and trees to grow back.
This meant there was less fuel to feed a fire, the fires were less intense, and
more likely to burn along the surface (ground fire.) A fire that has more fuel
will be larger, often getting into the tops of trees and spreading from tree to
tree (crown fire.)
What kind of evidence is there to support
these claims? Most of the evidence is indirect such as written accounts by
early settlers, explorers, trappers, and missionaries that saw fires or
evidence of fires on the landscape. The landscape itself leaves clues by what
is growing there and by looking at tree rings. Trees often have fire scars that
give clues as to how often fires started, how severe they were, and what
direction the fire came from. A fire scar will form on the area of the tree
opposite from the direction the fire came from.
||Sugar pine with fire scars labeled.
© A.C. Caprio
We also know fire was an important part of Native
American culture because it is part of their mythology. The following story
describes how fire came to native peoples.
|How the Coyote Stole Fire
|Long ago, when man was newly come into the world, there
were days when he was the happiest creature of all. Those were the days when
spring brushed across the willow tails, or when his children ripened with the
blueberries in the sun of summer, or when the goldenrod bloomed in the autumn
But always the mists of autumn evenings grew colder, and the sun's
strokes grew shorter. Then man saw winter moving near, and he became fearful
and unhappy. He was afraid for his children, and for the grandfathers and
grandmothers who carried in their heads the sacred tales of the tribe. Many of
these, young and old, would die in the long, ice-bitter months of
Coyote, like the rest of the People, had no need for fire. So he
seldom concerned himself with it, until one spring day when he was passing a
human village. There the women were singing a song of mourning for the babies
and the old ones who had died in the winter. Their voices moaned like the west
wind through a buffalo skull, prickling the hairs on Coyote's neck. "Feel how
the sun is now warm on our backs," one of the women was saying. "Feel how it
warms the earth and makes these stones hot to the touch. If only we could have
had a small piece of the sun in our teepees during the winter."
overhearing this, felt sorry for the men and women. He also felt that there was
something he could do to help them. He knew of a faraway mountain-top where the
three Fire Beings lived. These Beings kept fire to themselves, guarding it
carefully for fear that man might somehow acquire it and become as strong as
they. Coyote saw that he could do a good turn for man at the expense of these
selfish Fire Beings.
So Coyote went to the mountain of the Fire Beings
and crept to its top, to watch the way that the Beings guarded their fire. As
he came near, the Beings leaped to their feet and gazed searchingly round their
camp. Their eyes glinted like bloodstones, and their hands were clawed like the
talons of the great black vulture. "What's that? What's that I hear?" hissed
one of the Beings. "A thief, skulking in the bushes!" screeched another. The
third looked more closely, and saw Coyote. But he had gone to the mountain-top
on all fours, so the Being thought she saw only an ordinary coyote slinking
among the trees. "It is no one, it is nothing!" she cried, and the other two
looked where she pointed and also saw only a grey coyote. They sat down again
by their fire and paid Coyote no more attention.
So he watched all day
and night as the Fire Beings guarded their fire. He saw how they fed it pine
cones and dry branches from the sycamore trees. He saw how they stamped
furiously on runaway rivulets of flame that sometimes nibbled outwards on edges
of dry grass. He saw also how, at night, the Beings took turns to sit by the
fire. Two would sleep while one was on guard; and at certain times the Being by
the fire would get up and go into their teepee, and another would come out to
sit by the fire.
Coyote saw that the Beings were always jealously
watchful of their fire except during one part of the day. That was in the
earliest morning, when the first winds of dawn arose on the mountains. Then the
Being by the fire would hurry, shivering, into the teepee calling, "Sister,
sister, go out and watch the fire." But the next Being would always be slow to
go out for her turn, her head spinning with sleep and the thin dreams of
Coyote, seeing all this, went down the mountain and spoke to some
of his friends among the People. He told them of hairless men, fearing the cold
and death of winter. And he told them of the Fire Beings, and the warmth and
brightness of the flame. They all agreed that man should have fire, and they
all promised to help Coyote's undertaking.
Then Coyote sped again to the
mountain-top. Again the Fire Beings leaped up when he came close, and one cried
out, "What's that? A thief, a thief!" But again the others looked closely, and
saw only a grey coyote hunting among the bushes. So they sat down again and
paid him no more attention. Coyote waited through the day, and watched as night
fell and two of the Beings went off to the teepee to sleep. He watched as they
changed over at certain times all the night long, until at last the dawn winds
rose. Then the Being on guard called, "Sister, sister, get up and watch the
fire." And the Being whose turn it was climbed slow and sleepy from her bed,
saying, "Yes, yes, I am coming. Do not shout so."
But before she could
come out of the teepee, Coyote lunged from the bushes, snatched up a glowing
portion of fire, and sprang away down the mountainside. Screaming, the Fire
Beings flew after him. Swift as Coyote ran, they caught up with him, and one of
them reached out a clutching hand. Her fingers touched only the tip of the
tail, but the touch was enough to turn the hairs white, and coyote tail-tips
are white still. Coyote shouted, and flung the fire away from him. But the
others of the People had gathered at the mountain's foot, in case they were
needed. Squirrel saw the fire falling, and caught it, putting it on her back
and fleeing away through the tree-tops. The fire scorched her back so painfully
that her tail curled up and back, as squirrels' tails still do today. The Fire
Beings then pursued Squirrel, who threw the fire to Chipmunk. Chattering with
fear, Chipmunk stood still as if rooted until the Beings were almost upon her.
Then, as she turned to run, one Being clawed at her, tearing down the length of
her back and leaving three stripes that are to be seen on chipmunks' backs even
today. Chipmunk threw the fire to Frog, and the Beings turned towards him. One
of the Beings grasped his tail, but Frog gave a mighty leap and tore himself
free, leaving his tail behind in the Being's hand---which is why frogs have had
no tails ever since. As the Beings came after him again, Frog flung the fire on
to Wood. And Wood swallowed it. The Fire Beings gathered round, but they did
not know how to get the fire out of Wood. They promised it gifts, sang to it
and shouted at it. They twisted it and struck it and tore it with their knives.
But Wood did not give up the fire. In the end, defeated, the Beings went back
to their mountain-top and left the People alone.
But Coyote knew how to
get fire out of Wood. And he went to the village of men and showed them how. He
showed them the trick of rubbing two dry sticks together, and the trick of
spinning a sharpened stick in a hole made in another piece of wood. So man was
from then on warm and safe through the killing cold of winter.
How did Native Americans use fire?
Williams (2000) Native Americans used fire for the following reasons:
- Hunting. Fire was used to drive large game such as
deer, elk, and bison into areas that made hunting easier. Sometimes animals
were driven by fire over cliffs or into narrow canyons, rivers or lakes where
they could be more easily killed. Torches were set to find deer and attract
fish. Smoke was a useful tool in forcing raccoons and bears from their tree
- Growing Food. Fire was used to clear areas for growing
food; prevent fields from growing back to shrubs and trees while they were
fallow; increase the yield of berries such as strawberries, raspberries,
huckleberries; and clear areas under oak trees to make the gathering of acorns
- Insect Collection. Fire was used to collect and roast
crickets and grasshoppers. Smoke was used to drive bees from nests aiding in
- Pest Management. Fire helped to keep the population
levels of pests such as rodents, poisonous snakes, flies, and mosquitoes
- Range Management. Fire stimulated the growth of new
grasses for grazing animals and kept the area from growing back to shrubs and
- Fireproofing. Native Americans knew how to fight fire
with fire. Fires were deliberately set near settlements and other special
areas. If a fire moved through the area it might go out when reaching the
already burned area because there was no fuel.
- Warfare and Signaling. Fires were purposely set in
fighting enemies. A cleared area was hard to hide in. Fires were used to
destroy enemy property. Fires were set during an escape to camouflage movement.
Large fires were also set to notify others of enemy movements and gather forces
- Economic Extortion. Some tribes burned large areas to
prevent settlers and traders from finding game. They would then trade with them
for dried meats.
- Clearing Areas for Travel. Keeping trails open and
free from brush was important for travel, and safety.
- Tree Felling. Trees were important for building
structures and canoes. Before axes were available through trade, Native
Americans used fire to kill trees. One method was to drill two intersecting
holes in a trunk, put charcoal in one hole and let the smoke escape in the
other. The other method involved encircling a tree with fire at the base,
"girdling" it, and eventually killing it.
- Clear Riparian Areas. A riparian area is land near
water. Clearing brush made hunting for beaver, muskrats, moose, and waterfowl
Write a story. Imagine you are a
young Native American boy or girl. It is a warm spring day with little breeze.
A fire is being set today to clear an area for growing food. Here are some
ideas you might want to build into your story:
- Time of the year-late spring
- Cool evenings, warm days
- Days are getting longer, more sunlight
- After less activity of winter, busy time of year
- Maple syruping
- Birds and animals moving about
- Not too windy day
- Fire is exciting, yes dangerous, fires set by adults
- Good-clear land for food to grow and berries
- Your job is to stand guard in case the wind shifts--use a
buffalo hide to beat out any sparks or small fires that might get too close to
William, G.W. 2000. Introduction to
Aboriginal Fire Use in North America. Fire Management Today. 60(3):8-12.