One hundred and sixty years ago, before native people were taken to reservations in Oregon, there were hundreds of native communities in all areas of Oregon. They were the remnants of an estimated 100,000 native people in Oregon before epidemics caused the collapse of the tribal cultures. In the year 1800, there were many hundreds more native communities scattered throughout the land. These communities disappeared under epidemics and the weight of colonization by American settlers. By 1850, there were dramatically fewer native communities with most communities the surviving remnant people from the epidemics. They condensed together for safety and security with many tribes disappearing as distinct entities. Less and less native people were allowed to fire their lands.
Jesse Applegate wrote this about his childhood memories of the settlement in the small community of Salt Creek (roughly 1844), which is about three miles north of where the city of Dallas, Polk County, is now.
“… the native population in our neighborhood was a tribe of the Kalapooya and near and far, even to the sea, were the Tillamook, Tawalatin, Chemeketa, and Luckyuke, all appearing to be one tribe and speaking the same language. … their language was remarkably smooth and musical. It was a custom of these Indians, late in the autumn, after the wild wheat was fairly ripe, to burn off the whole country. The grass would burn away and leave the pods well dried and bursting. Then the squaws, both young and old, would go with their baskets and bats and gather the grain.
It is probably we did not yet know that the Indians were wont to baptize the entire country with fire at the close of every summer; but very soon the fire was started somewhere on the south Yamhill, and came sweeping up through the Salt Creek gap. The sea breeze being quite strong that evening caused the flames to leap over the creek and come down upon us like an army with banners. All our skill and perseverance were required to save our camp. The flames swept by on either side of the grove; then quickly closing ranks, made a clean sweep of all the country south and east of us. As the shades of night deepened, long lines of flame and smoke could be seen retreating before the breeze across the hills and valleys. The Indians continued to burn the grass every season until the country was somewhat settled up and the whites prevented them; but every fall for a number of years, we were treated to the same grand display of fireworks. On dark nights sheets of flame, tongues of fire, and lurid clouds of smoke made the picture both awful and sublime.” (Applegate, Jesse, Recollections of my Boyhood: 134-135)
Native people managed their landscapes with fire and with harvesting of specific plants. Then would set fire to their lands, the prairies and even forests, every few years in an attempt to keep the underbrush down. In the process, they managed insects, diseases, and revived the the landscape with new growth. The fires would burn off the extra built up dead material (duff) left from the past year’s seasonal plant cycles. The constant practice of fire management also annually deposited nutrients in the soil, created the amazingly rich agricultural lands of the Willamette valley, built up on glacially deposited soils from eastern Washington. Fire management happened in every region where native peoples had a stake in harvesting the forest, where that needed to walk the trail systems, and where they needed to eliminate underbrush. That means that there were upwards of 100,000 foresters in Oregon alone. In short, the system of fire management practiced by native societies was the largest group of foresters the world has ever seen.
In the last century and a half, the people of the northwest largely have arrogantly assumed that someone else will take care of the management of the forests. Few people are invested in understanding the need to manage the forests, and who are compelled to work toward that purpose. Perhaps a few hundred people actively work in this arena as managers of their forests. We spend more efforts to stop fires in the summer, since so many communities and people live now in and amongst the forests. They now live within literal tinderboxes and trust to fate every day for the survival of their living spaces.
Today, we have federal, state, tribal and private systems of managing the colonized landscape. The Federal and State systems, built up over the past 120 odd years, have steadily decreased in recent years. Their early theory about the land, to stop forest fires, have caused now generations of massive forest fires, larger than ever seen in pre-United States times. For the past 20 years the forestry authorities have realized their mistake, and begun making changes, begun incorporating let it burn policies with forest fires that are naturally set. and in some places, they are now practicing intentional fires.
The Human world needs fire management, especially if we are going to live amongst the forests as our playgrounds and living spaces. Perhaps it is time that local communities are allowed to again manage their landscapes, since it is clear that federal authorities are increasingly unable to do so. (from recent funding models) We need communities where the people are invested in the world around them, where they are empowered as forest managers, and have a responsibility to learn how to manage their landscape and where to build and where to live. We need tribes to again be allowed to practice their traditions. We need some new thinking as to how to manage our cultural world.