Fire and Myths About Northeast Native Land Stewardship
Updated: Mar 31, 2022
Myths are still being imposed on Indigenous cultures. Northeastern Indigenous people are being colonized by the myth that we burned our lands on a major scale. Factoids about Native Americans and fire are based on low-quality research that has been confronted by more thorough research. Big money interests want to suppress that research. Why does this matter? There is an industrial logging industry closely tied to government who use false narrative about Indigenous Northeasterners to promote their extraction agenda.
As detailed below, evidence of common or widespread use of fire is absent from the archaeological record in many places where it would be if the “Burnt Land” lobbyists were right.
The myth about Natives burning our forests is co-opted by logging interests and politicians across the nation to legitimize extraction under climate crisis. Experts from Harvard to Stanford have challenged in print the fire regime narrative as basis for logging as “forest management.” The lack of comprehensive study has been called out; for an example, see Foster's Harvard study proposal listed below (p. 8 sec. B(1), p. 10 sec. B (3)). Many lift the cultural practices of Indigenous nations living on naturally fire-prone land among fire-adapted flora and fauna, then transfer that to lands and habitats that have no significant adaptation to fire regimes in the past several millennia.
Agencies like Massachusetts DCR use revision of Native culture to claim that logging and burning public forests are part of "traditional stewardship." Evidence for large-scale burning is absent. Even some area tribes are using that myth as a rationale for logging forests on Native Land, shipping trees all the way to Alabama, and processing logs into wood pellets for national distribution. That gives those wood pellets the largest carbon footprint possible and sets a false cultural model.
An exemplary case where "burnt land" claims were disproven is Montague Plains. The University of Massachusetts investigated the archaeology of fire on the land at Montague Plains Wildlife Management Area and found no evidence of fire regimes before Colonial times. Even so, DCR to this day claims they are "continuing Native land stewardship practices" by burning at Montague Plains, the same place their claim was disproven. Massachusetts spends taxpayer money promoting a fire myth that the Massachusetts state university has disproven.
Lack of Fire-Adapted Species = Lack of Fire
One of the most telling truths about the lack of fire regimes in the Northeast is that our flora contain extremely few species adapted to or dependent on fire, and those that are live in narrow habitats. This is completely different from the flora of Western and Southeastern North America, where there are many species of flora that are fire-adapted and fire dependent.
Primary Native Northeastern Prey Species Don't Benefit From Fire
It is often claimed that burning was done in the Northeast to improve deer grazing, but this is a mistake. Cattle-oriented Euroamericans assume that grass is the favored pasture of all ruminants, but that is wrong. Deer favor shrub and forb browse, and do not graze at all alike cattle, sheep or horses. Moose and deer graze in similar fashion: they are mobile grazers who engage in low-impact browsing under normal feeding conditions. Moose focus on buds, young twigs, and water plants, feeding at higher height than deer. Deer favor shrub and tree buds, cane plant leaves, fruits, nuts and many forbs, particularly those in Asteraceae, Deer favorites are osiers, rhododenrons (rare in the wild in the Northeast), hemlock, black raspberry, certain viburnums, certain asters; they will eat most anything under famine.
None of the plants favored by moose and deer tolerate fire well, do well in fire prone soils, or show any adaptive features related to fire. Aside from moose and deer, favorite Native Northeastern foods that might be affected by fire are beaver, passenger pigeon, mourning dove, squirrel, rabbit, and a host of plant foods. Prominent collected – rather than field-grown – foods for the Native Northeast include many tree and shrub berries, tubers and corms like nut sedge, cattail, hopenis, tree nuts, sunflower root and certain leafy greens (most of which greens are also field weeds). Beaver do not benefit from fire in any way, while some of their favorite foods are very intolerant of fire. Also, beaver do not live on fire-prone land. It would be hard to argue that Native birds and rodent fare benefit from fire except perhaps two: rabbit and the Eastern Heath Hen (now extinct).
Favorite wild collected plants foods - various raspberries, strawberries, viburnum berries, hopenis, hakalaipen (Canadian sunflower root and seeds) are all sensitive to fire in a negative way. At Wuttamineshket, tests by Oso:ah Foundation on the use of fire to maintain a meadow showed that fire had major negative impact on target food plants, including strawberries, black raspberries, red raspberries, blackberries, hopenis and hakialaipen.
It’s hard to see how fire would benefit Native Northeastern communities in terms of food, while it’s easy to see how fire would harm their hunting interests. Some suggest that hunters cleared brush with fire for hunting, but brush is what attracts deer and moose in the first place. Since Indigenous people are typically good game managers, fire would not make sense in this case.
Native Northeast Use of Fire Was Very Limited
The one place where clearing, burning, and intentionally moving landscape through successional phases was practiced by Native Northeastern nations is kuttinakish/hakihakanink (planting lands). On planting lands, we ringed and burned large trees when a field had been fallow for a long time. Large trees were left to die after ringing and burned at the base. Sometimes this was done to green trees when need for land was high. Smaller trees and brush were cut. Whatever wood was needed would be removed and the remaining cut brush would be burned. The duff and ash, with char, would be scraped into low mounds and planted. The log wood and smaller wood for fires, plus saplings and bark for houses, could mostly be obtained from the cycles of fallow and reuse.
Our planting lands lay almost entirely on alluvial floodplains and low sandy loam deposits in banks just above. One reason for this is the need for reliable moisture, as well as the nourishing gift of flood silt. These same lands are favored by deer and fowl, particularly in the lean seasons and cold. The cyclic use of these lands stewarded good hunting lands alongside crops.
Some newbie Colonists saw Native people burning fallow land and opportunistically hunting the deer flushed out by that action. Some then wrongly assumed this was how we always hunted. Later historians repeated this endlessly and blew up a misunderstanding into a false diatribe.
Seasonally, the much of the same game is found in the highlands. Also in the highlands are porcupine, bear and martens, all desired by hunters. Again, the foods sought by these needed animals are not encouraged by fire.
Between beaver and natural fire, along with storms and periodic insect attacks, the natural forest cycles itself through succession. It’s important to note that the rate of succession is very different for all these habitat types. That variety of regime and the tailored stewardship developed by Native people to address each facet of their homelands combine to create a complex system of stewardship that takes an entire youth-time to master.
Where’s the Charcoal? Missing Evidence and Misapplied Ideas
Aside from these ecological and cultural arguments against widespread man-made fire regimes, there is the lack of verifiable human-made char in the archaeological record. Detailed below, careful studies over large areas found a lack of charcoal where there should be if humans were regularly firing the land. As well, the studies that do support fire regimes are deeply flawed. In a follow-up study, I will demonstrate how a widely-accepted study in my home state is actually empty of any real science and finds no actual evidence of humans using fire on the landscape at all.
Yet, bureaucrats and loggers continue to chant ‘the Indians burned the forests, so we should log the forests” regardless of what science shows. Logging promoters use models from the opposite side of the continent to legitimize logging during a climate crisis here. This was recently part of local news debate, my response here:
Here is an entire talk on Indigenous Land Stewardship of the Northeast:
You don’t have to take my word for it; research below debunks the burnt land myth.
How did this happen?
Before 1990 and adoption of the internet, there is little mention of Native Northeastern people burning lands outside kuttinakish anywhere in the Northeast (kuttinakish= crop lands). Kuttinakish is the one land type where fire was used to prepare fallow fields and in preparation of canoes of the misul/muxul/mishoon type. Under influence of the internet and social media, land use patterns from California and elsewhere West came to be framed by the National Park Service as a model for modern forest management. Loggers promoted the idea of logging forests to suppress wildfires and also promoted a Native American connection to make it sound more ecological. This is borrowing on the stereotype of Native Americans as “wildmen” to sell resource extraction under climate crisis.
Within the Rocky Mountain ranges and the West Coast, there are many lands that are historically fire prone and where fire regimes do feature, but in controlled and small-scale use. These are also seasonally arid lands that also have volcanic activity and lie on very youthful mountains undergoing much dramatic change. Landslides, scree slopes, droughts and more are common in the West, but all of those are contrastingly lacking in the Northeast’s terrain of ancient mountains, low tectonic activity and temperate climate.
In the late 90's, some papers emerged blaming forest fires on fire suppression, which were followed by some Forest Service agents claiming that Native people burned the forests regularly. Their claims never matched Indigenous narratives. Native narrative was thoroughly controlled and gate-kept by Euroamerican bureaucrats who cherrypicked statements and reapplied those sound bytes as a continent-wide policy. Problem is, the narratives originate from Indigenous elders living in specialized habitats that very much do not represent the continent as a whole.
Once Indigenous narrative is byte-sampled and co-opted by Euroamerican bureaucracy, it is divorced from its roots and re-envisioned to conform to a politico-economic dogma that is completely unrelated to any Indigenous cultural narrative.
Here are some articles where research shows that Indigenous people did not burn or log our forests on any significant scale:
from Emerson College: "Climate, Not Humans Shaped Ancient New England Landscape” -
“Native People Did Not Use Fire to Shape New England’s Landscape” -
Harvard Proposal Challenges Fire Myths and Calls Out Lack of Science to Support -
Contextualizing European snapshots of post-contact southern New England, Wyatt Oswald, Emerson College -
Conservation implications of limited Native American impacts in pre-contact New England, W. Wyatt Oswald, David R. Foster, Bryan N. Shuman, Elizabeth S. Chilton, Dianna L. Doucette & Deena L. Duranleau -
Excerpt from a well-researched article at:
The claim that Indian burning precludes large fires feeds into the “fuels is the problem” narrative, which is increasingly discredited, as large wildfires in fact are driven by extreme climate weather.
All large fires are driven by climate and weather conditions which include drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and high winds.
These conditions have always existed, and large blazes have always occurred despite Indigenous burning. However, they are being exacerbated today by human-caused climate warming.
Indigenous burning resulted primarily in localized fuel reductions but seldom affected the larger landscape.
There is historic, scientific, ecological, and evolutionary evidence that challenges the Indian burning narrative.
As Barrett et al. 2005 noted: “For many years, the importance of fire use by American Indians in altering North American ecosystems was underappreciated or ignored. Now, there seems to be an opposite trend…. It is common now to read or hear statements to the effect that American Indians fired landscapes everywhere and all the time, so there is no such thing as a “natural” ecosystem. A myth of human manipulation everywhere in pre-Columbus America is replacing the equally erroneous myth of a totally pristine wilderness.
We believe that it is time to deflate the rapidly spreading myth that American Indians altered all landscapes by means of fire. In short, we believe that the case for landscape-level fire use by American Indians has been dramatically overstated and over extrapolated.”
Noss, et al. 2014 assert: “Despite ample evidence that lightning fire was a primary ecological driver in the NACP [North American Coastal Plain], the myth persists that most fires before the arrival of Europeans were set by Native Americans. For example, Mann (2005; 361) provides a map that shows essentially the entire pre-Columbian NACP, including the lightning-riddled Gulf Coast and Florida peninsula, as ‘dominated by anthropogenic fire’ or with ‘widespread forest clearing for agriculture’. No evidence is offered to support these claims.”
For more on this subject, there will be an upcoming report –
“Square Peg in a Round Hole: How Professionals Misread Their Data”
Brought to you by Oso’ah Foundation, “Planting a Tree in the Name of Peace.”