The June exhibit at the Josephy Center was about dams and fish. One of the many things I learned in researching and preparing that exhibit was the ways in which 19th and early 20th century scientists and government officials ignored Indian knowledge about the habits of salmon and all anadromous fish. The progressive white voices of the time—from roughly 1880 until 1938—submitted that Pacific salmon returned from the sea to spawn in any random stream or river that caught their swim. Natal streams were insignificant, and in any case we—progressive, scientific Americans—could better nature with hatcheries. We could more than make up for the tremendous numbers of salmon taken from the Columbia to feed the 60+ canneries that lined the river. So we built hatcheries—on the Columbia, the Willamette, and even, in the early 1900s, on the Grande Ronde and Minam rivers.
Alvin Josephy said on many occasions that the most damaging historical treatment of Indians was not the lies—although there were many, but the continuing neglect of Indians as we, as a nation, constructed the narrative of our past. Indians—their voices and their actions—are missing in the standard histories of schools and academe. And of course in discussions of natural resources.
Fire now dominates the news—and lives—in much of the West. As I write this, 35 miles of the I-5 highway at the California-Oregon border are shut down. There are still smoke warnings in Central Oregon, and we in Wallowa County wait and hope for cool nights and fall rains to beat lightening, human carelessness, and wind to the rank grass and dry forests around us.
The Indians burned, purposefully and regularly, in this country and across the West. They burned to invigorate the soil and enhance berry and root production, to make travel easier, and, we might guess, to guard against large, catastrophic fires as much as they could. I understand that agricultural Indians in the East used low slow regular burns to sequester carbon in the soil. I.e. Across the North American continent, fire was the primary land management tool of the people who lived here prior to the Europeans.
I’ve heard that early US Forest Service employees followed this Indian knowledge for a time, but their voices were soon drowned out by the German-trained foresters from Yale who dominated Forest Service administration—and emphatically discredited by the Big Fire of 1910 that raged across the Northwest. Those western Forest Service employees were denigrated as “Paiute foresters,” and the “10 O’clock Policy” came to dominate Western land and fire management for the next 100 years: All fires should be put out by 10 O’clock the morning after their discovery.
The idea that fire is part of the natural regimen of forests and necessary for forest health has been making a slow comeback, but it is difficult to embrace and implement with 100 years of ladder fuels waiting for their match. And with clear-cutting and over-cutting in some places having left a sour taste and environmental outrage in their wake, a reasonable conversation about how to get to baseline—how to reintroduce fire into the landscape—is proving hard.
So here we are with fish and fire, looking for ways to get things back to where Indians told us they should be all those years ago. But that is not right either; getting back to living with the changing world we are part of, which includes big fires and hurricanes, volcanoes and other natural “disasters”—those major events that change the mostly cyclical world we live in.
There is much talk about “white privilege”; maybe there should be more talk about white hubris.
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