Some people used to call Minnesota’s north woods “asbestos forests,” because they thought the state’s forests were impervious to destructive wildfires. That’s not true, of course: just since white settlement there have been a dozen wildfires in northeastern Minnesota bigger than 75,000 acres. And with climate change we can expect more. This summer alone, the Greenwood Fire, sparked by lightning and detected on August 15, 2021, reached nearly 27,000 acres and as of this writing is 80% contained. On Isle Royale, the Horne Fire is much smaller, but still not contained. Such fires can cost millions of dollars to control. The indigenous practice of controlled burns helps prevent wildfires from getting out of hand. Now there’s a short film, Oshkigin: Spirit of Fire, about those traditional practices, produced in Duluth and showing at film festivals and other venues in the region. Agate spoke with Vern Northrup, a retired Bureau of Indian Affairs wildland firefighter and a member and elder of the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe, who is featured in the film.
Agate: What types of things do the Anishinaabe people use fire for?
Northrup: Indigenous people learned how to use fire for many things, not just to renew the land by running a fire through it; fire also was used as a weapon, for food gathering. When there was a locust plague, people burned to kill all the locusts and then they would eat those insects. We, the Anishinaabe, used it to shape our environment—to cut back brush, cut back the understory so you could see further and also to propagate plants. One of the most important to us was blueberries. We’d burn blueberry patches every five to seven years. The first year, the plant comes back; the second year you’ll have berries; the third year you’ll have a lot of berries; in the fourth year it starts to decline; and in the fifth year you’d burn again. I used to do that all over Minnesota, that was one of my jobs as a burn boss.
We burned to help wildlife: in the middle of a forest, you’d cut down all the trees, set a fire, and it becomes a little meadow, the animals just love a meadow like that. Deer love it, and once you had that spot, you could go set yourself up there and harvest the deer. (chuckle)
Starting in 1990 I was a Bureau of Indian Affairs forestry and fire wildland operations specialist. They had to give me a title, but we in our crew would call ourselves “fire gods.” (chuckle) We organized a five-man crew on each reservation (in northern Minnesota) so when there was a big fire on any reservation, we had resources to send.
In spring right after the snow left, I would gather five engines, one from each reservation, with three men in each, and we’d go to each reservation and use their burn plans to do their burns for them. Some of the burns would be 100 or 200 acres; in Red Lake it could be thousands of acres. That was kind of fun. We’d start here at Fond du Lac, then go to Mille Lacs, White Earth, Leech Lake, Bois Forte, and then on up to Grand Portage. We’d leave Grand Portage until last because the winter leaves there last, it’s a microclimate up there. That was a lot of fun.
Agate: How did you decide when a burn was needed?
Northrup: We have formula: when you write a burn plan it’s a prescription; you have to meet certain criteria: temperature, wind, all those factors we consider to achieve a successful burn. You also consider the place: is it time to burn there? Is the moisture all gone in the duff? If we’re burning to remove the understory and start a new seedbed for white pine and red pine, you want to burn down in the duff a ways so the seeds will drop in there and readily start to grow. One of the things we look at is the size of leaves as it’s greening up. We would start a burn for pine when the leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear. Because then you’d have a better chance of setting it back, killing it and opening up that understory. When the leaves are starting to grow, the tree is spending a lot of sugar and energy to get those leaves to grow, so when you hit with fire at that point, that kills it a lot more readily than when it’s fully grown or when it’s just in its dormant stage. It’s a vulnerable time so it doesn’t take much more than a little flame to run through there; it’ll set back that brush and the pine seeds can start to come up.
Some pines need a certain temperature for the cone to pop open and the seed to come out. I think it’s about 120 degrees, and you can reach that on the forest floor just by direct sunlight. It’ll naturally pop open then. But if you hit it with fire, you get better results.
I always knew that fire was an important tool even when I was a kid because we’d burn around the reservation for different things. We had a small ballfield here, and we’d burn it every spring. And there were some places on the reservation where my grandfather would tell us to go burn over there for blueberries. Then I’d go pick blueberries with my grandma and grandpa!
I knew it was a tool, and I knew it had to come back, because of how overcrowded our forests are. I told the Tribal Council we had to bring back fire. They were worried about our forest too, and they said they’d give me one year to educate the band members on what we were going to do. And that was it. But they had the power to take away my matches if something went to hell. I was accused of empire-building because I’d always bring on more resources than I actually needed but that was my contingency plan, having a lot of backup. (chuckle)
Agate: But sometimes you needed that backup?
Northrup: Once in a while it does get a little away from you. In a prescription you have so many acres that you’re going to accomplish this on, and if it burned more, we called it “over-achieving.” Occasionally it’d get a little scary, it’d get in the treetops and start to take off, and everything would get a little confused. But those were good times, and no one got hurt.
Agate: Forest managers these days talk about a “mosaic” in the woods, making sure there are different ages and species of trees. Is that something that your traditional fire practices help create?
Northrup: Especially for the animals, you’ll have new growth within that mosaic, and some animals really love that when it’s just starting to come up. The deer love that new fresh green grass. A lot of animals would move through that area when we’d burn. I noticed up in Red Lake, those huge cattail swamps, there’d be hawks ahead of our fire, chasing squirrels or rabbits or whatever is escaping from the fire. I recently learned that in some countries there are birds that pick up flaming firebrands and drop them ahead of the fire. That’s how they eat. Over the course of evolution, they probably learned a thing or two. (chuckle)
Agate: Does fire benefit manoomin (wild rice)?
Northrup: There is a benefit for manoomin. They used to burn around the lakes, and because it’s a low-lying area the nutrients from that burn will leach into the lake. Not everyone agrees with this explanation, but it came down through tradition, and they’re doing it for a reason. Last time I did it was about 20 years ago. I’d like to see that done again.
Part of the Anishinaabe world view
Agate: Everything you’re telling me about fire probably exemplifies something about the Anishinaabe view of the relationship between nature and humans.
Northrup: We are nature, we are part of it, we’re just another spirit here. Everything we see out there has a spirit. Not the inanimate things like the car, but rocks, trees, all those things. We have a very closely held relationship with all those things. We revere what we have out there because the Creator put it there for us to use: it’s medicine or food, it’s there for us, and that’s why we put out our tobacco and pray, we include all those things in our prayers to thank them. If you do that they’ll come back. They like to have gratitude shown towards them. That’s what we do for everything—harvesting, ricing.
Agate: And how does that compare to non-Indian people? There’s something different there.
Northrup: It think it’s an ownership issue: when they see it, they have to own it wholly and totally. But we’re only here to use what we need, and that’s all. We’re not here to make money off it. Right now, you don’t see a lot of our reservations doing a lot of logging, because we’d rather just let that forest grow, and if we need to clean it up, we’ll run a fire through it.
Agate: Some forest managers use clear-cutting as a sort of surrogate for fire. Is there a difference?
Northrup: To me, logging is a good and bad thing: it’s slowly taking the place of fire to renew the forest, but sometimes you only get a monoculture coming up, like aspen. If you only have a monoculture, some animals will use it but not all the animals because they don’t care for aspen stands.
Agate: In 2017 several agencies cooperated to do a burn on Stockton Island in the Apostle Island chain. How did that go?
Northrup: That island was one of many that the Anishinaabe would visit to pick blueberries. They started on the mainland, like on Red Cliff and Bad River (reservations), and when that season was done, they go out in their canoes to the islands and the blueberries were just starting to ripen, because it’s a microclimate out there in that cold water. The blueberries from the reservations were for their use; they would sell the island blueberries. Recently we were looking at aerial photos of the islands, and one looked like a savannah, a meadow. We went out there and found all these tree stumps that were fire scarred. You can count on the rings the instances of fire that occurred there. They found every five to seven years there was a burn there. On Stockton Island, we got cooperation from the National Park Service, the BIA, U.S. Forest Service, and the Wisconsin DNR. We went out there and burned a nine-acre tract. I was asked to come out and put the first spark back into it as an Anishinaabe elder but also as a burn boss. So, we brought back fire there. I took pictures and turned it into art exhibit. For my artist talk, I explained the burn plan to my audience. The exhibit was called Ishkode (fire).
Agate: Is there more interest in that kind of cooperation these days?
Northrup: There’s always been great interest in interagency cooperation here in Minnesota, starting in the 1960s with the Forest Service and the Park Service. Fires know no boundaries, so we have to work together to save lives. When we need help, we get resources from the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids. It’s a pretty good example of cooperation. Once in a while there are little hiccups, but we all support each other. Sometimes the state or federal agencies help us on our blueberry burns, and it helps them because they have new people to train. We’ve got a good thing going here in Minnesota that a lot of states admire.
Agate: Do you think Minnesota faces the same kinds of fire risk as California? Those western fires get so big they can’t be controlled.
Northrup: Absolutely. Especially northern Minnesota in the Boundary Waters, where the blowdown left a lot of fuel, and we’re getting a lot of bug-kill up there. Of course, there is no real mineral soil up there, it’s just rock. Everything is growing on rock, so everything dries out real fast. The saying is, “You can have a week to ten days with no rain and you can have a fire anywhere in Minnesota.” Fond du Lac (reservation) has had crews up on the Greenwood Fire for weeks, and also on Isle Royale.
Behind the film
She teaches people how to make a “defensible space” around their property and how to be more resilient with fire. “But it’s also important to help people understand that fire is also a good thing, particularly for the boreal forest up here: that’s how it thrives. We often think fire is bad, but that’s just because it sometimes hurts our property.”
When she learned that Anishinaabe people had been using fire for generations, she thought it was time to preserve that knowledge. “The elders who remember that history of fire are dying,” she says. “Their understanding needs to be revitalized in communities here, including Ojibwe communities. We see the video as an educational piece for land managers and agencies who are considering burns, but also for tribal members to use when they’re talking to their young people and training them in their own traditions.”
The sixteen-minute film will be featured at the Twin Cities Film Festival, Oct. 23,
and at the Fresh Coast Film Festival, Marquette, MI, Oct. 16 & 17