The work of Omer C. Stewart reminds us just how far we’ve come in our thinking about fire. In Forgotten Fires, Henry T. Lewis and M. Kat Anderson have resurrected Stewart’s 1954 manuscript, outlined the events of his life, and critiqued his research based on current knowledge of fire.
Stewart wrote at a time when fire
suppression was the dominant landscape management tool — and
his unconventional ideas rankled both ecologists and
anthropologists in the 1950s. His interdisciplinary research on
American Indians’ use of fire concluded: “If there was
anything to burn, Indians set fire to it.” Stewart wrote that
Indians didn’t merely mimic natural fire patterns, but burned
to manipulate vegetation types throughout the North American
landscape. Shortgrass prairies and old-growth forests were not
virgin wilderness or “climax ecosystems” — as
ecologists of the day presumed — but the result of constant
Labeled a “fire maverick,” Stewart
further alienated himself from his colleagues by defending tribes
in 12 separate land-claims cases. Arguing that the existence of
such prairies and forests proved the tribes’ entitlement to
those lands, he won all 12 cases against the federal government and
its cadre of anthropologists.
Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness
by Omer C. Stewart, edited and with Introductions by Henry T. Lewis
and M. Kat Anderson.
364 pages, hardcover:
University of Oklahoma Press,
A fire maverick is resurrected
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