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Know the West

A fire maverick is resurrected

  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 burning.

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.

Forgotten Fires: 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: $39.95.
University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.