Back Forty: A tribe’s quest for fire [updated]

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Evan Larson cuts a cross section from an old-growth pine, knocked down by wind, which had signs of fire injury, on Minnesota Point. Photo by Lane Johnson.

By Nancy Averett

Melonee Montano, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, and Evan Larson, a tree-ring expert with the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, are collecting tree rings and oral histories to document how the Ojibwe historically used controlled fire to shape the landscape along Wisconsin Point and Minnesota Point — two of the largest freshwater sandbars in the world that parallel the southwestern tip of Lake Superior in both states, but don’t quite touch. The Ojibwe used fire to encourage the growth of certain plants, especially blueberries, which were an integral part of the tribe’s diet before white settlers disrupted their way of life. 

Last fall, Larson, Montano and a team of students cut samples from downed red pine trees and stumps on the two sandbars that had visible burn marks in their rings. By counting the rings and examining color and shape differences in the wood’s cells, they were able to document and date the fire scars as well any “peel scars,” where bark had been removed and the tree bled resin to heal the wound. The Ojibwe would use that resin to seal the seams of their birchbark canoes.

The team’s data show that many of the fire and peel scars correlate to the years before the U.S. government began systematically pushing the Ojibwe onto reservations and outlawed the tribe’s controlled fire practices — both to force assimilation and to protect the timber that large companies planned to harvest. In addition to the fieldwork, Montano, a master’s student in forestry at the University of Minnesota and a traditional ecological specialist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, is interviewing tribal elders to gather their memories of the cultural uses of fire and blueberry gathering. 

In 2017, Montano, who is from the Red Cliff Band, along with Ojibwe from the Bad River Band and members of other local tribes, convinced the National Park Service to conduct the first cultural burn in more than a century on Wisconsin’s Stockton Island, part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, where the tribe long used controlled burns to promote blueberry growth. Montano says the return of Ojibwe fire practices there helped give her and other tribal members confidence that it could be done in other areas where the Ojibwe hold treaty rights to hunt, fish and harvest on land they ceded to the federal government in the 1800s. Those treaty rights guaranteed them access to food that the land can produce only with the help of fire. As a result, she says, the Ojibwe will soon start conducting controlled burns on Minnesota Point and Wisconsin Point.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


The Ojibwe used to pick vast quantities of wild blueberries in the region both for sustenance and later to sell to white settlers. Melonee, did people on your reservation still pick blueberries when you were growing up in the 1980s?

When I was a little girl, my parents used to drop me off at different elders’ homes. I thought I was getting babysat. And I thought I had to be there. And I’m like, why do they keep making me do this? And those elders would bring me out to different areas to pick berries with them. There was one who described how the blueberries here used to be so big and so plentiful that they hung like grapes. And after a day of picking berries, he said, he would sit down on the ground and kind of look across the blueberry patches and all he could see was blue. 

After the tribal bands signed treaties and ceded much of their land, the federal government began its fire suppression policies, Smokey Bear and all that. At one point, the government made it a crime for the Ojibwe to set controlled burns.

Montano: Some of the elders told me they had to stop burning and eating blueberries because otherwise their families might have starved, and that confused me. They explained that if you were caught starting a fire, you could be thrown in jail for 30 days. It was usually the men who did the burning, so if a man’s got 12 kids and a partner at home, who’s going to feed them when he’s in jail? Thinking about the criminalization of it makes me sick because I think about the reasons behind it, and the severity of it and the consequences.

That history of oppression extends to western science, of course, with researchers often dismissing Indigenous knowledge as myth or superstition. Your tree-ring project, though, is seeking to bring western science and Indigenous knowledge together. 

Larson: The Ojibwe stories of how fire was used  —  for ceremonial purposes, to make their hunting better, to encourage blueberry bushes to grow —  make the tree-ring records even richer and more complete. They enhance our ability to understand what the rings are telling us: that people used fire as a tool in this region and it brought greater biodiversity, some of which has been lost due to our fire suppression. And for people who might have a more contentious perspective on traditional knowledge, the tree ring samples are this neutral third voice that helps bridge their skepticism. 

Chief Joseph Osaugie, who settled in Wisconsin Point starting in the early 19th century, was renowned for his canoe-making skills, and now you are documenting resin scars that could have been made by him. How does that feel?

Montano: I almost spilled my water. Like, seriously, because in a split second, I had flashbacks to all these other pieces of our projects and I was thinking about just how intense the connection to him is when we’re out there. 

You both say that the fact that you are doing this work in a place that many non-Indigenous people frequent and enjoy is important. Explain why.

Larson: We’re helping to share the history of this place that has been here in plain sight, all this time, but the vast majority of people don’t see it. I think this location, because of its visibility, is going to make the implications of our work immensely tangible to people who were unaware of the Ojibwe’s active presence here. 

Montano: And not just any history but an accurate history of what happened before white settlers arrived. There’s long been this misconception that these areas were untouched by humans and that’s why they’re such important wilderness areas that must continue to be protected from people. But there were people here, changing the land with fire. My overall goal with this project is to return our controlled burns to Wisconsin Point and Minnesota Point. 

What will that take?

Montano: Well, of course, we will get the proper permits and stuff, but we don’t really need to get permission, it’s part of our treaty rights. One of our main partners is the Fond du Lac band, whose reservation is close to both of the points, and they’re of the opinion that it’s going to happen, we’re burning it. 

Robin Kimmerer, a Potowatomi botanist and author of Braiding Sweetgrass, the bestselling book about combining Indigenous knowledge with western science, is going to help you create a children’s book about your work.

Montano: We’ve talked about the historical trauma and the forced separation from fire and things like that. I know that when this story is out there, it will help shift that mindset; our young ones will actually be growing up with this positive connection to fire rather than seeing nothing but the wildfire catastrophes that you see in the media, and they’ll hopefully be the next ones who pick up the skills to start using it. We want to get our younger generation on the right path that we’ve been forced off of.

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that Montano is a master’s student, not a Ph.D. student, and that her and Larson’s fieldwork was done in fall 2022, not spring 2022.