Bringing Indigenous fire practices back to New Hampshire

By: - September 26, 2022 5:33 am

The White Mountain National Forest has been using prescribed burns to help red pine trees thrive. (Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)

This is the first of a two-part series about how fire is used as a regenerative force in New Hampshire.

Decline in air quality. Danger. Damage.

The latest headlines about wildfires emphasize its potential for large-scale destruction, but there’s a positive side to fire that has long been used by Indigenous people as a way of caring for the natural landscape. Now Abenaki leaders are working alongside the U.S. Forest Service to research this practice and return it to New Hampshire.

Unlike wildfires, controlled fires can benefit the landscape, allowing species to thrive and depositing necessary nutrients. But for many years, those practices were suppressed out of a fear of fire and desire to protect the commercial value of timber. “Fire became kind of viewed as an enemy, as a danger,” said John Neely, an assistant fire management officer for the White Mountain National Forest.

For over 100 years, it was excluded from the landscape at the expense of species that depend on fire to survive and to the detriment of Indigenous cultural practices around fire.

Then, in 1947, a large wildfire burned over 200,000 acres in New Hampshire and Maine. Houses and towns were destroyed.

“That cultural memory persists for a while,” Neely said. But attitudes around fire are starting to shift, with more recognition of the beneficial role it can play.  

Now, Abenaki leader Paul Pouliot of the Cowasuck Band of Pennacook-Abenaki People is working with Neely to research traditional land management and answer key questions about where burning happened and why. Pouliot also wants to find out how frequently Abenaki people would burn and during which season.  

That information was lost under the pressures of colonization and assimilation that Abenaki people have withstood since colonizers arrived on the continent. Cultural practices including traditional burns that Indigenous people had used freely were prohibited by the federal government. And limitations on burning persist in the present day. Even prescription burns conducted by the state require permits.

“We’re in the modern day, and we can’t go back – I can’t go back in the woods and do all this stuff,” Pouliot said. “We have to rely on conservation groups, forestry groups, the U.S. Forest Service and others to, to kind of listen to us and build upon on what we have for limited knowledge.”

Without elders to ask about traditional burns, Pouliot is also turning to the trees to teach him more about past practices. These trees contain a record of past burns that can be revealed by studying samples of their cores, which is called dendrochronology. A tree grows a new ring each year, creating a record of the tree’s life, year by year. A burn leaves behind a scar.

“A lot of people think Northern New England has never supported fires,” Neely said. But he has found evidence of multiple fires in remote mid-elevational mountains, including Mount Stanton in Bartlett, Blueberry Mountain in Denton, and South Moat Mountain in Conway. Red pines depend on fire, and stands have been found scattered all throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, he said.

The data that Pouliot, Neely, and the U.S. Forest Service have been able to collect includes fire scars dating back to the 1700s. Massive forest fires in the 1800s burned many of the older trees that would’ve provided an earlier record. But there is evidence of red pines germinating as early as the 1600s, which indicates that fire was used on the landscape prior to the arrival of Europeans.  

That suggests that Abenaki people used fire to manage the landscape, creating good conditions for species such as red pine and blueberries. The Abenaki helped those plants, which returned the favor in the form of pine pitch to construct canoes and sustenance.  

“So you had a food resource issue and a building material issue that intersected, and that’s why we think that burning fire was very important,” Pouliot said.

Under Abenaki stewardship, forests in the region likely looked different than they do today: Pouliot describes it as a parkland landscape, with the understory cleared up to 10 feet in height. Dead twigs and branches would be harvested on snowshoes and used as fuel. Now, he’s proposing recreating that type of landscape as an experimental forest for further research.

For Pouliot, all of the findings from this work disrupt the narrative he’s so often encountered, which ignored the way Indigenous people participated in the natural landscape. In these historical accounts, Pouliot said settlers describe coming upon open meadows and trails through the forest wide enough for oxen carts to pass through “by the grace of God.”

To which, Pouliot says, “What, are you naïve? God cut the path? But these are the narratives we read.” Those narratives both annoy Pouliot and arm him with evidence about how his ancestors managed the land. And his work now is returning those ancestors to the narrative as he returns their practices to the land.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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