The fire history of western Montana is at heart a history of systemic transformation — a change from one way of life, one way of relating to the land and its resources, to another. And so understanding this environmental history requires us to also understand the political history of the region — the history of how control over the land shifted from native to non-native people.
No single moment in that history had a greater impact than the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad across the northern tier of the United States — and through the Flathead Reservation itself, over the bitter objections of tribal leaders.
The railroad’s completion in 1883 decisively shifted the balance of power in Montana. It was no coincidence that 1883 also marked the virtual extinction of wild bison. Among the first mass exports on Montana's rails were buffalo bones, shipped to eastern plants where they would be rendered into fertilizer and charcoal. It was the railroad, finally, that marginalized the Indian way of life that had defined the region for thousands of years. By linking the forests and minerals and agricultural products of the northern Rockies to national and international markets, the railroad made possible their commodification and exploitation on an industrial scale.i
For tribal people, these changes meant it was only more difficult to maintain their traditional way of life. Non-Indian settlement rose dramatically after completion of the railroads, and white hostility toward off-reservation Indians further intensified. In addition, with trains waiting to haul logs to Montana mines or distant cities, the forests could now be seen as a commodity waiting to be turned into money. And so fire — however misunderstood — was now seen as a direct threat to the lumber industry’s material interests. For all of these reasons, it became even more difficult for the Salish and Pend d’Oreille to maintain their traditional fire regimes.
(Ironically, it was the steam-engine locomotives that spread fire through much of the northern Rockies in dry years — but these were fires of a much less careful and beneficial type than traditional Indian burnings. Many of the initial fires in 1910 seem to have come from the newly completed Milwaukee Road.ii
At the same time, the governmental operation on the Flathead Reservation was becoming more substantial, and was now trying to exert more control over tribal people — and over the tribal use of fire. Peter Ronan, who served as U.S. Indian Agent on the Flathead Reservation from 1877 until his death in 1893, has long been described as a “friend of the Indians” by historians. He did defend reservation boundaries more forcefully than most agents, and he did plead passionately with the government to spend more money to fulfill promises made to the tribes in the Hellgate Treaty and other agreements. But Ronan also carried out with great energy national policies to set up Indian courts and an Indian police force, and he used them to enforce other national policies that banned many forms of traditional culture — dances, spiritual ceremonies, feasts, other traditional public gatherings — and the use of fire. If tribal people resisted those bans, Ronan would use the police and judges to throw violators in jail.iii
Resistors would be cut off from receiving various supplies, including agricultural equipment, and rations, upon which many tribal people now depended since their traditional food sources were disappearing.
Yet just as the agents could never succeed in eliminating the dances, so they also never fully succeeded in stomping out Indian fires. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, however, the pressures on tribal people to abandon these practices became even greater — not only outside the Flathead Reservation, but also within its boundaries.
i Records reflecting on this may be found in the Anaconda Mining Company papers, Montana Historical Society, Helena, Box 132, folder 3, “NP timber, 1898-99.”
ii Stephen Pyne, Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910 (New York: Viking, 2001), 45.
iii The text of the “Rules Governing the Court of Indian Offences,” drawn up by Ronan in 1885, reads in part:
It shall also be the duty of the Court to suppress gambling, burning of grass, caching horses of travelers of others with a views of extorting money, killing of stock in revenge for stock breaking into fields poorly protected or fenced in; catching horses not belonging to them and riding such horses a distance more or less great and then letting them go, thus endangering the loss of the horse to the owner. All of the above will be considered Indian offenses and shall be punishable by imprisonment in the Reservation Jail for a period of not less than ten days nor more than thirty days or by the withholding of Agricultural implements and government supplies therefrom at the discretion of the Court and approval of the Agent. National Archives, Record Group 75 (Bureau of Indian Affairs), Letters Received 1881-1907, document number 1885-4436-enclosure.