A Continuity of Tradition; a place where Native Americans still burn the prairies and oak openings

This picture was taken along South River Road. While the main is a mullein, there are coneflowers in the background.    PHOTO BY KENDALL SANDS)

Columbian Quincentennial Issue: Restoration & Management Notes 10:1 Summer 1992

Walpole Island First Nation is comprised of six islands totaling 22,400 hectares in the St Clair River delta from Detroit. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the territory contains seven of the most diverse tall grass prairie and oak savannah sites remaining in Canada. These ecosystems, once abundant in the region, but now exceeding rare, have survived here for the simple reason that the practice of burning has been carried on by the Ottawa, Ojibway, and Pottawatomi tribes of the delta virtually without interruption from pre-contact times down to the present. Indeed, the history of burning on the island, the knowledge and attitudes of the local people, and the methods they use in burning have established the islands as a rare example of a central North American grasslands landscape where the ancient practice of burning has been maintained.

Today, the Walpole Island First Nation burns well over 5oo hectares annually on the islands - the exact amount varying with weather conditions. The result is a remarkable collection of historic ecosystems which, together with the tradition that has maintained them, provide what may be a unique link with the pre-contact period and may serve as a model for restoration projects elsewhere in the region.

Historically, burning has occurred on the island since pre-European settlement and was originally performed by young hunters to clear lands and maintain conditions suitable for farming and hunting. The burning off of trees and brush served to fertilize garden plots and enhance wildlife habitat. Burning also kept marsh areas open and free of dense undergrowth. Muskrats and migrating ducks attracted to these burned areas provided a major food source and source of income for hunters on the island. This practice continues today, with burning still carried out in ways that are more traditional than scientific.

Who organizes, plans, and manages burns? According to Dean Jacobs, director of the Walpole Island Heritage Centre, burning is an integral part of the holistic life cycle of Native Americans on the island. As natives look forward to the hunting, trapping, and gathering seasons so do they look forward to the burning seasons in the fall and spring. Hotter, surface burns are performed in the fall when the ground is still warm and there is a dry southern or western breeze to carry the fire; burns carried out in early spring tend to be wetter and more localized. The burns are not though of as a participatory social event. They are simply part of a way of life for the community, an activity that plays a vital role in sustaining many of the plants used in traditional medicines and in traditional crafts and ceremonies that are still practiced on the island. According to the Ojibway Nation, fire is a very special gift from the Creator. The Sacred Fire of Indian ceremony is the fire with which the Creator made the Sun. It is also the fire that the creator put at the heart of Mother Earth. Sweetgrass (Hierchloe odorata) was the first plant to grow on Mother Earth and often it is braided as if it were your mother's hair. The Indians gather sweetgrass from the marshes on the island for use in ceremonies and basketmaking. Sweetgrass is also burned ceremonially, and the smoke symbolizes the cleansing of the mind and body.

The techniques used in burning are basic and rudimentary. Originally, a torch made from a clump of grasses was used to start a line of small fires which would join to form a a fire line. Nowadays matches or lighters are used, but the basic procedure is the same. Controlled burns involving local residents and community members occur in the prairies and oak savannahs near housing, with community members standing by with shovels in case of emergency. These fires usually last for no more than a day before being extinguished or dying out on there own. In the larger and more remote prairies and oak savannahs, fires are often set and left to burn with little attention. Even though it may appear that no one is aware who sets or manages these fires, community members are well aware of their existence. A local child commented that some of the fires extreme cases, can burn for weeks. Large grass lawns and the extensive system of canals, originally created to drain land for farming, serve as fire breaks.


Recently, nearby communities have expressed concern over the uncontrolled burns. In one extreme case last fall, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment received a number of complaints about the smoke and ash from a fire which burned into the peat of a remnant marsh. The fire continued for almost two weeks before being extinguished by community members. As the population of the islands increases and the communities grow, controlled burns will become more of the norm. There is also a need for nearby communities to understand the importance of fire as part of Native American culture of the island.

Fire is an integral part of the cultural traditions of the Ojibway, Pottawatomi, and Ottawa-the Council of Three Fires. As a result of these burning practiced, the community has been able to maintain a rich mosaic of wetlands, prairies, savannahs and woodlands with over 800 species of vascular plants, sixty-four of which are nationally rare plants, and eight of which are found nowhere else in Canada. These biologically diverse habitats help to ensure the preservation and maintenance of the cultural heritage of the native people at the Walpole Island First Nation as well as serving as a model for restoration projects elsewhere.