This is the third in a series on early Native American dwellings, this article focusing on their ubiquitous fires.

This is the third in a series on early Native American dwellings, this article focusing on their ubiquitous fires.

Classical cosmology in most cultures reduced the fundamental structure of the universe to four or five different elements [earth, water, air, fire], but all lists included fire. Fire has always been an integral part of Native American culture including their religion. [1]

Fire was so crucial for cooking and heat to the Indians they nurtured it—sometimes to the extent of assigning persons in shifts to keep it going all night. They would get it well started then cover it with ashes which were periodically uncovered and the flames restarted briefly. They kept small tree branches beside their blankets to reach out and stir fires without having to get out of bed into the cold air. Alternatively, some arranged small logs in a spoke-like manner with the fire in the center. All night they periodically pushed logs toward the fire in the center.

Starting Fires

Nature provides man with fire through lightning strikes. Until recently we extinguished natural fires. Now we realize that not letting fire destroy the natural bed of leaves and limbs collecting on the forest floor makes fires rise higher creating the devastating ‘crown ‘fires that have been spreading so rapidly and uncontrollably in the West. When lightning strikes beach sand, it creates ‘obsidian’, which is a bit like a glass volley ball. When heated then dropped in cold water, it exfoliates creating shards sharper then the best steel scalpels. In antiquity, rabbis used these obsidian scalpels in circumcisions.

Upon reaching a new dwelling site, they started a new fire one of two ways. They would ignite readily combustible material called ‘tinder’ using Stone Age ‘strike-a-lights’, flint stone struck against another stone of a form of iron pyrite [iron sulfide] called ‘marcasite.’ [2] Sometimes they used a small block of wood with a hole in the middle into which they fitted a pointed stick which they whirled by rubbing their hands together or by an ingenious drill twirled by leather straps wound around it. It was hard work that often tired out the first one to try who had to be relieved by another. Because they did the cooking, this chore was usually performed by the women. [Quanah Parker’s mother had thick hands and heavily-muscled forearms from starting fires and scraping buffalo hides into leather.]

Moving fire

I found only one reference to literally moving a fire, and it was a speculation that they probably lined a basket with bark and/or clay leaving a hole in the center for their starter fire. I found no references to accidental fires inside Indian dwellings in spite of close living quarters always involving children and highly combustible furnishings. Clearly and from an early age they were very careful with fire.

Life With Fire

As with all peoples fire for heating and cooking were necessities of life, so they kept perpetual fires. Cooking fires were present inside and out. There was always a fire in the center—sometimes in a pit-- and in communal dwellings separate fires for each family near the perimeter. Typically smoke escaped through either an opening in the roof and/or the entrance. In the latter case, occupants spent most of the day outdoors to escape the smoke entering at night to utilize the smoke to escape the biteys. Beds were sometimes near the central fire but more commonly on benches around the perimeter covered by buffalo robes .

Religious ceremonies always included fire and most males which required large structures variously named ‘jonglerie, council house, and lodges called sweating, sweat, ceremonial, or medicine .’ “Near the center of the village was the ‘round house’ or kiva, partially underground, which had some attributes of a temple, a lodge room, a club, and a hostelry. Here were hung the masks, robes, and other regqalia used in the dances. Here were held important tribal ceremonials and councils and here young men sometimes slept or elders talked over maters affecting the common welfare. “[3]

Sweat lodges were ‘usual’ among the Ojibway and prepared for certain old men who were believed to possess the power of telling of future events and happenings. “The medicine man, one of which is generally found in every brigade, gets inside and commences shaking the poles supporting the roof, violently rattling his medicinal rattle, and singing hoarse incantations to the Great Spirit. When the European observer was discovered witnessing this event, the ceremony abruptly ceased” [1]

One such Ojibway lodge described the interior wall as surrounded by “rush mats on which were attached various offerings consisting principally of bits of red and blue cloth, calico, strings of beads, scalps of enemies, and sundry other articles beyond my comprehension.”. [1]

They were very religious and especially reverent toward nature and the sun. “The Teton Indians in 1851 had a large ‘ceremonial lodge’ regarded as a sacred place and one not to be destroyed by man. With the completion of the annual dance and other ‘superstitious rites’, the participants removed to other localities, allowing the sacred structure to be destroyed by the elements.”[1] Native Americans responded well to the light of knowledge they were given.

[1]Bushnell, Jr., David I.., Villages of the Tribes West of the Mississippi, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 77, Smithsonian Institution, 1922, pp 13, 17, 33, 63, 129.

[2] Labiste, Susan, Paleolithic Stone on Stone Fire Technology [Google].

[3] Dale, Edward Everett, Indians of the Southwest, OU Press, Norman, 1949, 15.