Saturday, February 11, 2012

About Native American Uses for Fire

About The Native American Camp-Fire.


One of the first things after reaching camp was to build the camp-fire. Among Indians the camp-fire not only served for heat and cooking, but for light, and to scare away animal foes and bad spirits. You and I would probably have a hard time making a fire without matches. The Indian had no matches until he got them from the whites. There are two ways in which the Indians made fire. One was by striking two hard pieces of stone—such as chert or pyrites—together, which gave a spark, which was caught on tinder and blown to a flame. Of course white men used to make fire in much the same way—only they had a flint and steel. When whites first came into contact with Indians, they used the flint and steel, and it was not long before the Indians had secured them from the white traders. Many Indians still use the old-fashioned flint and steel. Some old Sac and Fox men always carry them in their tobacco pouch, and use them for lighting their pipes.
Another Indian method of making fire was by rubbing two pieces of wood together. It is said that this is not difficult, but one needs to know just how, in order to succeed. In the cliff ruins of the southwest two little sticks are often found together. One may be a foot or two long, and the lower end is bluntly pointed, worn smooth, and blackened as if it had been slightly burned. The other stick is of the same thickness, but may be only a few inches long; in it are several conical hollows, which are charred, smooth, and usually broken away at the edge. These two sticks were used by the “cliff-dwellers” for making fire. The second one was laid down flat on the ground; the pointed end of the other was placed in one of the holes in the lower piece, and the stick was whirled between the hands by rubbing these back and forth. While the upright stick was being whirled, it was also pressed down with some little force. By the whirling and pressure fine wood dust was ground out which gathered at the broken edge of the conical cavity. Soon, in the midst of this fine wood dust, there appeared a spark. Some dry, light stuff was at once applied to it, and it was blown into a flame.
Certainly this mode of making fire was hard on the hands—it must soon have raised blisters. Some tribes had learned how to grind out a spark without this disadvantage. The lower stick was as before. A little bow was taken, and its cord was wrapped about the upright stick and tightened. The two sticks were then put into position, the top of the upright being steadied with a small block held in the left hand; the bow being moved back and forth with the right hand, the upright was caused to whirl easily and rapidly. This was used among many of our tribes.
Although making it themselves, many Indians think the fire made with the bow-drill is sacred, and that it comes from heaven. Among the Aztecs of Mexico there was a curious belief and ceremony. The Aztecs counted their years in groups of fifty-two, just as we count ours by hundreds or centuries. They thought the world would come to an end at the close of one of these fifty-two year periods. Therefore, they were much disturbed when such a time approached. When the end of the cycle really came, all the fires and lights in the houses had been put out; not a spark remained anywhere. When it was night, the people went out along the great causeway to Itztapalapa, at the foot of the Hill of the Star. On the summit of this hill was a small temple. At the proper hour, determined by observing the stars, the priests cast a victim on the altar, tore out his heart as usual, and placed the lower stick of the fire-sticks upon the wound. The upright stick was adjusted and whirled. For a moment all were in great anxiety. The will of the gods was to be made known. If no spark appeared, the world would at once be destroyed; if there came a spark, the gods had decreed at least one cycle more of existence to the world. And when the spark appeared, how great was the joy of the people! All had carried unlighted torches in their hands, and now these were lighted with the new fire, and with songs of rejoicing the crowd hurried back to the city.
Boys know pretty well how Indians cooked their food. Most of us have roasted potatoes in the hot ashes, and broiled meat or frogs' legs over the open fire. The Indians did much the same. Pieces of meat would be spitted on sharp sticks, and set so as to hang over the fire. Clams, mussels, and other things, were baked among the hot coals or ashes. One time“Old Elsie,” a Lipan woman, took a land turtle, which I brought her alive, and thrust it head first into the fire. This not only killed the turtle, but cooked it, and split open the hard shell box so that she could get at the meat inside.
Over the fireplace the Indians usually have a pot or kettle suspended in which various articles may be boiling together. The Indians invented succotash, which is a stew of corn and beans; we have borrowed the thing and the name. At the first meal I ate among the Sacs and Foxes, we all squatted on the ground, outside the house and near the fire, and took a tin of boiled fish off the coals. We picked up bits of the fish with our fingers, and passed the pan around for every one to have a drink of the soup.
All this is easy cooking; but how would you go to work to boil buffalo meat if you had no kettle, pot, nor pan of any kind? A great many Indian tribes knew how. When a buffalo was killed, the hide was carefully removed. A bowl-like hole was scraped out in the ground and lined with the buffalo skin, the clean side up. This made a nice basin. Water was put into this and the pieces of meat laid in. A hot fire was kindled near by, and stones were heated in it, and then dropped into the basin of water and meat. So the food was boiled. A number of tribes cooked meat in this way, but one was called by a name that means “stone-boilers”—Assinaboines.
Meat was often dried. In some districts where the air is clear and dry and the sun hot, the meat is cut into strips or sheets, and dried by hanging it on lines near the house. At other places it was dried and smoked over a fire. Where there was buffalo meat, the Indian women made pemmican, which was good. The buffalo meat was first dried as usual. The dried meat was heated through over a low fire, and then beaten with sticks or mauls to shreds. Buffalo tallow was melted and the shredded meat stirred up in it. All was then put into a bag made of buffalo skin and packed as tightly as possible; the bag was then fastened up and sewed tight. Sometimes the marrow-fat was also put into this pemmican, and dried berries or choke-cherries. Pemmican kept well a long time, and was such condensed food that a little of it lasted a long time. It was eaten dry or stewed up in water into a sort of soup.
Smoke Signaling. (After Mallery.)
A curious use for fire among some Indians was in giving signals. A place visible from a great distance was selected. Upon it a little fire was built with fuel which gave a dense smoke. Sometimes the signal depended upon the number of fires kindled side by side. Thus when Pima Indians returned from a war-party against Apaches, they gave smoke signals if they had been successful. A single fire was built first; its one smoke column meant success. Then a number of little fires, kindled in a line side by side, indicated the number of scalps taken. Sometimes messages were given by puffs of smoke. When the fire had been kindled, a blanket was so held as to prevent the smoke rising. When a lot of smoke had been imprisoned beneath it, the blanket was suddenly raised so as to let it escape. It was then lowered, held, and raised so as to cause a new puff. These puffs of smoke rose regularly in long, egg-shaped masses, and according to their number the message to be sent varied. Such signaling by smoke puffs was common among Plains tribes.