Songs around an Indian fire

For centuries we have sung around the fire, the center of our universe. We have known of the wonder of fire. And when Mother Earth is ready for cleansing, she has called upon fire to do it. It is now a season of fire.

Over the past several months I have written from my house in a canyon outside of Durango, Colorado. These past two weeks have transformed this Main Street town as the Missionary Ridge fire began Mother Earth's work. The heavy smoke has rendered the sun a deep orange. The yellow shirts of the firefighters can be seen all over town as the firefighters buy their supplies, wash clothes and look for showers. Among this group of contemporary heroes are squadrons of Indian men and women, "Hot Shots." Their centuries-old affinity with fire has helped to form the backbone of human resistance to potential tragedy.

For decades, Native firefighters have guaranteed relief like this. We cannot forget the supreme sacrifice made by the Jemez Pueblo firefighters several years ago. As in war, Native America sends a disproportionate number of our sons and daughters to fight fire. The natural courage we have had to bottle up against the tedium of our daily bureaucracies finds appropriate vent in the forests, or on the battlefields, as the case may be. Slurry bombers dive close to treetops dropping thousands of gallons of red slurry, and helicopters let loose huge buckets of water all on the heads of our people, who work close to searing heat, and endure choking smoke. Fiery snags sometimes break loose and tumble to the earth as grenades of fire.

Ironies abound in the embers of these fires. The forest residents tend to be wealthy individuals who have wanted a second secluded home ? because they can afford one. There are also reclusive people in these woods who long for a frontier-styled cabin, far away from the anonymity and rush that now characterize urban existence. The National Forest Service for decades fought fires in the zeal to express the power of man over nature, only to have created the unnatural accumulation of forest fuel. Environmentalists have fought to prevent prescribed burns, to protect old growth forests and the rare species that make such forests their homes, only to stand by and watch super-heated fires threaten to forever obliterate those very same habitats. Indian crews are then called to fight the fires.

In Arizona, the Rodeo and Chediski fires have consumed over half of the White Mountain Apache reservation, overrun the town of Pinedale, the homes of many Apache people, and decimated a livelihood in timber production. An industry in timber has been the mainstay of tribal revenue to the White Mountain Apache people, a virtual sole-support for the provision of tribal governmental services. Estimates are now out that over $300 million in timber revenues have been lost. That figure doesn't take into account recreation revenues. In the past several weeks we have been witnesses to a government losing a majority of its current and future income to a wall of flames, arguably created in part by the federal mismanagement of the forests: the BIA in yet another failed mission. President Bush, in a visit to northern Arizona, as is the custom of federal officials, promised relief to the White Mountain Apache people, by declaring the reservation a disaster area. Whether federal monetary relief will come for the next few decades is doubtful.

But there is a somber twist to this saga. Law enforcement officials arrested a man they claim started the Rodeo fire somewhere north of Cibecue, on the White Mountain reservation. Leonard Gregg, a member of the tribe and a BIA contract firefighter, has been charged with arson, accused of starting the largest fire recorded in Arizona history. Early reports suggest that he lit the fires in order to get more work for himself. At least one member of his family has declared him innocent.

Gregg barely speaks English. Apache is his primary tongue. He is reported to have said he is sorry for what he had done. An isolated utterance in English cannot fully disclose his understanding of his circumstances. Gregg, the father of six, was allegedly pressed to find the means to support them. In these past few weeks the reward to locate the source of the fire has skyrocketed. Gregg may be guilty, or he may be a convenient scapegoat.

If Gregg is guilty, if the motive to start the fire was the money, it is possible that this was sheer greed at devilish play. But the crime could also demonstrate the depth of one man's desperation. How many people on all of the reservations are nearing a level of economic desperation? Leonard Gregg could be a man who represents a nexus between the federal mismanagement of forestlands, and the federal neglect of tribal economies.

Whatever any person may think about these wildfires ? about the loss of timber, the threat to fleeing animals, the destruction of habitat, the loss of human dwellings and even about the cause of the fires ? the money made by many firefighters provides support and sustenance to thousands of Indian households every year. The aggregate income of all the Indian firefighters from all the reservations nation-wide may well represent one of the largest sources of income in Indian country.

If Leonard Gregg is the embodiment of greed, however, much of this inferno is something between him and his own tribe. The loss of millions of dollars by the federal government and by individual homeowners is a baffling injury for a court to remedy. Most Americans, consistent with their retributive pathology, will seek the greatest of punishments. But they will not likely demand Congressional and Executive action to improve the BIA's assistance in managing tribal forests, nor to focus on reinforcing tribal economies. They are more likely to wait for the next hot wind, and call upon our firefighters to protect them ? Indian men and women so experienced at singing around our Indian fires.

Judge Carey N. Vicenti, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation of northwest New Mexico, currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. He sits as a judicial official for several American Indian nations and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.