Fire as Colonization: How Conflicts over Fire Management Reveal Ongoing Colonization of Southwest Native People from 1984-1996

by Esperanza Santos

Site Description:


Fire management is an environmental justice issue for Native communities. Historically, fire management has been been used as an ongoing tool by the United States to control and monitor how Native people manage land. The Southwest United States is the premier of these conflicts because of the abundance of wildfires, Native reservations, and the labor connected to managing fire. Conflicts over how to manage fire reemerged between 1984-1996 with the concept of “prescribed burns” or, deliberate fires to prevent massive wildfires. The White Mountain Apache Tribe and the San Carlos Apache Tribe in eastern Arizona are two actors at the crux of this conflict because of their resistance to prescribed burns, despite prescribed burns originating as native practices. The key question of this research is, what are the colonial and anti-colonial dimensions of fire management in the Southwest between 1984-1996? This question will become increasingly important for future environmental justice activists as climate change heightens the risk, extent, and intensity of wildfires. If the future will have unprecedented wildfires, then an anticolonial perspective on wildfire management will be indispensable for an environmentally just future. 

Author Biography:

Esperanza O. Santos (mestiza) is a graduate student in the American Studies department at Rutgers Newark. Her focus is on transgender studies, latina subjectivities, and anti-colonial thought. She writes from the perspective of someone who was born and raised in San Diego, California (Kumeyaay Land). She is familiar with the relevance of fires; First, by witnessing San Diego’s Cedar Fire in 2003, and later, by evacuating because of Santa Rosa’s Tubbs Fire in 2017. While she was safe both times, she endeavors to analyze how others are systematically put in harm’s way.

Final Report:

Secondary Sources:

Dejong, David H. “Fire Warriors: American Indian Firefighters in the Southwest” in Forest History Today. Spring/Fall 2004. 45-54.

Dejong details the relationship between the protection of timber on Native Land and the emergence of Native Firefighter starting in 1909. This continues with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Indian Division 1933-1942. From 1942-1985, Dejong describes the contributions and cultural impact Native firefighters have had. This secondary source is significant because it helps examines the relationship between land management practices focusing on the protection of timber from fire, the emergence of a seasonal Native labor workforce, and the main federal actors correlated to the two. I think I’m trying to argue that fire is colonization because fire related emergencies both reveal and reinforce colonial technologies of governance through land and labor.

Fisher, Andrew H. “Working the Indian Way: The Southwest Forest Firefighter Program and Native American Wage Labor.” The Journal of Arizona History 41, no. 2 (2000): 121–48.

While Dejon discusses Native firefighters broadly, Fisher is more specific as he discusses the Southwest Forest Firefighter (SWFF) Program. SWFF formally began in 1948 at the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico after training for the CCC Indian Division and when there was a demand for firefighters. Fisher discusses the history of SWFF, the impact of financial earnings, and Native firefighters perception on fire. Specifically, Fisher details how in 1979, the White Mountain Apache firefighters had the best crew. Also, how they and the San Carlos Apaches formed the first Native Hotshot crew in 1993. This text is useful because it provides a reference point to the development of SWFF, the role of seasonal wage labor, and native perspectives on fire management. I think the author is uncritical of Native peoples plight and an apologist when Native people share their grievances. I’m not sure if this is something I want to be critical about in my paper or keep the focus on my thesis. I think I’m trying to argue that the San Carlos Apache tribe and the White Mountain Apache tribe did not want to practice prescribed burning because they wanted to continue to participate in the firefighting economically and because they gained respect from settlers for fighting fire. Although prescribed burns have been described as Native practices, what was more important for tribes in this period was to be financially sound and hold social capital for their labor to federal land.

McKinnon, Karen A., Andrew Poppick, and Isla R. Simpson. “Hot Extremes Have Become Drier in the United States Southwest.” Nature Climate Change 11, no. 7 (2021): 598–604.

McKinnon et al detail how the Southwest United States has gotten drier by examining how humidity mediates the impacts of summer heat extremes. They project that the drying will continue and will impact soil moisture, water, and fire. I plan on using this secondary source to name the stakes of the current fire geography in order to argue land management practices need to be informed about Native peoples relation to wildfires and land management.

Pyne, Stephen J. The Southwest : A Fire Survey. 1st ed. University of Arizona Press, 2016.

Pyne examines fire and the San Carlos Apache Tribe in his chapter “Squaring the Triangle”. He discusses the Tribes shifting attitudes on prescribed fire and considers what they presently do as progressive and cutting edge. I will use this to chronicle how the San Carlos Apache shifted their attitudes and the kind of historical conditions that instigated these conditions. Similar to the White Mountain Apache Tribe in the 1980s, they were against prescribed burns, but this started to change in the late 1990s.

Williams, A.P., Cook, B.I. & Smerdon, J.E. “Rapid intensification of the emerging southwestern North American megadrought in 2020–2021”. Nature Climate Change. (2022).

Williams et al. argue that 2000-2021 was the driest 22 year period since 800 in the North American Southwest. They note this impact on forest ecosystems and wildfire. I plan on using this to frame the present day urgency to do wildfire land management from an anticolonial perspective.

Zahara, Alex. “Breathing Fire into Landscapes That Burn: Wildfire Management in a Time of Alterlife.” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 6 (2020): 555–85.

Zahara examines 2004 “Let-it-burn” fire re-integration policy within Saskatchewan, Canada for the Cree, Dakota, Dene, and Métis people. Zahara traces the history of the “Let-it-Burn” policy in order to argue that fire management practices on Indigenous territory need Indigenous partnership, leadership, and direction. I am having a zoom conversation with Zahara on April 4th to get their insights on my research. Zahara is similar to my project but he is approaching fire practices from a geographers perspective, while I look at mine from a historical perspective. This is a useful perspective into how to think about the role of industrialism, settler institutions, and fire management practices from another country.


Primary Sources:

Notes Primary Resources and Principles of Publicly Engaged Scholarship

Part of this research project is engaging the histories of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and the San Carlos Apache Tribe as they relate to wildfire management. In the interest of being transparent and accountable to these communities, I reached out to both tribes for consent to do this history on March 1st, 2022. I am waiting to hear back from the White Mountain Apache Tribe. I will most likely have to present to the council for them to decide. I will honor their request if they do or do not want me to do this history. The San Carlos Apache Tribe, per Wilfred ‘Pi’ Steele’s perspective as a Fire Prevention Officer, is open to share information about fire. He and the people at San Carlos Forestry-Fire see this as public information and therefore accessible to the public. I am welcome to contact anyone at the Forestry-Fire department.

White Mountain Apache Tribe:

San Carlos Apache Tribe:

San Carlos Forestry-Fire:

Image Analysis:

Louise Trujillo poses for a newspaper portrait featuring Native American firefighters, but instead of a bright-eyed, pristine stare typical of newspaper features, Trujillo appears weary and prideful in shades of black and white.[1] Afterall, her, the Navajo 17 crew, and other Native firefighters treacherously battled fires in Montana’s terrain during the 1988 fire season where the Yellowstone National Park experienced its largest set of wildfires in recorded history.[2] Michael S. Wirtz’s takes the singular portrait of Trujillo and Paul Nussbaum writes the article “Native americans crucial to fire line” to discuss the labor and experience of Native firefighters from the Southwest fighting fires in Montana.

While analysts used this as an opportunity to review wildfire policies in national parks and wilderness, an underexamined area of analysis is U.S. representations of Native Americans as it relates to environmental justice of federal wildfire management politics.[3] This section argues that while federal wildfire management have colonized Native ways of working with fire environmental ecology on reservations, Southwest Native communities strategically used firefighting as a way to cultivate cultural and financial capital outside of Native communities so as to preserve Native life. Although simple, Trujillo’s portrait, dress, and posture represent larger forces at play that speak to overlooked ways tribal self-determination existed outside the reservation. The portrait represents a Native presence often overlooked beyond reservations, the dress refers to ways Native people can be seen for their labor instead of traditional regalia, and the posture reflects an affect of humanity not typically depicted in photography by non-indigenous people. Altogether, this section argues that the portrait of Trujillo is representative of how Native communities gained cultural capital outside the reservation from firefighting so as to gain non-Native respect, develop a sense of pride in their labor, and build their Native communities.

The newspaper portrait of Louise Trujillo is significant because it is an article during the zenith of The Philadelphia National Inquirer that thoughtfully engaged Native firefighters’ experiences. At first, this portrait may seem obscure if not arbitrary to larger narratives of Native representation. Afterall, this is a singular story is on page 18-A. However, the circuit of reporting and the quality of that reporting speak to what makes this portrait significant. By circuit of reporting, I mean how images of Native people travel. For example, the portrait and article are about Native laborers from the Southwest working on federal Northwest land from the perspective of non-Native reporters in the Northeast. This is important considering the article is about Native people and Native experiences outside by non-Native reporters for non-Native audiences. Sloppy reporting could have compounded blatant modes of anti-Native racism, but the 1988 team at The Inquirer have a track record of esteemed reporting. Under Eugene Leslie Roberts Jr’s executive editorship of The Inquirer from 1972 to 1990, the newspaper won 17 Pulitzer Prizes, which defined the newspaper’s “Golden Age”.[4] Moreover, Wirtz snapped the photo of Trujillo and was even a finalist for a Pulitzer himself two years prior.[5] Altogether, Roberts’ editorship, Wirtz’s photography, and Paul Nussbaum’s reporting merge to produce a deliberate, compelling, and distinguished narrative of which they wanted wide audiences to read about Native experiences on a Sunday newspaper. Inadvertently, Wirtz and his team challenge the racist politics of visibility through a simple portrait.

The portrait of Trujillo is significant in its simpleness when contrasted to the historical hypervisibility of Native people as belonging to a distant past or caricaturized within contemporary media. The portrait is significant in that Native communities are not conceived of as belonging to U.S. contemporary culture, yet Trujillo stands in all her power representing Native labor, power, and pride. In contrast to how photography was used to display Trujillo is how, historically, photography was weaponized as a colonizing medium. There is a long history of racist representations of Native people during U.S. colonial times on the West where Native people were cast as a vanishing, savage race through photography, exhibitions, and Wild West shows.[6] In contemporary contexts, Native rights activists counter the racist visibility of sports mascots depicting Native people as caricatures.[7] Together, these images circulate to contribute to colonial modes of erasure. Counter to circulating images of Native people as a primitive race or parodied farce, Wirtz captures Trujillo as a woman who was drained but content after a long day of work.

Wirtz’s modest depiction of Trujillo normalize Native life to U.S. audiences in a manner that recognizes Native labor as a firefighter but also grant Native people cultural capital off the reservation. While firefighting comes from colonial legacies of fire exclusion from the U.S. Forestry Service, it was also a tool for Native communities to be represented in a positive fashion. This can be seen in Wirtz’s artistic choices to represent Trujillo. First, he chooses to prioritize a singular, three-quarter body portrait of Trujillo instead of an expansive group one with the Navajo 17 crew. Second, he ops to only focus on a plain white background so as to keep the focus on Trujillo and her attire, thereby deliberately excluding Montana’s fantastical burnt environment. These two elements function to establish a sense of proximity and thus intimacy to a Native person for non-Native audiences. Third, Wirtz has Trujillo donning her firefighter work gear of a backpack, helmet, and hair handkerchief. Unlike other photographs of Native people by non-Native photographers, Wirtz does not ask that Trujillo perform her indigeneity via traditional regalia. Instead, Trujillo is in her work clothes. Although non-Native audiences may not be familiar with Native people, firefighting gear helps audiences feel connected to Native people and establish a sense of familiarity. Fourth, her posture connotes someone getting off work with her arm on the side holding her helmet, her other arm holding her slung backpack, and her body leaning slightly to the right. Most importantly, her face is cocked back as she holds a toothy smile with eyes almost shut from exhaustion from firefighting. Indeed, the photos description states how Trujillo “leaves the fire line after 26 hours to get some sleep”. Altogether, these five elements produce Trujillo as a relatable figure for Sunday Inquirer readers who may have never met a Native person. Rather than a vanishing savage, a mystical, stoic Indian, or Native cartoon caricature, Wirtz showcases Trujillo as a tired, proud Navajo woman who clocked off work. Other Native activists have discussed the need for these kinds of Native visibility that challenge negative stereotypes.[8] Wirtz’s unassuming portrait of Trujillo speaks to the complex modes of Native representation of which create cultural capital for Native people through various modes of intimacy inherent in to dress and posture for Non-native audiences. The cultural capital produced from Wirtz’s portrait is only one of many moments where Native people were recognized for their labor and power in forestry through firefighting.[9] Although, the practice of firefighting has been cited as counter to Native practices in the Southwest.

A prominent fire historian notes how Southwest Native communities decided to subscribe to firefighting rather than continue Native practices of prescribed burns. Stephen Pyne contrasts two different moments in Arizona Native fire practices. First, he claims that “in the western United States, the Arizona reservations were, for a couple of decades, the premier practitioners of prescribed fire”.[10] He cites Harold Weaver, a white forester in the Bureau of Indian Affairs as promoting fire as part of the environmental ecology. However, later, Pyne notes how Native communities preferred fire exclusion to prescribed fire. Pyne states that these communities were

“educated into modernity [and thus] many Native American foresters argued for [fire] suppression. They saw fire as they were trained to think about it in universities or other agencies, and they perceived it as a source of jobs, money, power, and prestige. They wanted to control those programs, not reform them.”[11]

In other words, Pyne identifies Native communities departing from prescribed burn practices and opting for fire exclusion inherent to firefighting, citing their training and desire for power. Pyne is correct in noting Native communities search for financial and cultural capital. What he misses in his analysis of Native communities’ fire practices is the colonial condition that inform how Native communities craft their survivance. Native communities are not blindly assimilating into modernity and having their cultural fire practices colonized, but rather, they are strategically fighting colonization as a means for their community to survive. In this move, Native communities relinquish traditional burns so as to gain power relevant to the preservation of their respective communities. The portrait of Trujillo is the testament to this maneuver.

Southwest Native communities strategically used firefighting as a way to cultivate cultural and financial capital outside of Native communities so as to preserve Native life. The portrait of Trujillo and her dress, posture represent what tribal self-determination looks like outside the reservation for non-Native audiences. While photography has a contested history within Native life, the portrait of Trujillo represents how a Native communities can gain financial and cultural capital through the circulation of their labor and the images that accompany it. Some scholars may cite Native firefighting as colonized labor and thinking whereby Native communities do not practice prescribed burns, but this would diminish the agency for Native people to navigate how they continue to survive and a colonial present.

[1] Nussbaum, Paul. “Native Americans crucial to fire line”. September 11, 1988 (Page 18 of 703). Philadelphia Inquirer (1969-2001).

[2] National Park Service. “1988 Fires”. Last Updated: February 2, 2021.

[3] Pyne, Stephen J. Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America. University of Arizona Press, 2015, pg 241.

[4] Shapiro, Michael (2007). “Heartbreak on Wheels: The Philadelphia Inquirer”. In Charles M. Madigan (ed.). 30: The Collapse of the Great American Newspaper (Hardback). Chicago: Ivan R. Lee. p. 156. ISBN 978-1-56663-742-8.

[5] The Pulitzer Prizes. “The 1986 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Feature Photography”.

[6] Lyman, Christopher M., and Edward S. Curtis. The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions : Photographs of Indians by Edward S. Curtis. 1st ed. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982; Maxwell, Anne. Colonial Photography and Exhibitions: Representations of the “Native” and the Making of European Identities. London ;: Leicester University Press, 1999; Moses, L. G. Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1883-1933. 1st ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996; Faris, James C. Navajo and Photography : a Critical History of the Representation of an American People. 1st ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

[7] Taylor, Michael. Contesting Constructed Indian-Ness : the Intersection of the Frontier, Masculinity, and Whiteness in Native American Mascot Representations. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2013; Watt, Sierra, Ian Record, and Yvette Roubideaux. “Twenty Years of Research into the Health Impacts of Native-Themed Mascots: A Scoping Review.” American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research 29, no. 1 (2022): 92–129.;  Guiliano, Jennifer. “Chasing Objectivity? Critical Reflections on History, Identity, and the Public Performance of Indian Mascots.” Cultural Studies, Critical Methodologies 11, no. 6 (2011): 535–43.; Leavitt, Peter A, Rebecca Covarrubias, Yvonne A Perez, and Stephanie A Fryberg. “‘Frozen in Time’: The Impact of Native American Media Representations on Identity and Self-Understanding.” Journal of Social Issues 71, no. 1 (2015): 39–53.

[8] Hawk, Crystal Echo. “The False Narratives, Invisibility, and the Erasure of Native Peoples must End.” Seminole Tribune, Aug 31, 2018,

[9] Fisher, Andrew H. “Working the Indian Way: The Southwest Forest Firefighter Program and Native American Wage Labor.” The Journal of Arizona History 41, no. 2 (2000): 121–48; Dejong, David H. “Fire Warriors: American Indian Firefighters in the Southwest” in Forest History Today. Spring/Fall 2004. 45-54.

[10] Pyne,  Between Two Fires, pg. 21

[11] Pyne,  Between Two Fires, pg. 157-8.




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