What Apache Firefighters can tell us about fire: A case study on fire policy, labor, and Southwest Native people from 1965-1990

by Esperanza Santos

Site Description:

In 1988, millions of acres burned in the Midwest. Some note this as the biggest fire since 1921. The Boise Interagency Fire Center (BIFC) worked with several agencies to dispatch 30,000 firefighters to control the area’s biggest fire. Two important agencies where the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many of these firefighters where Native American. While overlooked in most accounts of fire reports, fire policy, or fire management, the Apache Firefighters offer a window to examine the relationship between fire (like wildfires, fire policy, fire management) and labor (funding channels and nation relations).

The goal of my research project is to analyze the relationship of the Apache Firefighters to both fire and the United States’ fire policy leading up to the massive Yellowstone fires of 1988. On one hand, the Fort Apache Reservation has centuries of experience working with natural wildfire, although they now practice a form of U.S. fire policy. In fact, Stephen Pyne notes that “Arizona reservations were, for a couple of decades, the premier practitioners of prescribed fire” (21). On the other hand, the 1988 Yellowstone fires reignited intense national debates about returning to “Indian ways” of whether or not to allow forests to burn. A few questions I want to explore are: what made Arizona Reservations the premier practitioners of fire burning and what changed?; How did the U.S. Department of Labor influence Apache fire burning practices?; What experiences do Apache Firefighters have on versus off the reservation along lines of labor, gender, and class?; and, What, if any, are the differences between U.S. fire policy, and Fort Apache fire policy?

Author Biography:

Esperanza Santos is a graduate student in the American Studies department at Rutgers Newark. Her focus is on Decolonial thought and transgender studies. She writes from the perspective of someone who was born and raised in San Diego, California. 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:

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press.

  • Alexander traces how the modern day prison system is rooted in slavery. They show how racialized communities end up in prison in part to exploit their labor. I will use this as one foundation for thinking of the relationship between imprisoned people and the labor they perform while incarcerated.

Chetkovich, Carol. 1997. Real Heat: Gender and Race in the Urban Fire Service. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

  • Chetkovich examines racial and gendered dimensions of being urban employment within Oakland during affirmative action efforts in 1990. Essentially, within fire department culture, women are discouraged from being employed while Black men are valorized for their masculinity. I think this might serve well for comparing the racial and gendered dimensions of being in the fire service, but I don’t think it serves too great of an analysis outside of the scope of its research study for mine.

Lynch, Mona. 2010. Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment. Stanford, California: Stanford Law Books

  • Lunch examines how national trends of incarceration are instituted within the policies of Arizona’s government. I thought this would be useful for understanding fire prison camps, but I’m looking for a book on california’s penal system, not Arizona.

McAfee, Ward. 1990. “A History of Convict Labor in California.” Southern California Quarterly 72:19-40. https://doi.org/10.2307/41171510 (Links to an external site.)

  • McAfee examines the history of how California prison systems used convict. My goal is to situate how Prison Fire camps came to be through a convict leasing system.

Volker Janssen. When the “Jungle” Met the Forest: Public Work, Civil Defense, and Prison Camps in Postwar California. The Journal of American history (Bloomington, Ind). 2009;96(3):702-726. doi:10.1093/jahist/96.3.702

  • Volker situates the development of prison fire camps during the WWII. During this period, prisons were turned into factories, one product of which was fire suppression through prisoner labor via the Civilian Conservation Corps and the California’s State Relief Agency. Here, California’s forest camps stand at the nexus of citizen and convict. The use of this paper is to situate the rise of fire labor camps as viable options for labor.

Prison Fire Camps- Major Contributors

Goodman, Philip. 2012. “Another Second Chance: Rethinking Rehabilitation through the Lens of California’s Prison Fire Camps.” Social Problems (Berkeley, Calif.) 59 (4): 437–58. https://doi.org/10.1525/sp.2012.59.4.437.

  • Goodman engages rehabilitation for prisoners from the lens of prison fire camps. A part of Goodman’s analysis is the bureaucratic mechanisms of prison fire camps. Rather than use his article from the lens of rehabilitation, I want to use this article to stituate conversations about prison fire camps.

Goodman, Philip. 2012. “HERO AND INMATE: WORK, PRISONS, AND PUNISHMENT IN CALIFORNIA’S FIRE CAMPS.” Working USA 15 (3): 353–76. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-4580.2012.00398.x.

  • Goodman examines the contradictory perspectives about people who work prison fire camps. While some view them are hero’s for stopping fire, they are also unable to escape the category of inmate. The goal of using this article is to situate perceptions of prison fire camps and how they perpetuate a narrative that people are grateful for their labor, but that they should not be compensated because they are prisoners.

Polick-Kirkpatrick, Kaelyn Frances. 2019. “Prisons in the Wildlands: A Critical Look Into the Historical Development and Implications of California Conservation Camps” (Links to an external site.). University of Oregon: 29. Archived from the original (Links to an external site.) (PDF) on March 29, 2020.

  • Polick-Kirkpatrick traces the development of California Conservation Camps, of which is implicated prison fire camps. The goal of using this article is to situate the historical development of prison fire camps.

Fire- History & Humanities

Carle, David. 2002. Burning Questions : America’s Fight with Nature’s Fire Westport, Conn. ;: Praeger.

  • Introduction: America’s Hundred Years War on Wildfire — Pt. I. Questioning the Dogma of War. 1. “Professional” Versus “IndianForestry”; 8. Burning California State Parks. 9. National Fire Management ; 13. Peaceful Coexistence.

Pyne, Stephen J. 2015. Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary AmericaBetween Two Fires. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

  • Pyne traces the United States’ fire history. This will be useful to situate how fires came to be conceptualized in the united states, what services where used to adjust to the fires, and what this means for policy.

Indigenous People- with Fire and Land

Anderson, M. Kat. 2006. Tending the Wild : Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,. https://doi.org/10.1525/9780520933101.

  • Anderson writes a how Native American people managed with land in California, of which includes fire burning. The goal is to examine how native knowledge was discounted in order to claim ownership of land.

Lewis, Henry T., and Lowell John Bean. 1973. Patterns of Indian Burning in California: Ecology and Ethnohistory. Ramona, Calif: Ballena Press.

  • Lewis and Lowell write a classic text on how Native American people engaged with land via fire burning. The goal is to examine how native knowledge was discounted in order to claim ownership of land.

Indigenous People- Frames

Mihesuah, Devon A. Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing About American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

  • Mihesuah writes about how to write about Native people in historically specific and accurate ways. The goal is to accurately create Native people as a subject within the research study.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies : Research and Indigenous Peoples. London, New York, Dunedin: New York: Zed Books. University of Otago Press; distributed in the USA exclusively by St Martin’s Press, 1999.

  • Smith creates a methodology in which academic knowledge production can become a decolonizing practice that thinks from the perspective of Native nations instead of colonizers, settlers, or empires. The goal of engaging this text is to situate the land called California as indigenous land so as to avoid the pitfalls of a nation making project and decolonize conceptions of fire and land with native people at the forefront.

Vizenor, Gerald Robert. Fugitive Poses : Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence. The Abraham Lincoln Lecture Series. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1998, 178.

  • Vizenor writes about the selective presence and absence of Native American Indians. How they are consciously selected to be visible when needed but are erased when the engage ideas of sovereignty and decolonization. My goal is to make native people’s presence strong when discussing their land so as to not engage modern problems with destructive fire as a product of colonial relations.

Image Analysis:

Screenshot from documentary Apache 8 (2011).

Screenshot from documentary Apache 8 (2011).

Screenshot from documentary Apache 8 (2011).

The focus of this research project is on Native American women firefighters from the mid 1970s to the early 2000s. Specifically, by centering Apache women of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, this project will engage the environmental justices of land and labor as it is relates to wildfires. Broadly speaking, I plan on engaging the labor of these women in order to reveal trajectories regarding the evolution of Arizona Native fire burning policies, the shifts of Arizona Native reservation land management, and federal labor histories that employ Native people. One method to understanding these connections is through a comparative image analysis of monuments, portraits, and photographs via representations of Native firefighting women. Taken together, these documents illustrate how, on one hand, these laborers create community through their shared labor and are understood as Native cultural emissaries for a broader non-Native U.S. audience. On the other hand, these representations also compound the erasure of Native labor, land, and sovereignty because these representations focus on managing fire instead of managing land. The main document I will examine here is the Wildland Firefighters Monument (WFM) that feature a Native firefighter. I will examine how the WFM is discussed on the National Interagency Fire Center’s (NIFC) website, how the Apache 8 crew viewed the monument in the documentary Apache 8, and how reading the monument itself reveals deeper histories of land and labor.

The NIFC creates a spectacle out of labor and bodily sacrifice through the immersive installation of the WFM in order to invoke a sense of purpose for tourists and staff whereby firefighting is essential, and by extension, itself as a structure. The NIFC is the U.S.’s support center for battling wildfires in which they coordinate resources to control and put out fires and the WFM is an art installation on its campus. As part of the WFM, a key visual representation of Native women is represented through one of the statues. Of the three statues created for the WFM, one is of Cheryl Bones, a crew boss for the Apache 8 firefighting crew. The WFM was conceived after 14 firefighters died in 1994 at the South Canyon fire in western Colorado and was later erected on May 2000 in Boise, Idaho on the NIFC’s campus. These monuments were funded by donations of individuals and businesses, and continues to be managed by the NIFC, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Division Chief for Support Services (DSS), all of whom operate in the same space. Essential features that comprise of the WFM installation are three eight feet bronze statues of laboring firefighters, the native vegetation that firefighters have to navigate, and granite stones inscribed with the names of fallen firefighters. Taken together, these elements function for viewers to spectate the labor of firefighters, the conditions they operate in, and the sacrifices of firefighters made to manage fires. Beyond the history of the WFM, the NIFC’s narrative of the installation reveals what the intentions for the installation are.[1]

While the NIFC’s website reveals that the monuments are intended for visitors and staff, their description of the WFM revels how NIFC imagines itself as an institution essential to orchestrating labor and sacrifice. The website states that the WFM “is a tribute and honor to all wildland firefighters and the people who support them – past, present, and future” where both visitors and staff can experience the WFM. For visitors, often tourists, the WFM offers an opportunity to “[experience] some of the diverse elements of the firefighting environment” as a reminder about both the “challenges and risks of wildland firefighting…in the native vegetation”. For staff, the WFM contrasts the busyness of the campus whereby staff can enter for “peace, tranquility and a place to reflect.” While the WFM offers tourists an opportunity to engage the spectacle of firefighters in action, for staff, it is an opportunity to reflect and perhaps mourn. The WFM invokes a sense of risk that operates differently for visitors and staff alike. For visitors, the WFM illustrates the risk and danger to maintain life by putting out fires. They get to witness firefighters frozen in time to save wildland. For staff, the WFM conveys the finality of risk through the remembrance of killed firefighters. That the sacrifice of life was and continues to be a component of firefighting. Taken together, the NIFC’s WFM is able to create affect out of labor through its focus on risk, life, and death as a feature of the installation. By focusing on these themes and invoking the “past, present, and future” of the labor involved with managing fire, the NIFC constructs itself to be timeless and necessary; Timeless because, through the WFM, it imagines itself to exist always and necessary because it not only decides how to fight fires, dispense risk, salvage life, or enable death. The narrative of the installation and the NIFC’s prominence would make others consider that it stands as essential in relation to fire. However, others have noted that how the NIFC orients to fire is not the only narrative worth noting. Perhaps what is more important are the silences the WFM invokes.[2]

Interestingly, the narrative of the monument on the website stands in stark contrast to that of the documentary Apache 8. At no point in the WFM’s installation description is Cheryl Bones, the Apache 8, or other Native crews mentioned. The only mention of Native women is through gender. The WFM statues are described as “[standing] in silent testimony to hard-working men and women on the fireline”. By describing the statues as “men and women”, the statues become raceless and absent of difference beyond gender. Perhaps the statues must be absent of difference in order to invoke the statues as timeless. Additionally, the statues are described for their silence and labor but little else. They stand as soldiers against wars with fire, but stand undifferentiated as a unit of laborers ready to sacrifice. However, the film Apache 8 re-reads the statue as uniquely invoking Cheryl Bones and the Apache 8 crew. While the NIFC describes the WFM in connection to the people who visit the facility, the Apache 8 film describes the monument in connection to Cheryl Bones, women firefighters, and the labor of Apache people.

While the NIFC’s story about the monuments creates a timeless narrative that symbolizes firefighting efforts for visitors and staff alike, the Apache 8 shifts the narrative to discuss what this means for the legacies of women who were a part of the Apache 8 firefighting crew. For Bones, the monument is inconsequential, considering she prefers to orient herself to the fire crew rather than a statue of herself. The Apache 8 covers three generations of women Apache firefighters and covers 30 years of first hand accounts of how the group formed and what this meant for the firefighters. Bones is featured throughout the documentary. She began as crew boss in 1981 for Apache 8 crew where she oversaw 45 women until the end of the documentary where she reflects on a statue with her likeness in the mid 2000s. While speaking in her native language and describing how the monument came to be, Bones reflects how “some white people where coming to see me” for interviews and pictures so that they could make a monument. That “I, Cheryl, would represent all the women firefighters…This was dedicated to all firefighters”. Although the creators of the WFM intended to represent all firefighters, with a focus on women, plenty of people do not know that it exists at all. For example, at the Apache 8 crew reunion with past and present firefighters, one woman notes her shock and happiness upon learning about the statue. With bright eyes, she exclaims, “That’s a secret, see? She doesn’t even tell her secrets! Golly, how neat!” Later, Bones even feigns knowing about the statue. When others ask her about the statue modeled after her, she says “Is there really?”, through a soft smile and a light chuckle. Perhaps she was making light of the monument and does not like to boast and perhaps the monument itself does not matter as much compared to what she does desire. The documentary concludes with the main narrators of the documentary discussing what they want and where they are in life. Bones wants to take the crew out before she retires while text reads that she “set the standard of excellence with Apache 8 and that standard still exists today.” Even though Bones stands as a clear pillar to the firefighting crew, and her legacy is on that the Apache people take pride in, it is still unclear how she feels about the monument. To contrast her ambivalence about the monument, she articulates her wishes as it relates to the crew. For Bones, working with her crew based in Arizona was more important that a monument acknowledging her labor hundreds of miles away in Idaho. If Bones skirts this honor and nulls the intention of the monument, then what was the primary purpose of creating a monument that does not reflect its intention. Moreover, what is an alternative reading of what the WFM represents and what is the productive power of the monument? Combining the two latter narratives about the statue and doing a close reading of the WFM itself reveals a truer purpose for the Bones’ statue.[3]

The NIFC created the WFM not necessarily to pay tribute to the women of the Apache 8 firefighting crew, but rather, to construct a narrative about the urgent timelessness of firefighting so that the NIFC can remain a necessary institution for all times. Within this conceptual landscape, the productive power of the WFM is that it transforms the labor and sacrifice of firefighters into an emblem that orients spectators to empathize with firefighters. This affect then allows the NIFC to mobilize feelings that cement its utility. Firstly, the statue of Bones in the WFM does not stand by itself; it is part of an installation that features two other statues and the surrounding vegetation. While walking on the NIFC’s campus and following a path, one encounters the WFM. They come into vision as firefighters working the wildland as if frozen in time. Each grey monument has the gear of a firefighter: a hard hat, a shovel, protective clothing, and the needed gadgets strapped on. While they have the same clothing, they have different postures and tools in play. They each carry a unique firefighting tool- a chainsaw, a hatchet, and a shovel. Farthest back in the middle, a firefighter holds the hatchet with square shoulders, chin up, looking directly at passersby. On each side of this monument, closer to the sidewalk, are two statues hunched over, looking at the ground, toiling away. Of the three monuments, Bones monument lies to the right. Her monument’s faces is focused on the ground to the extent that the only way to look at its face would be to lay down. One of the few pictures of the statues face was found in the Apache 8 documentary. It stands expressionless but full of tension; while the eyes are large and the face is deadpan, the back, elbows, and knees are all bent while her fists clench the shovel. A casual passerby would not note Bones’ face but rather, her hunched over figure and the shovel it is using. A passerby would more likely focus on the tools of the firefighters, the main statue looking at them, and the granite stones inscribed with the name of fallen firefighters.[4] While the humanness of Bones’ statue is embodied through the act of labor, it is eclipsed by the installations other elements. She belongs and has value insofar as being a hunched over laborer. The monument was constructed out of mourning, it was created to illustrate the timeless nature of fire and the need to fight them, and it continues to be remembered for the deaths of firefighters. Both in the installation and the narrative constructed around it, Bones’ tribute, and by extension women, becomes lost. She is featured neither on the website, nor in Forestry Service’s description of the UFW.[5] Whereas the monument could have honored her leadership, humility, dedication, or hard work, the people who view the monuments only see her as an almost faceless laborer who is hunched over full of tension. At no point in my research of this monument do people either acknowledge that this firefighter is a Native woman other than the Apache 8 film. The impact of this erasure is that it transposes the value of the Apache 8 firefighters into the narrative of the NIFC so that firefighting, and by extension firefighting institutions, may remain timeless.

Cheryl Bones’ statue in WFM does not represent the labor of Native women of the Apache 8. Rather, the statue represents the emblem an effort on behalf of the NIFC and other firefighting institutions to extract the labor of Native people in order to compound existing narratives to fight fires for all time. With this exclusive focus on land management through fire, the labor of firefighters, and the sacrifices of their life, Native people are used for broader narratives that erase their connection to land and labor.

[1] National Interagency Fire Center. “Wildland Firefighters Monument”.  Accessed October 29, 2020. https://www.nifc.gov/aboutNIFC/about_monument.html

[2] STEPHEN J. PYNE. 2016. “WHY BOISE IS NOT THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR FIRE.” In The Northern Rockies, 15–. University of Arizona Press.

[3] Zeig, Sande, dir. Apache 8. 2011; Women Make Movies. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://rutgers.kanopy.com/node/2288410/preview

[4] https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2014/07/02/week-remember-fallen-wildland-firefighters

[5] https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2014/07/02/week-remember-fallen-wildland-firefighters; http://idahotravelvacation.blogspot.com/2011/01/idaho-vacation-wildland-firefighters.html; https://www.wsav.com/news/national-news/agencies-boost-efforts-to-stop-wildland-firefighter-suicides/amp/ ; https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/495114552755282859/?autologin=true ; https://wffoundation.org/honoring-the-fallen/monument/

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