Tapestry Institute

Burning Through the Roots, Part 6

Chickasaw author Linda Hogan is a friend as well as a member of Tapestry's board of directors. She has a great store of Traditional Knowledge. When I told her about these odd events, her immediate response was, "The fire burned through the roots of the trees. That's what it means when that happens, is that the fire traveled underground." I knew fires could burn beneath the soil line, but I'd never thought of it being possible in a forest instead of a coal seam. Of course, a coal seam is essentially a layer of woody material underground -- just exactly like the tangled, touching tree roots of a forest.

The major dreams that rode ahead of that wildfire like an honor guard told me the fire had meaning. The realization that the fire had burned through the roots of the trees, sometimes for over a mile underground, told me where to find that meaning. It told me to look for things that have been burning underground for a very long time, that are now coming to the surface in sudden and seemingly inexplicable ways. Because the wildfire itself had told a story, had been a Story, I knew that the things burning through the roots were stories, too -- living stories, vital and profound.

The first story that smolders underground on Pine Ridge is about the people indigenous to this Land. I had thought about it the day the fire started, in fact, when we went to the ridge where the young fire was turning a sea of pine trees into a coal-oil refinery. As we watched the column of soot-black smoke twist around itself, rising on the hot air, lit within by flashes of scarlet flame hundreds of feet above the ground, the old man who owned that particular piece of land wept. "They're just giant weeds, they're just giant weeds," he kept moaning. It was clear he was simultaneously mourning the pines and telling himself not to because they didn't really matter.

That caught my attention because some of the trees going up in great sheets of red and black at that very moment were ones that had sheltered Northern Cheyenne women and children during the famous "Cheyenne Outbreak" of January 1879. The government had moved these people from the pine-studded ridges of the northern Great Plains to the hot and relatively low lands of Oklahoma against their will, then neglected them so seriously that a congressional investigation eventually ensued. Children and the elderly literally starved to death during that year in Oklahoma, and adults died of malaria. The reservation doctor closed his office because he had neither medicine nor supplies with which to treat the sick. Promises of food and medicine were broken repeatedly. The people began to speak wistfully of the sweet scent of pines in the homeland they longed for. It would be better to die there, they said, than in a strange place they didn't know. Finally they told the army commander at Fort Reno they were going to go home. And then they did (Footnote 6).

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