Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Fire-making by the Indians of Canada



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Two methods of making fire were in use among the American ab­origines at the time of the discovery. The first method, by flint-and-pyrites (the progenitor of flint-and-steel), was practised by the [Inuit] and by the Athapascan and Algonquian tribes ranging across the continent from Stikine r. in British Columbia to Newfound­land and around the entire Arctic coast, and also throughout New England; as well as by the tribes of the N. Pacific coast. The infer­ence is that this method of fire-making at one time was general in this area, but the observations on which its distribution is based are from widely separated localities in which it is invariably used in connection with fire-making by wood friction. It appears probable that flint-and-pyrites, in view of its distribution in northern Europe , was introduced into America through Scandinavian contact, or is accultural either from Europe or Asia . The flint-and-steel is clearly an introduction of recent times.


The second method, by reciprocating motion of wood on wood and igniting the ground-off particles through heat generated by friction, was widespread in America , where it was the most valued as well as the most effectual process known to the aborigines. The apparatus, in its simplest form, consists of a slender rod or drill and a lower piece or hearth, near the border of which the drill is worked by twisting between the palms, cutting a socket. From the socket a narrow canal is out in the edge of the hearth, the function of which is to collect the powdered wood ground off by the friction of the drill, as within this wood meal the heat rises to the ignition point. This is the simplest and most widely diffused type of fire-generating apparatus known to uncivilized man. Among the [Inuit] and some other tribes the simple two-piece fire drill became a machine by the use of a hand or mouth rest containing a stone, bone, or wood socket for the upper end of the drill, and a cord with two handles or string on a bow for revolving the drill. By these inventions uniform and rapid motions and great pressure were effected, rendering it possible to make fire with inferior wood. The four-part drill consisted of two kinds: (a) The cord drill, which requires the co-operation of two persona in its working, and (b) the bow drill, which enables one person to make fire or to drill bone and ivory. The distribution of these varieties, which are confined to the [Inuit] and their neighbours, follows no regular order; they may be used together in the same tribe, or one or other may be used alone, although the presumption is that the cord drill is the older. The hearth alone embodies two interesting modifications which reflect the environment. In one the canal leads down to a step or projection from the side of the hearth, and in the other the drilling is done on a longitudinal slot in the middle of the hearth, the object in both cases being to prevent the fire from falling into the snow. These features also seem to have an indiscriminate distribution in the area mentioned.


The pump drill has been employed for fire-making only among the Onondaga of Canada, who used it in making sacred fire for the White-dog feast; but the pump drill is of little practical use in fire-making. From the Onondaga also there is an example of the fire plough like that of the Polynesians, in which a stick is held at an angle between the hands and rubbed back and forth along a plane surface, cutting a groove in which the wood meal produced by friction ignites. The appearance of these diverse methods in one tribe, in an area where the simple drill was common, leads to the assumption that they are of recent introduction. There is no other evidence that the fire plough ever existed in the western hemisphere.


The wood selected for the fire drill varied in different localities, the proper kinds and qualities being a matter of acquired acknowledge. Thus the weathered roots of the cottonwood were used by the Pueblos; the stems of the yucca by the Apache; the root of the willow by the Hupa and Klamath; cedar by the N. W. Coast tribes; elm, maple, and buttonwood by the eastern Indians. In some instances sand was placed in the fire cavity to increase friction; often two men twirled the drill alternately for the purpose of saving labour or when the wood was intractable.


A similar discrimination is observed in the selection of tinder. The [Inuit] prized willow catkins; the Indians of the N. W. coast used frayed cedar bark; other tribes used fungi, softened bark, grass, or other ignitible [sic] material. Touchwood or punk for preserving fire was obtained from decayed trees, or some form of slow match was prepared from bark. From the striking of a spark to the well-started camp-fire considerable skill and forethought were required. The glowing coal from the fire drill was usually made to fall into a small heap of easily ignitible material, where it was encouraged by fanning or blowing until actual flame was produced; or the spark with the small kindling was gathered in a bunch of grass or a strip of bark and swung in the air.


Fire-making formed an important feature of a number of ceremonies. New fire was made in the Green-corn ceremony of the Creeks, the White-dog feast of the Iroquois, the New-fire and Yaya ceremonies of the Hopi, and among many other tribes in widely separated localities. There are also many legends and myths grouped about the primitive method of obtaining fire at will. The Cherokee and other southern tribes believed that a perpetual fire burned beneath some of the mounds in their country, and the Natchez built their mounds with a view, it is said, of maintaining a perpetual fire. On the introduction of flint-and-steel and matches the art of fire-making by the old methods speedily fell into disuse among most tribes and was perpetuated only for procuring the new fire demanded by religious rites.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 165-167.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College