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Here’s a Western trivia question: In what community is there one wildland firefighter for every eight residents?

The answer: the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, where about 8,000 people live.

Last summer, more than 1,000 Blackfeet firefighters collectively brought home $6.1 million in wages. In an area of astronomically high unemployment, firefighting is a prized job.

But if Indians need firefighting jobs, it is also true that the federal agencies responsible for fighting wildfire couldn’t get along without Indians. Altogether, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sponsors up to 200 crews of 20 people each, plus five “hotshot” crews. One fire manager describes Native American crews as the “backbone of our labor pool for big fires.”Blackfeet traditionThe tradition of Blackfeet firefighters reaches back almost 100 years, and in 1914, the tribe signed an agreement with adjoining Glacier National Park to fight fires there.

Though Indian crews fought fire throughout the 1930s, at some point the government stopped paying them. When BIA officials tried to muster crews, “some would go, and others would hide,” says John Murray, a long-time Indian firefighter who is now an instructor and operations section-chief.

Firefighting slacked off during World War II, then picked up again in 1949. That’s when Frank Still Smoking, then 17, was dispatched to his first fire. “I didn’t know nothing about fighting fire,” he says, “but I picked it up.”

In those days the men were used for initial attack, but during the late-1960s, when the BIA began officially organizing Indian crews, Indians were relegated to what fire managers call “mop-up” work. Older Indian firefighters still bristle at what they consider a demotion.Crews shortchangedIndians are still being shortchanged on the fireline. “Some Anglo managers treat us as if we don’t really know very much,” Murray says. “People will over explain things to us on the line. They talk really slowly and loudly to us.”

Paul Chamberlin, an Anglo, has seen it happen. The fire safety officer for the Northern Rockies told me, “You may have Indian firefighters with 20 years experience at a fire, yet an Anglo manager will look past them and not even hear them.”

The official word from the BIA is that there are very few reports of racism on the fireline. But how do you describe subtle scenarios like this in a report?

There are other instances. “I noticed that a lot of Native American crews in Montana working on rehab projects last summer ended up getting the terrible assignments that the hotshots or engine crews didn’t want,” says Jacqueline Hawley, BIA fire management officer for western Nevada.

Then there’s the dearth of promotions for capable Indian firefighters. Even BIA officials agree that not enough Indians are climbing up the managerial ladder — despite the great number of talented and experienced workers.

“They don’t want to leave the reservation” — is the frequently heard excuse from non-Indian managers. But that’s hogwash, say Hawley and other Indians who have moved up the ladder. “We’ve just never been given the opportunity,” she says.Hotshots storyAnd don’t think there’s a lack of work ethic or attitude among Indians. The Chief Mountain Hotshots, stationed at the Blackfeet Reservation, stand as an inspiration for all determined youth. In 1987, Murray wanted to get his hard working crew organized as hotshots but couldn’t find an organization to financially support them. The BIA told him there were too many hotshot crews already, and the tribe didn’t have the funds.

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Undaunted, the 20 young men pursued their shared dream. To earn money they hired out as a unit to thin forests and cut poles and rails. They used the money they made to buy their chainsaws and other equipment, and traveled in an old bus that wouldn’t start unless they pushed it first. At the end of one thinning job, the crew split the leftover money and ended up with $7 each.

The bonds grew so close between the crew members that Murray thought, “They would actually die for one another.”

They called themselves the Dog brothers because nobody would claim them.

“We started out pretty glum, but now Chief Mountain is a nationally recognized, fully-funded crew,” says Leon Vlielle, the crew’s first superintendent. “That’s the fruit of our labor.”

Isn’t it about time more of these valuable workers didn’t have to work so hard just for an opportunity to succeed?Mark Matthews of Missoula is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo.

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