By Susan Kim*
Allen Fisher, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe, looks over the scorched reservation in Montana. Susan Kim
July 24, 2012—Otto Braided Hair was a quarter-mile away from a towering wall of flame when suddenly the 50-mph wind changed direction, driving embers directly onto him and his volunteer firefighting crew. “When those embers blew over us, I got a sense that the fire was angry—at what, I don't know,” he recalls.
When the fire whirls arrived, that anger became rage.
In southeastern Montana, dust devils—or whirls—are a common sight. Northern Cheyenne Indians, says Braided Hair, are taught to avoid them.
“Traditionally, those are considered restless spirits,” he said. “You stay out of their way.” Some Northern Cheyenne Indians believe that if a whirl hits you, you get Bells Palsy, or damage to the nerve that controls facial muscles.
As the embers rained down on him, Braided Hair suddenly saw four whirls, spinning close together. Full of dry brush, they caught fire as they kept moving. “They bumped up against the bulldozer line, then they leaped over that. They were bouncing off of each other. Just raging.”
Shortly after witnessing the fire whirls, Braided Hair, fire chief of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, was forced to pull his volunteer firefighters off the fire line in order to save their lives. The wildfire—which started June 26 from a lightning strike—consumed one-quarter of the 440,000-acre reservation, destroying 23 homes and leaving hundreds of others with smoke damage.
Many fire survivors had less than 10 minutes’ notice to leave their homes. Tribe member Allen Fisher said he took only a few items with him. “I grabbed my MSU [Montana State University] graduation cap—it has feathers and beads I put on it—and my moccasins.”
Nearly a month after the fire, Braided Hair, Fisher, and the reservation's other 5,000 residents are struggling to begin their long-term recovery. In addition to families who lost their homes, many others lost vehicles, water access, fencing, and livestock.
“People were cutting fencing like crazy just to give their animals a chance to survive,” said Fisher.
UMCOR is helping the Northern Cheyenne people begin their recovery with an emergency grant of $10,000 for the Yellowstone Conference. These funds will help the Native American Ministries committee at the Sheridan United Methodist Church in Wyoming as it assesses needs and plans a long-term response. The church, which has worked for several years to establish a long-term relationship with the Northern Cheyenne reservation, is located about one hour's drive from the reservation.
Meanwhile, the fire season is just beginning for the Northern Cheyenne tribe. In mid-July, Braided Hair reported 29 new fire starts in a single day. He shares this news as he and Fisher stand together, looking out over blackened mile after blackened mile.
Finally, Fisher is the first to speak: “It's going to be a long summer, Otto,” he says.
But Braided Hair points to the shoots of green coming up through the blackened earth. “You see?” he says, “We're still really, really lucky,” he said, “that no lives were lost.”
Help the Northern Cheyenne Indians and others affected by disasters. Please contribute to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670.
*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to umcor.org.