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Did the early Tlingits and Haidas of Southeastern Alaska develop innovations for preserving fire for heat, light and cooking, well ahead of their time? While no written record can be found, artist Mary Henrikson, who grew up in the region, paid close attention to oral histories on their unique fire storage technology. Then, working with local boatman, she discovered carefully altered, centuries-old cedar trees with deeply burned interiors, apparently vented with slots to project firelight signals along their coasts. Inspired, the well-known artist crafted a series of paintings on fire tree use, in addition to employing investigative techniques favored by scientists. Her work combines both approaches in hopes of inspiring your own speculation.
About the Author
Mary Ida Henrikson was born and raised in Ketchikan Alaska and was influenced by the adventure writers, photographers and artists grouped around the Alaska Sportsman Magazine that was published in Ketchikan. She studied art history, English literature, fine art, and philosophy at Central Washington University and Claremont Graduate University.
She found inspiration through the changing environments inherent in work on the North Slope, Alaska Marine Highway and the fishing industry. Mary also taught at Ketchikan Community College and University of Alaska Southeast. In 1990 she founded Danger Island Studio on Creek Street in Ketchikan and closed the studio to study in New York at the Arts Students League. She is shown nationally and is widely published.
"There are some fascinating original information and interpretations in the text. Some are very believable, while others strike me as being highly improbable speculations. I think the idea of fire trees as shelter, warmth, and protection for a hearth (as depicted in a sketch) makes a lot of sense. When John Muir traveled with Tlingits in canoes, he camped with open fires on the beach at night. Tlingits guiding him stated they did not traditionally travel that way as smoke and light would expose position and make them vulnerable to possible ambush. I have found campsites on terraces above well-traveled beaches that appear to be located to prevent light and smoke from fire being seen. Fire trees would be a perfect solution to this dilemma--and it makes good sense to me. 'Fire storage' referencing actual fire does not seem plausible. However, during a recent visit to Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, I saw the 'Hollow Tree,' a 1,000-year-old red cedar that showed clear and substantial evidence of burning through the enormous amount of charcoal apparent. The substantial charcoal remains in the tree suggested to me that the concept of 'fire trees' may reference the creation and utilization of charcoal, an easily ignitable material that would be easily accessible."
--Stephen J. Langdon, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska Anchorage