1 Jun 2010, 10:24am
Cultural Landscapes Fire History Native Cultures
by admin

The Ozette Prairies of Olympic National Park: Their Former Indigenous Uses and Management

M. Kat Anderson. 2009. The Ozette Prairies of Olympic National Park: Their Former Indigenous Uses and Management. Final Report to Olympic National Park, Port Angeles, Washington Winter 2009.

Full text [here] (3.2 MB)

Selected excerpts:


The Ozette Prairies—openings of bog, fen, and grassland in a forest of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western redcedar—lie two kilometers east of the Pacific Ocean, well within hearing distance of barking sea lions on the rocky islands offshore. One can walk from these wetlands to the coast on the Cape Alava Trail, which cuts through the openings and the surrounding forest along the route of an old Indian trail (Waterman 1920). Wandering off the trail into the forest, the travel becomes slow and cumbersome; one has to straddle downed logs and bushwhack through shrubbery and young trees.

The wetlands, on the other hand, are easily and comfortably traversed. They are inviting landing sites for ducks and geese, habitat for ground-nesting birds, and are attractive to Roosevelt elk, blacktailed deer, and black bears. Before the coming of white settlers, they were also attractive to the Ozette Indians, who hunted and collected food and useful plants there for perhaps 2,000 years (Blinman 1980; Wessen 1984). The Ozette people would come to the Ozette Prairies from their village at Cape Alava on the Pacific Ocean, seeking young horsetail sprouts to eat in spring, the leaves of a particular sedge to weave into their baskets in summer, and bog cranberries, Indian tea leaves, and fern rhizomes in autumn.

They built shelters in the wetlands and dried and smoked their food there (Bertelson 1948; Gunther 1871-1981). Before 1910, two Swedish immigrants—Peter Roose and Lars Ahlstrom—filed 160 acre claims and moved onto these open areas, built structures, raised sheep and cattle, and planted vegetable gardens (see Figures 1 and 2). When Ahlstrom first moved to the area in 1902, he lived in an Ozette Indian hut and interacted with the Ozette as described by Bertelson (1948): “He got along fine with the Ozettes, and bought salvaged drift-boards and planks from them with which to build. And after he got settled and had acquired four cows, he traded butter and garden truck with the Indians for fish and game.”

Today, butterfly and plant experts view the Ozette Prairies as a wilderness refuge — a place sheltering unique plant and animal life. They are a biological focus area of the National Park Service because they represent excellence in beauty and biological diversity and harbor an array of rare and endangered plant and animal species (http://www1.dnr.wa.gov/nhp/refdesk/lists/plantrnk.html; Pyle 2002). In recognition of their cultural and ecological value, the wetlands have received official protection; their structures are on the National Register of Historic Places and the land is designated as wilderness or potential wilderness (Washington Park Wilderness Act of 1988; Ruth Scott pers. comm. 2007).

But formal designation alone is not enough to save the biotic diversity of these areas, as they are shrinking. Young western hemlock and redcedar trees, along with some Sitka spruce and Pacific yew, are advancing into the open habitats (see Figure 3). In the early 1940s, Alice Kalappa, Makah, complained to anthropologist Elizabeth Colson in an interview that “Now there are lots of trees on the [Ozette] marsh because nobody takes care of it anymore.” In 1981, Stephen Underwood, Ozette Subdistrict Ranger, wrote Olympic National Park visitors to solicit early photographs of the Ahlstrom’s Prairie. He received slides and prints of Ahlstrom’s Prairie from the early 1960s. He wrote the visitors thank you notes saying in one letter that “It’s impressive how much growth has occurred out on the prairie [between the early 1960s and 1981]” (Underwood 1981). Wetlands ecologist Linda Kunze documented tree encroachment on the Ozette Prairies in her unpublished botanical field notes in 1989 (see Appendix 1). Ed Tisch (2002:6) explained the tree encroachment onto Ahlstrom’s Prairie in an article in the Voice of the Wild Olympics magazine:

The highest, best-drained sites favor tree establishment. Most of these elevated areas currently support a hemlock\salal-evergreen huckleberry community type in which bracken, deer ferns, bunchberries, twinflowers, and beaked mosses are common, and the dominant shrubs grow to heights of three to ten feet. These expanding ‘forests’ are slowly repossessing.

… Age data determined by tree core dating revealed that trees began encroaching on Roose’s Prairie 50 to 100 years ago and on Ahlstrom’s Prairie less than 50 years ago. The establishment dates of the encroaching trees coincide with the end of major disturbance on these wetlands—homesteader influence by way of sheep grazing and burning (Ramsden 2004). This use of the land came to an end when the land became part of Olympic National Park. Tree encroachment has progressed significantly on both areas since that time. Modeling predictions based on air photo analysis suggest that tree encroachment will continue at a rapid rate, covering most of the area within 100 years, at which point the wetlands will have likely become coniferous forest and woodland swamp (Ramsden 2004).

Until recently, we were limited by a relative lack of knowledge of former native use and management of the Ozette Prairies and how these actions may have influenced the shaping and maintenance of these openings. This report is intended to remedy this situation by collecting together for the first time much of the available cultural evidence—through a review of the historical literature and ethnographic interviews.

Figure 3. Conifer encroachment onto Ahlstrom’s Prairie. #256. Photograph by Fred Sharpe, 2007


Oral Interviews

Oral interviews with individuals from various tribes and non-Indians with a long-term history in the area are considered a legitimate, scholarly method of information gathering in the fields of anthropology, ethnobiology, environmental history, and historical ecology and are used to reconstruct Native American uses of the flora and land management practices (Anderson 2005; Boyd 1999a; Deur and Turner 2005; Egan and Howell 2001; Goble and Hirt 1999).

There are Makah who are the present-day carriers of an oral tradition, chronicling the ancient practices and lifeways of the people. Native people still gather native plants and prepare traditional foods, and speak their native language. Between 2002 and 2007, thirty oral interviews were conducted with twenty-one individuals concerning the history of the Ozette Prairies. Seventeen interviews were conducted with thirteen Makah; two interviews were conducted with a Jamestown S’Klallam; eleven interviews were conducted with seven non-Indians with a knowledge of the long-term history of the area. Makah consultants were transmitting information that they received directly from parents or grandparents who had witnessed or used practices of which they spoke. Thus, this information is still quite fresh in the collective memory of the Makah and likely to be accurate.

The Written Historical Record

Supplementing the information from these interviews is a considerable body of archival evidence from the historic and ethnographic record, including nineteenth-century maps, newspaper articles, museum records and collections, and field notes from explorers, surveyors, botanists, and anthropologists which were studied along with General Land Office survey maps and accompanying notes for information on cultural uses and burning of the wetlands in the traditional territory of the Makah.

Ecological Features of the Ozette Prairies

The Ozette Prairies are a mosaic of wetlands and relatively drier treeless environments: bogs, fens, and grassland areas. Such open areas are rare in the forest that covers most of Olympic National Park and constitute some of the only habitats in which animals and plants not adapted to the shade of trees can survive.

Since this open habitat is not extensive, some of these species are threatened or sensitive. In addition to being a refuge for these species, the wetlands have extremely high biodiversity because they encompass such a wide variety of ecological conditions, including bogs, fens, grasslands, and ecotones (transition zones between forest and prairie). Because of these factors, the wetlands are a unique ecosystem, important not only for the species that require open habitats but also for the biota of the Olympic National Park as a whole. …

Role of the Ozette Prairies in the Life of the Makah

The Ozette Prairies were useful to the culture and economy of the Makah, the native people who occupied the Ozette and the Cape Flattery region before settlement by Europeans and Asians in the mid-1800s. Although the Makah made much of their living from the sea, fishing and hunting marine mammals, they depended on the land for a large portion of their food and much of the material they used for clothing, shelter, tools, implements, and ritual objects. Due to their biodiversity and openness, the Ozette Prairies provided the habitat that supported many of the plants and animals from which food and material were derived.

Extensive permanent occupation of the Ozette Village and its surroundings began approximately 2,000 years ago (Croes and Blinman 1980; Wessen 1984; Samuels and Daugherty 1991:11). Archeological evidence reveals that the food procurement strategies and technologies, basketry and cordage manufacturing styles, and woodworking techniques remained stable over the period of occupation, suggesting 2,000 years of cultural continuity (Wessen 1990; Croes 1977).

Occupation of the northeastern Olympic Peninsula began as early as 11,000 BP at the Manis Mastodon Site near Sequim. The only limiting factor for early occupation of the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula was glacial ice that retreated over 12,000 years ago (Dave Conca pers. comm. 2008). Chronometrically dated archeological deposits on the northwestern part of the peninsula are much later with clear occupation dated around 4,560+/- 80 years B.P. on what is now the Makah Indian Reservation (Dave Conca pers. comm. 2008) and 2,500 years ago at the mouth of the Hoko River (Croes and Blinman 1980). Non-chronometrically dated sites in the vicinity of Lake Ozette have been linked to occupations as early as 5,000- 8,000 B.P. based on artifacts style but as of yet have not been substantiated by radiocarbon dating (Conca 2000). Further research in this region will probably push back the limits of human occupation in the Ozette area into the mid to early Holocene, about 4,000 to 8,000 years ago (Dave Conca pers. comm. 2008). …

One of the most important terrestrial habitats on which the Makah (and Ozette people) depended was the wetlands. The wetlands provided a great diversity and dense populations of edible plants, basketry materials, and medicinal plants; they were one of the best places to hunt Roosevelt elk and deer; and as open habitats they served as good temporary habitation sites and corridors for accessing other areas and habitats. So important were wetlands to the Makah that Gary Ray, Makah, describes them as “pantries” (pers. comm. 2007), and it appears that proximity to a wetland was an important criterion in choosing where to site a village. All five Makah villages were within easy walking distance of at least one wetland, and two villages, Wuh-uhch’ (Waatch) and Ts’oo-yuhs’ (Tsooess), were built adjacent to coastal wetlands (see Figure 15). …

Four kinds of berries were gathered on the Ozette Prairies: bog cranberries and bog blueberries in the wet areas, and salal berries and evergreen huckleberries in the drier areas and ecotones (see Figures 19, 20, and 21). …

Indian tea (Ledum groenlandicum; also known as wild, Hudson Bay, swamp, Labrador, or cranberry tea) was gathered on the Ozette Prairies, where it grows in association with cranberries. …

Figure 27.Tommy Peterson, Makah, picking Indian tea on Ts’oo-yuhs Prairie.

Two “root” crops were dug on the Ozette Prairies: bracken fern rhizomes and the fleshy, thickened tubers of Vancouver groundcone (Boschniakia hookeri). …

The Makah harvested the leaves of ca bup (also known as slough sedge or basket sedge) (Carex obnupta) from the wetter parts of the Ozette Prairies for the horizontal strands in basketry. …

Two other plant parts used for basketry and similar applications were likely gathered at the edges of the Ozette Prairies: the roots of Sitka spruce trees and the limbs of young redcedars (Singh 1966:25-26; Olson 1936:83). Although spruce grows away from the wetlands as well as in wetland ecotones, at the wetland edge the roots were easier to dig, as related by Gary Ray (Makah, pers. comm. 2007)…

Several other plants known to have been utilized by the Makah were likely to have been harvested on the Ozette Prairies. These include sphagnum moss (used for plugging and insulating the seams of lodges [Swan 1964:5]) and crabapples (the fruit was eaten and the bark was gathered to treat arthritis and stomach upset) (Cindy Lee Claplanhoo pers. comm. 2002) as well as others (see Tables 4 and 5).

The Ozette Prairies were also important places for hunting Roosevelt elk and black-tailed deer. As open environments, the wetlands supported the rich growth of good forage for these animals and were thus crucial for their survival in the area. At the same time, the Ozette people took advantage of the fact that elk and deer were attracted to the wetlands and could be more easily tracked, stalked, and killed
there. …

Almost every part of the elk was used: elk skins were cut into strips for rope; elk horns were used for barbs on harpoons, and as points for fish spears; elk bones were used for chisels; tallow provided a face grease for prevention of chapping and sunburn and served as a base for paint; the meat and leg-bone marrow provided food (Gunther 1936:117).

The Makah valued black-tailed deer for their meat, which was cooked and eaten on the spot or dried. The hooves were turned into dance rattles; the horns into ceremonial items for dances; the deerskin slit for dance aprons decorated with dewclaws at the end of each strip (Gunther 1936:117). Deer hide was used to make deer-hide floats, probably used in sea mammal hunting (James Wesseler pers. comm. 2003).

It is likely that the Ozette people hunted bears on the wetlands as well. We know that black bears were hunted by the Makah, that their skins were made into blankets and capes for whalers and others, that their claws were used to make necklaces worn by shamans, and that their meat was eaten both fresh and dried (Gunther 1936:114). …

Finally, the Ozette Prairies may have been a place where the people hunted waterfowl and other large birds. Erna Gunther recorded that the Makah hunted sandhill cranes “in the prairie” during the month of April. These birds were favored for their meat (Gunther 1936:108). Ducks and geese would have been attracted to the wetlands and were probably hunted there also.

Indian Management of the Ozette Prairies with Fire

Evidence for Indian burning of the Ozette Prairies comes from three sources: (1) Elizabeth Colson’s abstract field notes, (2) newspaper accounts, and (3) oral interviews of non-Indians from families with long-term histories on the Olympic Peninsula (see Appendices 3 and 4). Additionally, support for burning in western Olympic Peninsula wetlands in general comes from old General Land Office surveys and maps and oral interviews with Makah who remember the practice of burning on wetlands (Ts’ooyuhs Prairie) on the Makah Reservation (see Appendix 5).

Other possible lines of physical evidence are summarized that were taken from a natural history study conducted by Andy Bach and Dave Conca (2004).

Finally, wetlands ecologist Linda Kunze observed and recorded in her field notes that not only parts of the Ozette Prairies are former burns, but that this phenomenon exists on the Cape Alava Prairie (also called West Prairie), Sand Point Trail Prairie, Manny’s Prairie, and Allen’s Slough (Allen’s Prairie) (Kunze 1989) (see Appendix 1). …

General Land Office surveys conducted in the area at the end of the 1800s recorded land that had been recently burned. … We do not know whether these fires were set by Indians or by white settlers (Ahlstrom, Klock, and Person all confirmed that early settlers burned like the Indians did) but this is to some extent a moot point since the settlers, by their own accounts, were simply mimicking what the Indians had done, and, like the Indians, wanted to keep the wetlands open.

Makah tribal members interviewed between 2002 and 2007 claimed that in former times the
wetlands were burned. … Six Makah individuals—Pat Boachup, Greg Colfax, John Ides, Sadie Johnson, Melissa Peterson, and Gary Ray—along with Kate McCarty, a non-Indian married to a Makah man, were told by Makah elders that setting fires in Ts’oo-yuhs Prairie was a traditional practice to enhance bog cranberries and Indian tea, improve hunting, and to keep the forest from encroaching. Additionally, Helma Ward, a Makah elder interviewed by ethnobotanist Steven Gill (2005) in the early 1980s, said that the cranberry bogs at Ts’oo-yuhs were burned every ten years. …

Bracken fern grows throughout the Ozette Prairies, and its dead fronds burn readily enough to carry a fire and keep it burning over a large area (see Figure 37). Indeed, Lars Ahlstrom and Peter Roose were concerned enough about the fire danger posed by the previous year’s dead bracken fronds that they would burn them off each year. Myra Vanderhoof (1960) remarked that, “such a practice was necessary as a means of fire-prevention, for the dead bracken became dangerous tinder after the first warm, sunny days of spring.” …

Cultural Purposes for Burning

To understand more fully how the Ozette people used fire to maintain the Ozette Prairies, it is necessary to examine their reasons for doing so.

Improve game habitat. Indian burning of the open habitat fostered three inter-related goals related to the hunting of game animals: it facilitated hunting by increasing visibility and access to animals; it lured the animals to the open areas to congregate by encouraging the growth of new lush vegetation; and it maximized the quality and quantity of food available to these animals. …

Enhance productivity of below-ground food plants. Bracken fern rhizomes were a staple in the diet of all the tribes on the Olympic Peninsula, and we know that the Makah and the Ozette people gathered them as well. Bracken fern patches in the Ozette Prairies were burned and cultivated for edible rhizomes, as well as for fiddleheads for food and medicines and fronds for cleaning and serving fish. …

Enhance productivity of above-ground food plants. Some Makah have distinct memories of Ts’oo-yuhs Prairie on the Makah reservation being burned specifically to enhance production of both Indian tea and the many types of berries that grow there (see Appendix 5). According to Melissa Peterson, Makah, “people who owned the marshes burned the marshes for the cranberry for the health of the plant to increase yield and also to keep other invasive plants from taking over” (pers. comm. 2007). Pat Boachup (Makah, pers. comm. 2002) agrees: “People burned in the cranberry marsh [Ts’oo-yuhs] to promote a better crop of cranberries and Indian tea.” …

Keep the wetlands open. Native people on the Olympic Peninsula valued wetlands specifically for their open, treeless nature. As open habitats, wetlands served as corridors for easy travel, offered sites for temporary camps, and created landscape diversity in a land otherwise swathed in forest. The Makah were well aware that these environments would disappear unless they were burned, and consultants have often couched the reasons for burning in terms of maintaining the openness of wetlands. …


It is important to explore alternative explanations for the persistence of the Ozette Prairies. Lightning fires might have kept them open. However, natural fire in the form of lightning is very rare in coastal coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest (Gavin et al. 2003; Henderson et al. 1989; Lertzman et al. 2002), so it is most likely not responsible for keeping lowland openings free of trees such as the Ozette Prairies. Forests of western redcedar, sitka spruce, and western hemlock burn on average, once every 937 years and the fires tend to be stand-replacing events (Agee 1993). Most of the lightning fires in Olympic National Park between 1916 and 1975 occurred in the northeasterly half of the Park and most above 1220 m elevation (Pickford et al. 1980). Ecologist Jan Henderson and colleagues (et al. 1989: 38) state that “In zones 0-3 [which includes the Sitka Spruce Zone in which the Ozette Prairies lie] there were very few fires of appreciable size in the last 700 years. Those that have been recognized occur along southerly aspects mostly at mid-elevations (the thermal belt) and rarely exceed 1000 acres in size.”

There are a number of other possible explanations for the persistence of the Ozette Prairies without tree encroachment until relatively recently. Wind is a major disturbance factor in this area (Agee 1994; Henderson et al. 1989). Yet, “wind disturbance does not eliminate tree regeneration and tree blow downs that periodically occur, return to forest rapidly” (David Peter pers. comm. 2009). …

Smaller-scale perturbations that are connected with heavy rainfall include avalanches, slope failures, soil creep, and scouring of riverbanks (Jenkins et al. 2002), but these are more expected at higher elevations, along streams, or on lands with steeper gradients, not in slight depressions in lowland flats — such as the Ozette Prairies. Insects and pathogens cause tree mortality on the wetter side of the Peninsula, but their effects are local, not widespread (Henderson et al. 1989).

Another possible explanation is the presence of infertile soils with poor drainage that create conditions that favor an herbaceous and shrub vegetation that is adapted for life in saturated soil conditions (Kulzer et al. 2001). Bogs dominated by Sphagnum, along with fen plants such as sedges (Carex spp.) and white beakrush (Rhynchospora alba) would be capable of keeping these wetlands open for millennia (Richard Hebda pers. comm. 2009). …

The Ozette Prairies include wetland areas that might not forest over (Kunze 1989), but they also contain wetland and non-wetland areas that almost certainly will grow up into forest and they are (R. Pyle and T. Pyle 2000; observation of the author). The non-wetland open areas at Ozette are probably old and would have been expected to be forested. So why aren’t they? One explanation might be that Roosevelt elk grazed and browsed the open wetlands and ecotones, favoring this vegetation, and this disturbance was frequent and extensive enough to keep the Ozette Prairies and other wetlands open, restricting or slowing the invasion of woody species (Moral 1985; Skinner 1934). …

Another explanation might be that the climate is changing becoming warmer and drier over the last century due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Geographer Cathy Whitlock (pers. comm. 2009) says, “Climate change may have provided the backdrop that enable colonization and rapid growth of seedlings in the absence of anthropogenic fires.” Studies are needed to document changes in temperature and precipitation over the last one hundred years.

Indian Use and Burning of the Ozette Prairies

… Critics of the scenario that Indians burned the wetlands often claim that the wetlands were too wet to be easily ignited or to carry a fire. But the Makah had the capability to fell individual conifers with fire and had the technology to overcome the ignition problem, and in the right kind of weather the vegetation itself would have taken care of the carrying problem (see sidebar below). All tribes on the Olympic Peninsula had knowledge of pitchwood, resin-rich wood that was effective kindling for starting fires and which could be used to make torches for keeping fires burning, even in wet weather. …


1. Anthropologist Colson’s unpublished field notes, findings from Native American interviews conducted between 2002 and 2007, the historic literature on the Makah, and newspaper articles support the conclusion of historical subsistence use of the Ozette Prairies by the Makah.

2. Historical and physical evidence suggest that the Ozette people burned the Ozette Prairies periodically. Looking at all the lines of evidence together, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that fire was indeed wielded as a management tool on the wetlands to prevent the encroachment of trees, encourage the growth of useful plants, and maintain the wetlands as desirable habitat for large mammals. The Ozette people valued the wetlands highly and knew that they had to be cared for if they were to continue serving as an important foundation of the people’s economy and culture.

3. The Ozette Prairies are probably of natural origin determined by topography, soils, and climate, maintained by aboriginal burning and to some extent elk grazing.

4. The areas surrounding the true wetlands likely were created by Indian burning — expanding the size of the Ozette Prairies. With repeat fire, the clearings eventually went beyond the saturated conditions to include surrounding upland soils-the areas where the trees are actively invading today. These openings were probably kept open with the non-Indian ranching and burning activities of Lars Ahlstrom and Peter Roose.

5. The Ozette Prairies are a product of both natural and cultural forces. Non-anthropogenic and anthropogenic factors have been at work during the Holocene to give us the high biodiversity found there today.

The Ozette Prairies best fit the National Park Service category of ethnographic landscape, which is defined as “a site, structure, object, landscape, or natural resource feature assigned traditional legendary, religious, subsistence, or other significance in the cultural system of a group traditionally associated with it” (National Park Service 2001). …

The story of the Ozette Prairies and their former indigenous use and management is an important story to be told to park visitors. Conservation biology textbooks that highlight indigenous conservation strategies, for the most part, only use examples from locations other than the United States (Groom et al. 2006). Ecology textbooks that discuss cooperative relationships in nature between humans and plants and/or other animals such as mutualism, feature domestication as the main embodiment of that interaction (Townsend et al. 2008). The Ozette Prairies are an example of places where rich biodiversity, beauty, and human use all co-existed for centuries or millennia. The Ozette people belonged to the Ozette Prairies, and so even now, more than 100 years after the establishment of the Ozette and Makah Reservations, the wetlands can help us understand how it is possible for humans to fit within nature.

Figure 37. Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) on Roose’s Prairie. #480. Photograph by Fred Sharpe, 2007.

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Meta