It is quite undeniable and well known that your friendly neighborhood Ravenspeaker has a heart swollen with pride at the aboriginal achievements of his ancestors. I am sure most readers of this magazine know this is a fancy term meaning indigenous or native and has nothing whatsoever to do with being from Australia. That said, a simple survey of the material culture of the First Peoples of this region will reveal a level of ancient technology and ingenuity quite surprising to anyone who insists on an image of Indians as brave but simple people who wrestled a living by sheer determination from a foreboding and unforgiving countryside.
I am as much of a romantic as anyone but when I was five years old and first saw the inside of a well built and amazingly complex traditional long house I knew there was a great deal of storytelling not being told about how my ancestors really lived. This was probably my first clue as to the direction my life would later take.
Several years ago I read an article in a well known scientific journal about an attempt by a collection of scientists and anthropologists to preserve traditional technologies all over the world. A traditional Aleut kayak was presented as an example of the wisdom of this project.
Aleuts have used Kayaks for thousands of years and over that time had gradually refined them to a level of usefulness and practicality that outperforms the plastic numbers you see tooling around the Puget Sound these days. They are light, amazingly buoyant and cut through the water so smoothly traditional hunters found it possible to hunt shy marine mammals and water fowl almost impossible to approach today. Try sneaking up on a duck with the “advanced” kayak you have sitting on top of your Subaru and maybe you will get an appreciation for why the technologies of “primitive” peoples can yet be superior in some ways to our computer designed 21st century equivalents.
Reading that article reminded me of a conversation I had with an elder about 20 years ago regarding the amazing healing properties of the Yew tree. This living cultural library described for me how our people used to make a tea out of yew bark to heal tumors. Maybe 5 years later some scientist not far from the home of this elder was making big noise about his “discovery” of the very same properties of this tree. I always wondered if he’d been spending some time talking to the locals when he got the idea and never mentioned it to anyone.
Whether or not this was coincidence or a brazen theft of a good idea I had to ask myself if there were any other potentially useful technologies in the tool kit of my ancestors. A few years later I would get my answer. I was studying in the archives of the Tsimshian Central Council in Canada and came across several references to a mysterious object called very casually a “fireball”. What needs to be understood at this point is that about a hundred years ago someone got the bright idea to record the oral histories of my people from the oldest living people of that time.
In other words, the children and grandchildren of the First Contact generation preserved their recollections of what was taught to them by that generation who after all were born into a world where no Europeans existed and where the Tsimshian and their immediate neighbors were thought to be the most advanced, most powerful and wealthiest societies in the world. Think how Will Smith must have felt during “Independence Day” and you might get a clearer picture. Anyway, these archives are a treasure trove of knowledge and I studied these Fireball references with great interest if only to figure out what they were.
This is what I discovered: If you were an Indian living 200 years ago, presumably anywhere on the Northwest Coast but possibly limited to North Coastal British Columbia and Southeast Alaska you had a way of getting a fire going in the soggy rain forest no matter how sopping wet was your wood.
It was called a fireball and what I read about it was at first so incredible I did not believe they were anything real but some kind of myth akin to Raven stealing a box full of daylight. The more I studied the more I came to realize there really was some kind of technology at work here. I dug further and discovered the fireball was a type of insulation package holding a smoldering ember that was flammable and airy enough to keep the thing hot but cool enough to the touch that a person could stow it in a bag or even carry it around in his hand.
This got me thinking; wouldn’t it be cool to actually build a fireball?
There are some things I can tell you about this apparently lost technology. I can tell you they are described as wet sawdust and woodchips, possibly containing moss, and of course the burning ember. Dried moss was either kept in a bag or in the ball itself as kindling and when cracked open the ball became additional fuel for the now possible fire. I cannot tell you exactly how they were built because those long ago elders simply assumed the listener would know. I also can’t find anyone readily available who has ever built one. Therefore, you and I have an opportunity to resurrect a piece of history.
I propose that we as a group try a few experiments and see if we can actually do what my ancestors found to be so ordinary they didn’t even bother to make an official recipe. Naturally we will document what we have done and maybe even get a famous scientific journal to write it up and take a few pictures.
Who is with me?