Manataka American Indian Council

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Teaching Drum stories

Indian Fire


You may have heard the term "Indian fire"and wondered what it meant. Three words describe it—small , efficient and smoke-free. It is often built in a cone-shaped depression so that the coals roll together as the fire burns down, which maintains a concentrated center of heat. It is made with dead, seasoned wood that is fallen but not laying on the ground. Ground wood is often moist, which does not burn efficiently because much of the fire’s heat is needed to dry out the wood before it can burn. Wet wood is smoky wood; an inefficient fire is a smoky fire.


And Indian fire is constructed in teepee fashion, which is why it is often referred to as a teepee fire. Because the fire is high, it makes for a good light source. The fire’s heat is focused in one spot, which makes it great for cooking. It is also a comfortable heat source because being small it is possible to sit up close to it and take full advantage of its warmth.


Even with good wood, low-lying fires tend to smoke. That is because they are spread out and close to the ground, which causes poor draft and low combustion temperatures. The result is incomplete combustion, i.e. smoke. To make up for this inefficiency, the fire must be larger and thereby requires more wood. Even then its output is not of the quality of a teepee fire’s, and it creates its own set of problems:


– One must sit farther away from fire to keep from being burned and keep out of smoke

– Because of distance from fire and amount of wood needed, it is a chore to tend

– The more distance from fire, the larger it needs to be for one to have the same light and heat

– Because heat is not concentrated in one spot, the fire needs to be even larger to match temperatures of a tepee fire

– Because hands and pot handles heat up right along with pot, food is hard to tend


from Tamarack Song’s upcoming book The How-to Guide on Native Shelter, Clothing and Fire