Book Review: SHO-RAP HIGHWAY: THE NATIVE AMERICAN FIREFIGHTERS OF WIND RIVER (2017)
Robin P. Whiteplume
Native American wildland firefighters have a rich history of battling forest fires in the United States. Their experiences have never been well documented and personal narratives rarely recorded. Whiteplume has written an interesting memoir of working as a proud firefighter with the Shoshone/Arapaho Native American fire crews, known as Sho-Raps. Whiteplume has thoroughly scouted the archives and government records and his own memories and come back with a full report. Whiteplume is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and grew up in the shadows of the rugged 13,000-foot peaks of the Wind River Range of Wyoming, about 125 miles south of Yellowstone National Park.
This book is much more than a personal story; it is an important historical account of indigenous firefighters in the western United States and discusses the early formation in the 1940’s of Indian fire crews from the Red Hats of the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico to the Montana Indian Firefighters. Sho- Rap Highway provides us with a detailed account of the founding of the Sho-Rap fire crews and an unvarnished chronicle of what it is like to be a firefighter.
The author gives a realistic account of firefighting and the incredibly hard, tiresome, dirty, and dangerous work. Firefighting is not glamorous, and many things can go wrong such as conflicts between crew members, and potential injuries from a variety of hazards like bees, raging flames, falling snags, and gripping rides in the open back of 2 ½ ton trucks on narrow roads.
The book describes the cultural and social aspects of being a native firefighter and how their outlook is often different from other crews. As Whiteplume observes, there is a long history of Native American struggles to survive which has made them stronger and less prone to carelessness when it came time to battle historic enemies or nature. Perhaps that is why Indian crews return from fire assignments without large-scale casualties or fatalities. There is a great deal of pride that native crews have in their work and what it means to come home safe to their families and have a nice paycheck for all the hard work they have done.
The book shows sparks of humor and many interesting stories. Whiteplume relates an account of Sho-Rap crew bosses discussing a deployment on the fireline, and overhearing one of them say to the others, “You go down there, if you got the nerve,” a line famously (to the Sho-Raps) spoken to General Custer by Jack Crabb in the 1970 movie, Little Big Man. History records how General Custer did indeed decide to go down that hillside, and met with his demise, along with 268 of his troopers. How many times have firefighters deployed on a mountain, only to observe flames below, and have had to decide, whether to “go down there.”
The book describes the cultural use of fire by Indian tribes, in an historical context, and up until present day. The author observes that, “Fire was also used to drive enemies from concealment in wooded and brushy areas. Fire was used for signaling at night, along with smoke plumes by day, for directional travel, partly because it was quicker than using runners to relay information between people at distant points from one another. Fire was used by Indians and against them.”
The author gives credit to individuals and organizations that have helped support and organize the Sho-Raps, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), federal, state, and county agencies. A Preface in Sho-Rap Highway by Roy Montgomery, retired BIA forester, introduces the book. Karl Brauneis, forester with the US Forest Service, also provides a colorful chapter featuring his interactions with the Sho-Rap program.
From descriptions of fighting fire in Yellowstone National Park to the Salmon River Breaks in Idaho, Sho-Rap Highway is an important historic record and memoir, which readers will find an interesting and fine book. There are few if any histories of Native American fire crews — though this BIA web page offers some background: https://www.bia.gov/bia/ots/dfwfm/bwfm/proud-history — and this book helps fill that gap. Whiteplume paints a vivid account of indigenous American firefighters and their battles across the western landscape. This book will find its place in my fire library, like a well sharpened shovel or Pulaski sitting in the fire cache.
Richard McCrea (LarchFire LLC) is based in Boise, Idaho and worked three decades as a BIA fire management officer.