(L to R) Front Row: Koda Teehee; Henry McClain; Adam Foutch; Michael Hunter; Gavin White; Curtis Wilson. Second Row: Lacey Crawford; Principal Chief Bill John Baker, Deputy Chief S. Joe Crittenden, Chris Brewster. Third Row: Fire Dancer Supervisor David Comingdeer, James Tillison, Brian Locust, Billy Wacoche, David Collins, Danny Maritt, Derrick Smith, Standingbear Teehee and Jay Fields. Not Pictured: Aaron Raney, Josh Bates and John Campbell.
Cherokees have been known for bravery and valor for generations, and more than two dozen Cherokees will put those qualities on display the next couple of weeks as they fight wildfires more than 1,000 miles away. On Wednesday, we saw our elite firefighting unit off, the Cherokee Nation Fire Dancers, as they once again risk their own safety to protect the lives and property of strangers on the other side of the United States. Six Cherokee Fire Dancers were deployed to fight wildfires in California earlier this month, and 19 more left Tahlequah Wednesday to join them.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker
We gathered that sunny afternoon knowing they were headed to an area with smoky skies and imminent danger from these destructive fires. We wished them well and let them know the thoughts and prayers of everyone in the Cherokee Nation are with them as they accept this dangerous mission. Wednesday afternoon, they loaded their gear onto a bus in Tahlequah, where they made the trip to Fort Smith, Arkansas. From there, they boarded a plane that carried them to California, where they will spend the next two to three weeks. Joining the Fire Dancers are some of our Cherokee Rangers. The Rangers are a BIA sponsored group that helps suppress approximately 250 fires a year inside the Cherokee Nation boundaries, as well as national fires when called upon.
The Cherokee Fire Dancers have been respected as an elite firefighting unit for more than 25 years, and are called in to extinguish the most dangerous of fires. Make no mistake—the training to become a Fire Dancer is tough and rigorous. One of the many physical requirements includes being able to hike three miles in 45 minutes while carrying 45 pounds of equipment. Fire Dancers famously helped contain the devastating Yellowstone fires in 1988. That disaster closed the park for the first time in its history, but with the help of Cherokee Fire Dancers, it was eventually contained and controlled. This year alone, the unit has been dispatched to numerous fires and disasters, logging thousands of miles across the United States. In July, they helped protect and reclaim 260,000 acres that burned in Washington state, and last summer also battled blazes in California. They are also routinely dispatched to respond to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy which devastated parts of New Jersey and New York.
I’m confident the same bravery these men and women showed in previous blazes and other disasters will also be evident to citizens, first responders and emergency workers in California. I have no doubt the people there will be eternally grateful to these Cherokees who put their lives on the line to protect those individuals’ homes and businesses.
With that, I wish all of these Cherokee Fire Dancers good luck, and want them to know that my prayers, as well as the prayers of all of you, will be with them. Please join me in saying a prayerfor all of them, and their families, as they embark upon this dangerous and difficult mission. We hope to welcome them all home in a couple of weeks with open arms, big smiles and a major pat on the back acknowledging all that they do.
Bill John Baker is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.