Central States Archaeological Societies
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How Good of Outdoorsmen were Native Americans? Part One

by Scott Chandler

Central States Archaeological Societies 2022 October Journal
Sarasota, Florida



How Good of Outdoorsmen were Native Americans? Part One
Figure 1. “Trackers.” Painting by Morgan Wesitling.
Used by permission of the artist.

Boy Scouts model after them, Special Forces would learn from them and survival experts revere them. Raised in the outdoors without modern conveniences, natives are held as the poster children of wilderness survival. They are thought to have never stepped on dry leaves to scare away game or miss a deer with an arrow. Yet how good of outdoorsmen were Native Americans? Could they track a man over bare rock or always start a fire?

Just as we know the fastest way to the airport, the shortest traffic lights to work or where to get coupons for the buffet, natives performed trial and error to find hacks for survival too. They experimented in discovering the correct herbs to heal a disease, for example, or what roots were fatal for consumption. Trappers and explorers who held an interest in native culture kept records of their wilderness skills, touching on subjects such as tracking, winter survival, canoemanship, terrain familiarity, guiding and hunting. There are even foibles and failures, some humorous, others serious - all to put flesh on the bare bones of archaeology as to how natives managed to survive for thousands of years. “The accounts given of this place and the manner of life of its inhabitants, would, if related at full length, fill a volume,” wrote explorer Samuel Hearne (182). If only he had. But, we’re grateful for what these men did put to ink in their observations of native practices.

Master Trackers and the Art of the Trail
Explorer and missionary Pierre Jean De Smet details the amazing navigational abilities of the aborigine as though each was born with an internal GPS system. As all men are endowed with a pre-frontal cortex, built for reason, judgment and rational thought, the native also learned through logic, observation and the “empirical method,” albeit pre-scientific versions of it. “Thus, he will traverse a plain or forest one or two hundred miles in extent and will arrive at a particular place with as much precision as the mariner by the aid of the compass. Unless prevented by obstacles, the Indian, without any material deviation, always travels in a straight line, regardless of path or road. In the same manner he will point out the exact place of the sun, when it is hidden by mists or clouds. Thus, too, he follows with the greatest accuracy, the traces of men or animals, though these should have passed over the leaves or the grass, and nothing be perceptible to the eye of the white man. He acquires this knowledge from a constant application of the intellectual faculties, and much time and experience are required to perfect this perceptive quality. Some writers have supposed that the Indians are guided by instinct and have ventured to assert that their children would find their way through the forests as well as those further advanced in age. I have consulted some of the most intelligent Indians on this subject, and they have uniformly told me that they acquire this practical knowledge by long and close attention to the growth of plants and trees, and to the sun and stars.” (Fig. 1)

De Smet indicates that native tracking ability seemed to be a gift from God, the habit of generations practically ingrained into their collective DNA. Not only could the original inhabitants pinpoint the time period of when humans passed through an area, they could zero into the exact day and tribe! “And here we cannot sufficiently admire the wonderful sagacity with which providence has endowed the savage: he will tell you, from the mere footmarks, the exact day on which the Indian had erected his tent on the spot, and how many men…had been there; whether it was a detachment of horses and the nation to which they belong.”

Frontiersman William Hamilton said that the natives he saw were as skilled in night travel as they were in the daytime: “These Indians guided us through the night as easily as by daylight, for they had crossed the mountains many times.” Guiding proficiency also included knowledge of the seasons and what weather might be expected in different topographies. Samuel Hearne, the first explorer to discover the Arctic Ocean, engaged a Chippewa hunter in 1770 who proved “to be a man of extensive observation with respect to times, seasons and places; and well qualified to explain every thing that could ...

This excerpt from "How Good of Outdoorsmen were Native Americans? Part One" published in the 2022 Central States Archaeological Societies 2022 October Journal

Read the complete column in the Central States Archaeological Societies 2022 October Journal which can be purchased on-line after March 2023

How Good of Outdoorsmen were Native Americans? Part One
Figure 2. “Trackers.” From a civilized perspective, the point in this photo was found in what we call “nowhere.” But our nowhere could have been a native’s somewhere. See if you can locate it