Survival Skills From Native Americans

Categories: Survival

Native Americans are, perhaps, the best example on the planet of a people who lived solely off the land while protecting it for future generations. They held the belief that we don’t own the land; we are simply borrowing it from our children.

In other words, they lived sustainably, protected their resources, and survived (and thrived) while doing no harm to the planet. This made them survivors of the highest order, so today we’re going to talk about survival skill you can learn from Indian tribes.

Hunting – Bow and Arrow

Most Native American bows were made of wood. The most powerful wooden bows were backed with sinew (animal tendons) to make them springier. Some tribes in the Rocky Mountain area used composite bows made from animal horn and layers of sinew. These were the most powerful American Indian bows of all, able to shoot an arrow completely through the body of a buffalo. Some tribes originally preferred longbows, while others preferred short bows. Once horses were introduced to the Americas, most Native Americans began to favor short bows, since they could be fired from horseback.

Most Native American bowstrings were made from sinew, although some tribes wove bowstrings from yucca or other plant fibers. Most Native American arrows were wooden with arrowheads made of flint or another hard stone, although some tribes used copper or bone arrowheads, and hunting arrows intended for small game like birds often had no arrowhead at all and were simply sharpened shafts of wood. American Indian arrows were nearly always fletched with feathers to make them fly straighter, whereas the arrows of the Inuit and other polar cultures did not use feather fletching.


Spears are another kind of Native American weapon that dates back to ancient times. Like bows and arrows, spears were used for both hunting and warfare. Native American spears were particularly powerful weapons due to the special atlatls (also known as spear-throwersthrowing-sticks, or throwing boards) the Indians used to launch their spears. An atlatl is a thin wooden shaft with a hollowed-out cup at the end. By balancing the butt of the spear in the cup and then swinging the atlatl, Native American hunters and warriors could increase their leverage to hurl spears much faster and further than they could using their arms alone. Conquistadors and other early Europeans who fought with Native American tribes reported that spears propelled from atlatls were capable of penetrating chain mail armor. The word “atlatl” comes from the Aztec language, but this tool was used by most tribes throughout North America, Central America, and much of South America.

It was imperative to Native Americans that no meat be wasted. There were a few reasons for this but the two main ones were that meat was crucial to survival, and wasted meat was a dishonor to both the animal who gave his life and to the hunter who took it. They were masters of preserving meat into jerky or pemmican and it was this that got them through the harsh winters.

The process of making jerky is fairly simple; Native Americans simply cut the meat into thin strips and dried it in the sun. Salt wasn’t used as a preservative like it is now. Fat will make the meat go rancid, so lean cuts are used. 

Pemmican is a bit of a different deal. It consists of dried meat, rendered fat, and berries. The berries are optional but add more nutrition and flavor. Dry the meat until it’s crumbly. Grind it into a powder and pour just enough rendered fat over it to make it stick together. Add in the dried berries. Roll it into balls or press it into strips.

Pemmican will keep for years and is a great source of protein, fat, and (if you add the berries) carbohydrates. You can actually live off of just it and water for extended periods of time.

Preserving Animal Skins

Every part of the animal was used; nothing was wasted, for both practical and spiritual reasons. The hide provided clothing, shelter, water vessels, shoes, rawhide, baskets, arrow fletching, horse tack, hair ornaments, musical instruments, and many other products.


They tanned the hides both with the hair and without it. Though there are many different methods that were used, some steps were common to all methods.

First, the flesh has to be removed from the skin. This was done using a piece of bone, stone, or other sharp but smooth object. If the hair was going to be removed from the hide, now would be when that would happen.

Once hair and flesh is removed and the hide is clean, you have rawhide, which is great for such items as rope, string,storage containers and snowshoes. To make it into leather, it needs tanned and possibly smoked.

To continue making leather, brains (or another tanning agent) are rubbed into the hide, and it’s rinsed. More brains are rubbed it and the hide is stretched and worked while it dries. If not, it will be stiff and difficult to work with. Smoking was used often to make it more waterproof.


Native Americans didn’t have rifles and other weapons that were effective long-range so they had to learn to approach game and enemies quietly. In fact, the higher echelons of the American military still practice Native American stealth tactics. There are two basic ones that you should master if stealth is your goal: the Fox Walk and using wide-angle vision.

The Fox Walk is how Native Americans walked silently. It’s practiced by wearing soft moccasins or no footwear at all so that you can feel the ground and avoid stepping on twigs or leaves that will make noise.

Your heel strikes the ground first, then you roll your foot forward onto the ball of your foot. This reduces your footprint and noise. The person behind you, if you’re traveling with somebody, places his foot directly where yours was. It’s a slow, methodical way of traveling that preserves energy while allowing you to move quietly.

Wide-angle vision allows you to see inconsistencies and movement rather than focusing on a few visual details. You’re basically training your eyes to use peripheral vision as well as see what’s straight ahead.

Place your hands directly in front of you, then spread them until your arms are stretched out to your sides. Wiggle your fingers; if you can see them, then you’re using wide-angle vision.

via HomesteadNotes

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