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Survival Skills of the North American Indians

Survival Skills of the North American Indians

by Peter Goodchild

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This comprehensive review of Native American life skills covers collecting and preparing plant foods and medicines; hunting animals; creating and transporting fire; and crafting tools, shelter, clothing, utensils, and other devices. Step-by-step instructions and 145 detailed diagrams enable the reader to duplicate native methods using materials available in local


This comprehensive review of Native American life skills covers collecting and preparing plant foods and medicines; hunting animals; creating and transporting fire; and crafting tools, shelter, clothing, utensils, and other devices. Step-by-step instructions and 145 detailed diagrams enable the reader to duplicate native methods using materials available in local habitats. A new foreword, introduction, and index complement the practical information offered. This replaces 0-914091-69-7.

Editorial Reviews

Likely to thrill Y2K enthusiasts with its coverage of survival skills, this volume will also interest novice ethnobotanists and help primitive living advocates with practical, detailed instructions and diagrams showing techniques on toolmaking; foraging, hunting, and food preparation (includes plants' and animals' scientific and common names); transportation; medicine; clothing; basketry; and more. The first edition was published in 1984; the new edition is enhanced with an index, a new foreword, and new photos. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Survival Skills of the North American Indians

By Peter Goodchild

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1999 Peter Goodchild
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-503-6


Plant food

The North American Indians used about fifteen hundred species of plants as food, though relatively few were regarded as important.

In the Arctic, plants were rarely eaten, since the vegetation there is neither abundant nor palatable. The only plant food commonly eaten in most of the Arctic was reindeer moss taken from the first stomach of the caribou after its slaughter and eaten raw. With the exception of certain berries, plants also contributed little to subsistence in the Subarctic. In the Eastern woodlands, maize, beans, and squash, all cultivated foods, were of great importance, though wild plants contributed considerably to the diet. The Plains Indians depended mainly on the buffalo, but chokecherries, juneberries, and bread root (Psoralea spp.) supplemented the diet. In the Southwest, maize, beans and squash were vital. In other parts of the Southwest, as well as on the Northwest Coast, the Plateau, the Great Basin, and in California, many different species of wild plants formed a large part of the diet.

Many alien plants (i.e. foreign plants, in most cases brought by white settlers), such as dandelions and certain mustards, were also quickly adopted into the Indian diet.

This chapter discusses some of the more important food plants; the Appendix gives a more complete listing.

Cultivated plants

The gap between cultivated and wild plants was not always great. What is sometimes called "semi-agriculture" was fairly common. Especially in the Southwest, patches of ground were roughly cleared to allow certain wild plants to grow, and edible "weeds" were left to grow among the cultivated plants. In many areas, patches of ground were burned over to prevent the encroachment of trees and bushes that might impede the growth of more desirable plants. In the Subarctic and the Eastern Woodlands, blueberry bogs were periodically burned to produce heavier crops. Deer were frequently hunted by encircling them with fire, and this burning of the undergrowth opened up the forest; the result was an increase in the growth of plants eaten by both humans and deer, and this in turn led to an increase in the deer population. On the Northwest Coast, raspberry bushes were sometimes pruned to remove the dead growth that might restrict the growth of new shoots. In the east, much of the wild rice was allowed to fall into the water to produce a new crop, and similar conservation methods throughout North America can be regarded as incipient agriculture.

Beans (Phaseolus spp.) were cultivated, but several species exist as both wild and cultivated plants. Squash (Cucurbita spp.) was cultivated, but the seeds and unripe fruit of closely related wild species were also eaten. Maize, (Zea mays) on the other hand, does not grow wild.

Long before maize, beans and squash were cultivated, quite a number of other plants were both gathered from the wild and grown as crops. We may never know exactly how many species were used in this manner, but chenopodium, amaranth, and sunflowers are a few of the plants that were grown in very early times. Some of these early cultivated plants supported large human populations.

Maize, beans, and squash, known to the Iroquois as "the three sisters," eventually became the principal crops of North America. Maize was first developed in Mexico or Central America about 4000 B.C., but over the centuries many races and varieties were developed in various parts of North and South America. Maize was eventually grown in an area that extended from southern Quebec to nearly the tip of South America. Maize, beans, and squash were usually grown together. Maize removes nitrogen from the soil, while beans, like other legumes, draw nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it back into the soil. Maize and beans also complement each other in human diet, providing a better form of protein than when eaten separately. Some kinds of beans form vines and grow up the maize stalks, allowing a more intensive use of the land.

Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) were prized for their oily seeds, but one type of sunflower, the so-called Jerusalem artichoke (H. annuus), was grown for its edible tubers. Cotton, gourds, and tobacco were the principal non-food crops. In Mexico, a great number of other plants were also grown, including many tropical fruits that will not grow further north.

Fertilizers seem to have been unknown in aboriginal times — it was probably the Europeans who taught the Indians to bury fish and ground shells in the maize fields. But the eastern practice of burning the undergrowth added ashes to the soil, making it easier to work and also more fertile.

Agriculture in the Southwest

Water was always the critical factor in Southwestern agriculture. The soil was rich because there was little rain to leach out the minerals, but the low precipitation caused its own problems. Long periods of drought might make agriculture impossible; on the other hand, a sudden flood could just as easily destroy a crop.

Several techniques were developed to solve the water problem. The simplest technique was to plant crops in the flood plains and wait for the annual (sometimes biannual) floods to water the young crops. A less dangerous technique was to build dikes or dams to control the flooding. These dikes both protected the plants against excessive flooding and prevented the water from escaping too quickly once it had arrived. The Hopi designed their fields in a checkerboard pattern, with each "square" enclosing only one or two stalks of maize, while other Indians built a series of vein-like dams to control the flood. A third technique was to dig irrigation ditches to bring water from the rivers. Water was sometimes carried to the fields in jars, particularly if the season was dry. Some crops were planted where they could be watered directly by the runoff from cliff walls. Any rain that might fall, of course, was highly appreciated.

Quite often the Southwestern Indians planted their crops in more than one place, hoping that if one crop failed, the other would survive. However, since the soil was rich and not easily exhausted, the same patch of ground could be cultivated year after year, whereas in the Eastern Woodlands it was necessary to abandon a plot of ground after a few years. Often two crops were planted each year.

It was a common Southwestern practice to grow enough food so that some could be dried and stored for emergencies. If emergency supplies also ran low, the Indians turned to the local wild plants. If these also failed, the Indians moved up into the mountains to gather the wild plants that might have survived in the cooler atmosphere.

The Pueblo Indians had an official Sun Watcher, who called the people to work on a day when the sun rose at a particular point on the horizon. The ground was then broken up with a digging stick. The digging stick was also used to make holes several feet apart and a foot or more deep, and about twenty kernels of maize were dropped into each hole — enough to ensure the survival of some plants, regardless of drought and hungry birds and rodents. The plants that emerged grew in clumps and were by no means as tall as the maize that is grown by modern agricultural methods.

A paddle-shaped hoe was used to cut down the weeds. A greater problem was the birds and rodents that arrived to eat the new shoots. To scare the birds, the Pueblo Indians tied rags to string stretched across the fields, and they also built some fairly elaborate scarecrows. The children and old people of the village were recruited to scare the birds and rodents away. Traps were placed in the fields: multiple snares of horse or human hair for birds, rock-and-stick deadfalls for rodents.

After the maize was harvested, the best ears were saved for seed, and the rest was either eaten or stored. There were dozens of ways of preparing maize. "Green" maize (i.e. soft maize, like our modern "corn on the cob"), usually from an early crop, was left in the husk and roasted in a fire, a pit, or an oven. Most maize was sun-dried and stripped from the cobs. Dried maize and beans were boiled together, sometimes with meat, to provide a dish known today by one of its eastern names, succotash. An ancient method of preparing certain kinds of maize was to pop it in a pottery jar over a fire. Roasted dry maize was also ground to a powder to be mixed with cold water and drunk as pinole, a popular food for travellers.

Maize was most often prepared by grinding, which involved the use of a small cylindrical stone, known today by the Spanish name of "mano," and a larger slightly hollowed flat stone, the "metate." Pueblo women used three or four sets of these stones to grind the maize increasingly finer, requiring hours of daily labor. The meal became slightly moist during the grinding and needed to be toasted occasionally in a pot. Gruel, a breakfast drink, was a small amount of ground maize added to boiling water. Meal was also mixed with a small amount of water (sometimes ash water), rolled into balls, and dropped into boiling water to make dumplings. Bread of various kinds, sometimes wrapped in maize husks, was baked in the ashes of a fire.

Hominy was prepared from maize kernels soaked for a few days in water with ashes. The ashes were made by burning juniper wood, maize cobs, saltbush (atriplex), or bean vines. The amount of ash used was between one-tenth and one-half as much as the amount of maize. The soaking separated the hulls from the starch. The hulls and water were then discarded, and the grains were washed. Ash water — lye — was also prepared separately and strained through a grass or sage stirring brush to separate the ashes from the water before the maize was added. Ash water might also be prepared by boiling.

Lye increased the nutritional value of maize, reducing some amino acids but greatly increasing the content of lysine and niacin.

Tortillas were made by grinding the hominy, shaping it into balls, and then patting it flat between the hands and baking it on an ungreased griddle.

A Pueblo girl considered herself a good cook when she had learned to make piki bread. Blue maize meal was mixed with boiling water, and strained ash water and plain cold water were added to make a thin batter. A griddle was used, consisting of a rectangular flat stone set on four corner-stones, with a fire underneath. The griddle was lightly greased with crushed toasted seeds of various sorts. Using her fingers, the cook spread a very thin layer of batter over the griddle. The bread was cooked for only a few seconds before it was rolled up and served.

There were several recipes for maize "beer." Sometimes the kernels were soaked until they sprouted, then crushed, boiled, and mixed with mesquite flour or saguaro syrup. The mixture was left to ferment in a jar. The jar was never washed, so some of the wild yeast would remain for the next batch of beer.

Several species of beans were grown, notably kidney beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and the highly variable teparies (P. acutrfolius). Both beans and squash were usually planted between the maize plants, again in deep holes with several seeds to a hole.

Beans were allowed to dry on the vines and then were shelled and further dried in the sun. They were usually roasted or boiled and eaten whole, though sometimes boiled beans were mashed and mixed with cornmeal for bread. Dried raw beans were ground into flour and made into cakes, and the young whole pods were also eaten.

Squash was peeled, cut in half, and allowed to partly sun-dry. Each half was then cut in a spiral and further sun-dried. The squash seeds were also saved; they were roasted and eaten whole, or crushed to grease the stone griddles. The flowers, which fall off as the fruit begins to form, were sometimes cooked.

Agriculture in the north and east

Iroquois production of maize more closely resembled modern methods. Like the Indians of the Southwest, the Iroquois had many varieties of maize and many ways of preparing it.

To prepare a new field, the underbrush was burned, and the loam was scraped into piles and burned. The trees were girdled (the bark removed in a ring around the tree) and left to die, then burned down a year later. If an old field was being replanted, the stubs of the previous year's maize were dug up and burned in piles, though the ashes were not scattered on the fields as fertilizer. The fields gradually became exhausted and were abandoned after about five or ten years.

Before planting, the maize kernels were soaked until they began to sprout slightly. Hellebore juice (a poisonous member of the lily family) and other toxins were added to the water to discourage vermin. A few days before planting, the soil was dug up with a right-angled hoe of wood, bone, or antler. Holes were dug about four inches deep and about a yard apart, and four or five grains were placed in each hole.

Soil was placed around each plant from time to time to prevent the shallow-rooted plants from being blown over by the wind. The fields were hoed when the maize was about a foot high and again when it was knee-high. The maize eventually grew to five or six feet in height.

Only one crop was grown each year, but some parts of the fields were planted later than others, to produce a staggered harvest.

To dry the maize, the husk was pulled back, and the husks of several ears were braided together and hung up to dry. The kernels were then stripped from the cob and stored in elm-bark barrels or in underground pits lined with elm bark.

The mano and metate were sometimes used for grinding, but the wooden mortar and pestle were more common. A log about twenty inches wide and equally long was stood on end, and a fire was built on top to hollow it out. Sometimes clay was put on the rim to protect it. The hollow was burned and chopped to a depth of about a foot. The pestle was a maple pole, about five inches wide and two feet long, narrowed in the center to form a handle.

The maize was cooked and served in many ways: boiled, baked, roasted, made into soup, pudding, or bread. The dried kernels were also soaked in lye, then put into loosely woven baskets which were immersed in fresh water and soused up and down until the hulls floated loose.

Like the Indians of the Southwest, the Iroquois planted beans and squash among the maize plants. Squash was sun-dried after cutting it into spirals or slices, and beans were also sun-dried.

Agriculture in the southeastern United States differed only slightly from that of the Iroquois. The southeastern Indians did not grow as much maize as the Iroquois, and they only used the fertile lowlands along the rivers, where occasional flooding brought fresh topsoil to increase fertility. The trees were girdled and either burned later or left to rot. With a longer growing season, the southeastern Indians, like the Indians of the Southwest, frequently grew two crops of maize each year. After a few years, the fields were abandoned and new ones were started. Beans and squash were also grown, as in other areas. Because of the greater precipitation, nearly all foods in the Southeast were dried on racks over a fire.

The Indians of the Prairies also grew their crops in forest soils rather than on grassland. It was far too difficult to remove the prairie sod with the available tools, and the forest soil was more fertile. The Prairie Indians often piled brush on the fields and burned it to add ashes to the soil, making it easier to work.

Fruits and berries

Over the greater part of North America, blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) were an important part of the diet, and in the Subarctic they were the most important of all plant foods. Of nearly equal importance were the various types of raspberries (Rubus spp.), including salmonberries, thimbleberries, cloudberries, and all the other localized varieties.

Wild blueberries and raspberries are also eaten by white people nowadays, while many other types of berries gathered by the Indians are ignored, including many that have an excellent flavor.

Juneberries (Amelanchier spp.) go by several other names — service-berry, Saskatoon, shadbush, etc. Somewhat related to apples, and with a slightly apple-like taste, they were often added to pemmican by the Plains Indians, but, like blueberries and raspberries, they grow in most parts of North America and were enjoyed by many Indian groups. There are many species, and some taste better than others. Wild cherries and plums (Prunus spp.) were known to most Indians. The stones contain somewhat toxic amounts of prussic acid, but choke cherries (P. virginiana) were crushed with their stones as an ingredient of pemmican. Grapes (Vitis spp.) were popular in most of the United States. Strawberries (Fragaria spp.) were popular almost everywhere. Other widespread types of fruit are currants and gooseberries (Ribes spp.), rose hips (Rosa spp.), mulberries (Morus spp.), hackberries (Celtis spp.), and ground cherries (Physalis spp.). Clusters of sumac berries (Rhus spp.) were added to hot or cold water for a beverage.


Excerpted from Survival Skills of the North American Indians by Peter Goodchild. Copyright © 1999 Peter Goodchild. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Peter Goodchild is the author of The Spark in the Stone and Raven Tales and is a lifelong student of Native American skills and culture. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

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