Survival Lessons from Native Americans

Survival Lessons from Native Americans


To the Native people of this country survival was something you did every day. Survival, like rain, drought, and snow was a way of life. With the countless shows on television and the numerous magazines on the market, many of which trying to tell us about the “proper” gear, firearms and fancy gadgets on the market that we need to be a “survivor,” I was at a bit of a loss at how to tackle this. I sat and thought about it and finally the answer came to me. I needed to get back to the beginning. My entire life I have been learning about my Native heritage. I have tried to apply those lessons of old to my modern way of living. For the past 30 years I have been traveling across the country seeking the wisdom of Elders, holy men and scholars. What follows are what I consider the top 10 things that we have forgotten along the way to making our world easier and faster.


The human mind is capable of doing great things and it is the best survival tool that we have. Every year there are many people who die needlessly in survival situations simply because they didn’t use common sense.

Before starting this article I called an Elder among the Cherokee in North Carolina for his advice. He is a man who taught me a great deal over the years and I respect what he has to say, whether he agrees with me or not. He said that people today have lost touch with the land. We don’t know how to live with the land and not against it. When we are afraid, we panic and then we don’t think.


To survive in a potentially dangerous situation the first thing we need to do is slow down and think. Most situations can be dealt with by using logic and common sense. As my friend told me, we need to work with the environment and know our surroundings. When you know your surroundings you know where to find food and water. You also know where escape routes or potential dangerous obstacles are located.


Adaptability is one of the keys to survival. Sometimes you can’t control the situations thrown at you, but you can adapt and overcome. Part of being adaptable is learning all that you can. A Pequot Elder once told me, “No one knows everything, but everyone knows something.” In other words learn to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut. A great deal can be learned, maybe something that will aid you in a survival situation, by listening and not speaking. Among all Native cultures it is considered disrespectful to speak out of turn or to speak while someone else is speaking. Think about how this lesson could apply if you were in a situation where you didn’t want to be noticed, but wanted to get needed information.

Native American civilization centered on what nature provided. For example, reeds found in a stream could be made into baskets and shoes.
Native American civilization centered on what nature provided. For example, reeds found in a stream could be made into baskets and shoes.


I grew up in a family with a mixed ethnic background 50 some odd years ago. My family is a mix of Native American (Penobscot/Micmac/Piqwacket), English and German. While my father never gave his heritage (Penobscot/Piqwacket/German) much thought, my mother embraced her Native heritage (Micmac/English). It was my mother who taught me the old ways. She taught me how to hunt and fish. She taught me how to track animals and how to find edible and medicinal plants. Above all she taught me about respect.

Among Native people, life is a very spiritual thing and respect is the key to survival. Respect for yourself and others; respect for the animals, fish and plants that provide us with food and respect for the Earth. I could very easily jump right in and discuss how Native people made tools, fire and a host of other things, but they are useless without respect. Native people believe that all creatures are connected spiritually; that we are all related. To this day, before I go out to fish or hunt I seek permission, through prayer, from the spirits of the animals or fish that I intend to take to feed my family. To take a life to sustain life you need to show respect to those whose lives you intend to take. Taking a life, any life, is never easy and it shouldn’t be. I always give thanks to the animal for giving its life so my family could live. This idea of respect has been lost by many people. The Native people taught this lesson to the early settlers and to the pioneers that came after them. Some listened, some did not.


If you want to go unnoticed, by either people or animals, you need to become one with the environment you are in. Visit museums (one of the best is the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming) and search books about the fur trappers and Mountain men and see what they are wearing. Notice how they are dressed. Most of their clothing is muted shades of brown, gray and green. They are wearing these colors because they will blend in with any environment that you will find yourself in. They learned this lesson about blending in with the environment from the Native people.

The abundance of nature was thoroughly exploited by the Native Americans, from naturally-growing fruits and berries to animals and even reptiles. Very little of what was gathered or hunted was wasted.

Camouflage is great and I wear it myself, but the camouflage you wear needs to reflect the environment you are in. Woodland camo will not work in the desert and no camo works in an urban environment. Unless you are operating at night black is the worst color to wear. While most mammals can’t see color, humans can. During the day black looks out of place in the woods as much as blaze orange does.


Adapting to situations means being resourceful with the materials that you have available. Whenever Native hunters went out into the woods they traveled light, carrying only those things that they couldn’t do without. Everything else they either made from material found in the woods or they did without it. Here in the Northeast they would carry their gear in pack baskets woven from Ash splints. They traveled light and fast.

A mortar and pestle made from stone was a very common tool used in the preparation of food among Native Americans.
A mortar and pestle made from stone was a very common tool used in the preparation of food among Native Americans.

This lesson can easily be applied to our world today. Modern society is a throwaway society. Many of the things we throw away can still be used. Being able to re-use and repurpose available material could mean the difference between life and death. Old batteries may allow you to start a fire and old plumbing pieces may help you acquire drinking water. The list could go on and on.

In a wilderness situation having respect and understanding of the environment you are in can enable you to find valuable resources. Which plants provide cordage? Which plants are edible and which are poisonous? What plants are medicinal (according to my mother and an Athabascan woman I met in Alaska, often medicinal plants grow near the poisonous ones)? The wilderness provides a wealth of resources if you know where to look.


It is amazing how many articles are written about primitive fire starting. I asked my Cherokee friend about this and he laughed. “Don’t you think that our ancestors would not have used a lighter if they had them?” I have to agree with him. Don’t get me wrong. There is a place for the ability to start a fire using primitive techniques and I know how to do so, but if given the choice, I would choose the lighter over rubbing two sticks together any day. This goes back to common sense and adaptability. For a couple of dollars you can pick up a package of lighters. I carry one in my truck, one in my pocket and a couple in my pack.


The act of obtaining food has been, and always will be, a priority in a survival situation. Today with a supermarket on every corner some people have lost the knowledge of how to hunt, fish, grow and forage for their own food. When in a survival situation, whether in an urban setting or in the woods, food gathering will be an ongoing task, so you need to grab things when you can. With your understanding and respect for the environment you find yourself in, combined with common sense, you will find the food that you need. If you are in the middle of a city you aren’t likely to find a blueberry bush, but common sense tells you that an urban environment will have stores and most stores have food of some sort. Remember, use all available resources.


To Native people the woods and fields are the grocery store. Here again the items in this “grocery store” will differ depending on where you are. There are edible plants, insects, rodents and larger game everywhere. It is knowing which aisle they are in that is the tricky part.

In some areas, like in the Southwestern part of our country, many Native people lived primarily by eating insects, lizards, snakes, rodents and wild plants. Why, you may ask? It is very simple. These people knew and respected their environment. The Southwest is a very dangerous place. There are many things out there that can kill; the most lethal is the sun and heat. This area gets very little rainfall so water is scarce. To have large game animals you need a reliable source of water. In places like Arizona, game such as elk and deer are found mainly in higher elevations where there is more water available. To pursue these animals on a regular basis would put the hunter at risk and it is a waste of valuable energy as there is no guarantee that game will be taken. When you expend more energy trying to obtain food than you are going to get back from that food that you do get it ends up as a net loss. Too many net losses equal death.

In the Northeast a popular past-time is to go ice fishing. That is something that the Abenaki wouldn’t do on a regular basis. Like the heat of the Southwest, the extreme cold in the Northeast will kill you in minutes. Your body uses energy to generate heat. What little energy that you would get from the fish that you may, or may not, catch is not worth the risk. Once again, respect, understanding the environment and using common sense must dictate what you do.


In a survival situation how would you make a shelter and where would you locate it? Would you locate it close to the water source? How about in a grove of tall trees? I would choose neither and neither did the Native people of old.

Shelters were constructed of locallyobtained materials to not only protect them from the elements but to provide buildings for cultural events.
Shelters were constructed of locally obtained materials to not only protect them from the elements but to provide buildings for cultural events.

When you find a reliable water source it is very easy to say, “This is a great place to set up camp.” Don’t do it. Native people have a great respect for water. Water can sustain life, but it can also take life. Sudden rainstorms can turn a small creek into a river in a matter of minutes putting you in a very dangerous position. In the Southwest, the Native people never set up camp near a dry riverbed for the same reason. Water sources also attract animals and animals attract predators, both human and animal, presenting another potentially dangerous position. For these reasons Native people always built their shelters on high ground within easy walking distance to the life-giving water. The high ground is always easier to defend or flee from if need be.

Once on higher ground, look for places that are fairly flat and have brush. Stay away from groves of tall trees. There are many dangers that exist in these areas. Tall trees are magnets for lightning strikes. Tall trees may also have dead limbs that could come down at any moment. A larger branch or even an entire tree falling onto your shelter could make a bad situation even worse.

Locate your shelter within a clump of medium-sized brush. The brush, especially during the warmer months, is usually fully leafed out giving some concealment from prying eyes. Carefully clear out some of the surrounding brush to give you a clear view and to keep something or someone from sneaking up on you. With available resources lash poles, willow if available, together to form a framework for the shelter. Use the brush you cut to cover the framework of poles. In the bottom of the shelter lay a thick layer of pine needles or leaves to help insulate your body from the ground as this will help you stay warm at night. There is no need to freeze at night.

I speak of lashing things together, but how do you do it? If you are not carrying cordage then use what is available. The Abenaki would use spruce root and basswood root to make cordage. Out west the leaves of the yucca plant can be used. Depending on where you are there may be vines (be careful of poison ivy) available. Know your environment and take stock of all available resources.


Humans can live weeks without food, but only a few days without water. The Native people of the Southwest often made canteens out of gourds and carried water wherever they went. They also stayed out of the intense heat of the day, only moving in the early morning or late afternoon. This act conserves energy and water.

Finding water in harsh conditions can be difficult to say the least. So how did Native people find water? That all depended upon the environment they were in. There are certain plants that store water. Certain plants only grow near water. Native people watched the actions of the large animals as these animals will lead you to water. Small game such as rabbits and squirrels get a great deal of the water they need through the plants that they eat. Containers of all sorts can be put out to collect rain water or to collect morning dew coming off the leaves of plants.


Many people today rely upon the electronic device known as a GPS. Even most new cars have GPS units. Many people have no idea on how to use a map and compass, but even these are “modern” compared to how Native people navigated their way through the wilderness. At one time people found their way by using the sun and the stars.

GPS units run on batteries and batteries die. GPS units are also affected by solar flares, making them useless. Maps are good, but they only cover a relatively small area. The sun and stars are always there. Every day the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. On a clear night, a person in the northern hemisphere can navigate by using the North Star.

The sun and the stars are not the only way to navigate. Running water is a good way to figure directions. On the east coast most of the major rivers low towards the east, the direction of the Atlantic Ocean. Along the west coast the rivers flow toward the west and the Pacific Ocean. The rivers of the Plains run both east and west and empty into the Mississippi River, which flows north to south ending at the Gulf of Mexico. Water mainly runs downhill and it is at the mouths of these waterways where you’ll find human settlement. To Native people throughout the country the rivers were their highways for trade.

The lessons to learn from the Native people of this country are endless. I barely scratched the surface of what they still have to teach us. Remember Native people have been here for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Europeans. They faced survival situations that very few can even imagine. It actually makes you wonder how much we have forgotten.

Native Healers

Among native peoples, everyone had their jobs to do. Each one of these jobs was equally important for the well-being of a particular village. Within a village one of the most important jobs was that of a healer, a position that was mainly held by women highly trained in the use of medicinal herbs and plants. Today we would call these people doctors.

Healers should not to be confused with so called “medicine men”. Medicine men weren’t “healers” in the true sense of the word. While they did know some aspects of medical treatment, they were holy men and spiritual leaders. Medicine men only stepped in when the healer had done all that they could do. At that point it was believed that it was time for spiritual intervention, and the Medicine man was called in.

Prior to the introduction of European and African diseases there were very few deadly afflictions that faced the Native people. Once foreign viruses were introduced the Medicine women and Medicine men had to work overtime to treat their people, both medically and spiritually.

All Native people knew the basics of first-aid and were able to treat mild injuries and illnesses. Basic herbs, both fresh and dried, were kept on hand to treat things such as poison ivy, mild burns or a wound acquired through daily activities. This supply of herbs could be likened to the modern day medicine cabinet. More serious injuries or illnesses were usually brought to the attention of the village Medicine woman.

The skills of the Medicine woman were learned skills. It was something that was often passed down from mother to daughter. If there was no daughter to pass the skills to, the Medicine woman would select an apprentice to work under her. This training would take many years to master. Not only would the student need to learn all of the different illnesses, but also what plants were needed to treat them. It was not enough to know what herbs and plants worked in any particular case, but also the right dose to use. Natural medicines, just like their modern day counterparts, can be fatal if not administered correctly. The knowledge of a particular village’s Medicine woman were guarded secrets and it was a great honor for one village’s Medicine woman to share those secrets with the Medicine woman of another village. Just as modern doctors specialize in certain areas, so too for Medicine women. A medicine woman was only as good as the herbs and plants she had had her disposal.


At the correct time of the year the Medicine woman and her student would collect the essential herbs, roots, leaves and bark that would be needed to keep on hand. Certain medicinal plants were only collected when they were needed. Some plants only worked when fresh, so collecting them early would be a waste and an insult to the spirit of the plant. Once collected, the material would be allowed to dry in the sun. When collecting bark, only the soft inner bark is used. Once dried the bark and roots would be pounded and ground in a stone or wood mortar. The ground material could then have water added to make salves and poultices or it could be mixed into a tea. It all depended on the type of illness or wound being treated as to how the medicine was prepared. Leaves and berries could be collected and dried, or they could be used fresh and more often than not they would either be chewed or eaten by the patient, or they could be used in teas.

Collection of the proper plants was not just a matter of going out and picking what was needed. Proper respect was given to the plants being taken and only a small amount was taken from a particular area. Prayers were said and offerings of tobacco or cornmeal left behind, thanking the plants for the giving of themselves.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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