The hunter-gatherer lifestyle of Native Americans persisted right into the nineteenth century and ran parallel to the industrial age. The different tribes had frequently been at war with one another, and atrocities were committed between them as well as upon white settlers, and yet the idyll of their lives persists in literature, films, songs and every kind of cultural representation. Part of this may be due to the deceit practised by sophisticated white people upon initially trusting First Native leaders, through which the indigenous people acquired the appeal of the underdog, but this can be only a small part of the reason. Their way of life did have genuine romance.
The main characteristic of their lifestyle was closeness to nature. As hunters, they were top predators who behaved like other top predators and took only what they needed. As gatherers they had the passed-on knowledge of multiple generations who had browsed through the same landscape. They even sometimes taught the struggling white settlers how to forage and they knew what crops would resist such dangers as drought and insect infestation.
Native Americans considered it unhealthy to live always in the same place, in solid structures. Their own tipis were not only collapsible and moveable so that they could set up camp in different places as the seasons demanded, but they were also extremely well adapted. They were warm in winter – hot, in fact, to the extent that it was preferable to go bare-chested (viz the scene in ‘Dances with Wolves‘) – and cool in summer.
Along with impermanent dwellings went lack of any services. Water was collected from a nearby stream which would naturally be unpolluted. People washed there or in waterfalls, accustomed as they were to the cool temperature of the water, and both boys and girls swam in pools and rivers from a young age, often becoming excellent swimmers.
From a young age also they were proficient at riding, which they usually did bareback thus maintaining a closer rapport with the horse. As a rule they understood animals well, including the ones they hunted. A young male as part of his initiation was required to spend an extended period on his own in the wilderness, living off his own wits and skill – an animal among animals.
Henry Longfellow says of Hiawatha:
‘Of all beasts he learned the language,
Learned their names and all their secrets’.
Living in nature, seeing animals and birds at all hours of the day and night, provides a person with a rich store of information such as is mostly lost when a civilisation is almost exclusively concerned with the happenings, doings and popular culture of its own human members.
The pursuit of a Native American lifestyle really depends on the continuing existence of an immense pristine habitat, such as the various tribes strove to maintain in the teeth of powerful people set on using up its resources for their own economy. There are still areas of wilderness and there are still people, indigenous or otherwise, who know how to live harmoniously from the land. However legislation, taxes, lower populations of prey animals, pollution, over-population and the intrusion of tourism – all of these together effectively preclude the possibility of a life close to nature. Self-sufficiency gets close, but it isn’t the same as being a hunter-gatherer.
The thread of continuing knowledge, passed once from generation to generation, of how to survive in wild places, was interrupted by the heavy hand of white education which saw indigenous people as inferior, and also the desire of Native Americans to obtain the luxuries which they saw around them. But even if that body of information were intact, it would still struggle to adapt itself to the way the world has become. Things have moved on from when Pocahontas and even Cynthia Ann Parker were alive.