The Importance of Ancestral Knowledge in the Modern World
ARTICLE AND PHOTOS BY Melissa Ivory
On a colorful and crisp fall day,
a group of children were practicing the skills of living close to the earth. One nurtured a fire, adding sticks to maintain a bed of hot coals. Two children were using the coals to hollow wooden containers, to be used as bowls. Deer hides were scraped over a beam, to be transformed into beautiful, supple buckskin. Several children were watching the meandering path of a caterpillar through dust, adding its unique trail pattern to their internal catalog of animal tracks.
This scene could have unfolded at any point over the past several thousand years. Humankind has utilized the skills practiced by this small tribe for eons. Fires have burned in hearths; animal skins have been utilized for clothing. The tracks of animals have enriched our experience of nature, and connected us to the wildlife around us. How- ever, this scene took place in the twenty-first century. These students can operate iPods, and use Google or YouTube to answer many of their questions. Yet this tribe of children comes out to my farm every week to learn the skills of their ancestors, the technology that predates electricity, metal, even agriculture. These skills fill them with enthusiasm and passion for the world around them, a day sitting out by a fire crafting objects using materials purely from the earth grounds them while filling them with wonder. I call these practices “primitive skills”.
Primitive means first, not worst
Primitive [Latin primus first] adj. 1: ORIGINAL, PRIMARY 2: Of, relating to, or characteristic of an early stage of development 3: ELEMENTAL, NATURAL 4: of, relating to, or produced by a tribal people or culture 5: SELF-TAUGHT ~ Merriam Webster Dictionary
Recently, I was accused of cultural insensitivity by using the term “primitive skills,” which is how I describe my profession. I was told that it was insulting to Native American groups to use the word “primitive.” I was taken aback, on several accounts. To begin with, I do not think of the skills I teach as Native American. Rather, if one looks back far enough, the skills I classify as “primitive” were common to all of our ancestors. Prior to agriculture and metal tools, everyone on the face of the earth used primitive skills. I work with the definition of “first skills.” I view these as the common denominator of our humanity. No matter our cultural, religious, or genetic differences, our ancestors all made fire by rubbing sticks, understood how to read the tracks of animals, built shelters from natural materials, and used stones as their tools.
I try to be equally global in my studies and when passing on skills. One of the hide tanning techniques I use was learned from reindeer herders in Scandinavia, where I trace my ancestry. The bows I make are replicas of those found in Danish and English bogs. One friction fire technique is grounded in Native California; the Inuit and Ancient Egyptians used the other. To me, this cross pollination, this universality is magical. It helps us develop a respect for all those people who came before, as well as a sense of gratitude for the skills themselves. Without a mastery of “primitive skills,” we would not be here today.
I remember the first day I made fire using a bowdrill, one of the easiest techniques for making fire by rubbing sticks together. It was misting outside, the forest was lush, green, and damp from days of rain. I had carefully carved my fire kit over the course of a couple of days, the cedar shavings making a pungent pile at my feet. At first the sawing of the bow created earsplitting shrieks, but soon a wisp of fragrant smoke trickled up from a notch in my fireboard. When I felt a coal was present, I reverently moved it into a prepared tinder bundle of delicate, fluffy fibers, and trembling with awe, fatigue, and excitement, carefully directed a thin stream of breath into the nest and glowing ember. When my coal burst into flame, a primal howl ripped out of my throat, tears came to my eyes, and I was overwhelmed with ecstasy. Calling forth fire from nothing remains one of the most powerful moments of my entire life.
Perhaps in the foundation of ancestral skills, simplicity, and deep connection to the earth, is hope for the future.
The lesson of fire had far reaching consequences that I could never have imagined. Our lives are still dependent on fire, though we are removed from the source of our power. Whenever we flip a light switch, turn on our stove, adjust the thermostat, or drive a car, we are harnessing fire. When I first made fire primitively, working with the magic of wood, my relationship with all elements of fire changed. I feel a deep sense of gratitude and respect for the role fire plays in my life. Warmth, light, and power are so commonplace it is easy to take them for granted, therefore mindlessly using resources. Getting back in touch with the basic building blocks of existence gives us a practical, yet mystical, relationship with life, with the richness of living fully.
Learning is Vitality
I continually seek out other practitioners of primitive skills. I attend gatherings, which draw people from around the country to share ancestral skills. I take classes and hold informal evenings around a fire. I have met some of the most incredible people on this search. Their goals and philosophies vary. Some practice Experimental Archeology, using primitive skills to replicate actual artifacts, to understand how they were used, documenting each step along the way. Others are searching for a simpler way of living on the earth, finding that these skills help them step out of the rush of modern life.
I am a voracious learner. I devour any knowledge in my path. While pursuing primitive skills, I have found that there is always something new to learn. I will never master these skills, and rather than overwhelming me, it pushes me forward. A good friend of mine, a tracker, leaps into brushy areas with abandon, or climbs trees like a child, to see the signs of wildlife. I find the energy of people practicing ancient skills infectious. The passion for life, the quest for learning, and the focus on sharing knowledge and building community is unparalleled.
Watching this love of learning and passion for life kindled in the eyes of students, especially children, is what gives me the strength and hope to continue to teach. These skills are our birthright; we are the heirs of our ancestors’ knowledge and lifeways. We have the blueprint deep within us, the echoes of our shared heritage. The children tanning hides, tracking animals, and tending fires are mirroring the activities that have unfolded for thousands of years. Yet they are surrounded by a world of distraction and separation from nature. They live in a world where the shallow pursuit of material goods is shown as the path to success in life, while simultaneously bearing witness to the destruction of our planet. Many young people are looking for another way, for a more authentic lifestyle.
Perhaps the sense of purpose found in nature offers a path. Perhaps reconnecting to one another while learning the intricacies of ancient skills can build community. Perhaps in the foundation of ancestral skills, simplicity, and deep connection to the earth, is hope for the future.