Most of us head indoors and turn up the furnace when frigid weather hits, stacking in a good supply of wood for the stove or plugging in the old electric throw blanket — and praying that the power doesn’t go out!
For the native people of this land, however, they had none of those luxuries. Have you ever wondered just how the heck they stayed warm when it was dangerously cold? During blizzards and ice storms? Were teepees and other shelters really that warm?
Of course, there could be causalities during severe weather. You can’t help but picture the people who went outside to attend to nature’s call, only to find themselves half frozen within minutes, or lost in a driving snow.
Let’s take a look at how the indigenous people of this land not only survived during the harshest winter weather, but actually looked forward to it as a time to stay indoors, sleep, rest, spend time with family, and get caught up on chores.
An Ounce of Prevention
One way that native people prepared for harsh storms was forecasting them. Generally speaking, there were always one or two elders who seemed to have a knack of understanding that, for example, if the wind was bringing clouds from the north, it meant a blizzard, if from the east, it would bring snow, but nothing too harsh. Thin clouds meant cold weather. No snow and a ring circling the moon meant it would rain within 24 hours.
It also helped to observe animal behavior. For example, woodpeckers sharing one tree or one nest meant a harsh winter was coming. It is also said that when muskrats made their holes high up on the banks of rivers, lots of snow was on the way.
In the far north, the elders looked for bright spots that appear on either side of that cold winter sun. An old saying was that those spots were fire, which the sun had made to warm its ears. This was a sign which meant a severe cold snap was coming quickly.
When Caught Unaware
Literature has painted Native Americans as some sort of “magic” people who knew everything about nature, but the truth is that they were humans who made mistakes. This is especially true of young couples sneaking away for a little tryst, or young men trying to prove their bravery.
Sometimes, indigenous people were away from camp when a snowstorm or blizzard struck. In these cases, stories of survival are almost all the same: People sought shelter quickly, made a small fire, tried to stay warm and wait it out. Shelter was the foremost concern, and it would take the shape of hollowed-out tree trunks, caves, rock outcroppings, even a quick lean-to made from branches, a tree and some snow.
Anything that would burn would be collected as quickly as possible, including horse or cow dung, pine cones, old pine needles, small branches – basically, whatever was dry. By surrounding the fire with rocks, they could radiate heat into the shelter.
If you were with someone else, you could share body heat. Natives would wait out the storm by sleeping as much as possible near the fire. It’s an old wives’ tale that people who fall asleep in the cold will never wake up. When you are cold enough, your body will wake you up to let you know!
Protect the Body
Next to the fire, your most precious asset is your own body heat. Native people considered their body as a natural fire that they never wanted to squander or allow to go out.
For the indigenous people, this meant never sitting directly on the ground, but instead perching themselves on furs or rocks near the fire that were covered with hides and fur. The Eskimo people were known to tie dried loon skins, including the feathers, to a rope, which they wore around their waist, similar to an apron. This was not only an extra layer of warmth, but if they were out and about, they would turn it around so the skins were lying on their buttocks, giving them a natural buffer between their fanny and a cold rock!
Native people kept their body fire protected by layering clothing. Better to remove clothing if you became too warm than to be caught in a snow storm wearing just a breechcloth!
Making the Cold an Ally
Of course, native people had many ways of dealing with the cold over the years that are no longer useful to us in modern times. Many tribes were nomadic and simply moved south along with the migrating birds. Other tribes used longhouses, where almost everyone in the tribe would spend the winters together in close quarters, their combined body heat making the interiors warmer.
Native people were known to cut wood when it was well below freezing. Why? Not only were they kept warm through the effort, but wood at 30 below (Fahrenheit) splits very easily!
Perhaps one of the best secrets of the indigenous people was that they saw the cold as a living thing that deserved respect. They did not try to prove how long they could stay outside in an ice storm. Native people believed that cold was a spirit that had great power worth of respect and attention.
Do you think you could have survived as a Native American in frigid weather? Share your thoughts in the section below: