Updated: Aug 10, 2019
There has been a conversation around language for the last several years, about how we in the nature education community label our skills. Most folks don’t know this or wouldn’t find it interesting at first glance, but I think it’s a very engaging conversation. The short version is this: “Should we call them Primitive Skills, Ancestral Skills, or Traditional Skills?” Seems simple enough right? Let me break it down for you!
This one gets under my skin a little bit. For the sake of transparency, this was the terminology being used in my education with Trackers Earth, and I never gave it a second thought during that time. I’m almost certain that they have stopped using this framing but you’d have to see for yourself to be sure. Here’s the rub with this nomenclature: primitive suggests something significantly less than modern. The problem is that there are still huge modern cultures, marginalized by anglocentric cultures, that still use these skills as a part of everyday life. Are we saying these cultures are primitive? By what measure? Are we saying they are not modern cultures? The word “primitive” has also been used as a derogatory term for indigenous people around the world for centuries. Even my ancestors, the Vikings, were referred to by the Saxons as primitive and barbaric. Ultimately, this word has become a label for any people, culture, or religion that doesn’t fit into the anglicized imagining of “civilization”. This is damaging not only to the cultures that still exist, but also the developing cultures around the world making movement towards a more nature centric way of life. It discourages people from thinking of natural living as anything that might be progressive thinking. You know what’s truly primitive? Systems that are based on sequestering, privatizing, and capitalizing on the resources we all need to survive. There are primitive social structures that are not inclusive of people based on race, religion, age, ability, sex, body type, gender, relationship preferences, or nation of origin. So that one’s out.
There’s a really important place for this adjective in what we do. The issue we face with this one is: If the skill you are teaching is not one used by your actual ancestors, then maybe you shouldn’t call it an ancestral skill. The problem of cultural appropriation is one that is sometimes difficult to navigate in nature teaching. So many skills are practically universal that forms of them can be seen in almost every indigenous culture on the planet. For instance, flint knapping, or the art of shaping stone for tools like knives, arrow points, and chopping tools. Some version of this can be found on every habitable continent. Anywhere there is volcanic glass or silicate stone, there is knapping. But what happens when we get into crafts that are specific to a culture. Where I come from in Northern California, the Pomo are expert basket weavers with their own specific fiber processing and weaving techniques. Some snare styles are only found in certain cultures like the Paiute, or the Ojibwe. I personally do my best to stay away from teaching skills that do not belong to my culture. That said, in a survival scenario any knowledge is good knowledge. If I teach snare making I do sometimes include the names of the snares mentioned but I encourage students to learn the building techniques on their own. Sorry earth mamas and papas, unless a teacher is only teaching skills specific to their ancestors, this one is out too… even though it absolutely sounds the coolest.
To me this one fits the best. It’s not specific to a culture, it doesn’t imply marginalization, and it actually covers a lot more of the skills. This is what I use and it fits some of the more recently developed skills like blacksmithing and non-bushcraft woodworking. The terminology is not without its problems however. Tradition can be a touchy subject. The word is often used to mitigate progressive ideas. Humans have a tendency to hold onto outdated, functionless systems and ideas simply because they are traditions. A fear might be that a teacher will be unable to adapt, build on, or vary a technique simply because it is not the way it was done before. This worries me because function is the most important role of these skills. It’s not my place to preserve tradition, nor should I. Were I living the past of my own ancestral heritage and I discovered a new, faster way to make fire, I doubt that my village would dismiss it simply because it had never been done that way before. Unfortunately, the reality of our modern world is quite the opposite. We see examples of this all the time in our social movements, politics, even in science.
So that’s the story. It’s not the whole story. There are plenty of other terminologies out there with equally positive and problematic breakdowns. At least the conversation is happening, and it seems to be happening in a thoughtful way. My hope is that someday we find a wording that conveys the importance of a future in these skills as well as a reverence for where they came from.
Interested in learning more about wilderness survival and traditional skills?
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