Ever wonder if you could have survived in a native tribe a thousand years ago, or as a cavewoman tens of thousands of years ago?
Your life will probably never depend on the skills they used. But why not learn them anyway?
The Herrett Center for Arts and Science at College of Southern Idaho will offer a series of classes titled “Primitive Skills for Modern Man.” As the organizers note in the fine print, modern woman is also welcome, of course, as well as modern child 12 or older accompanied by an adult.
“These classes give one an appreciation for the ingenuity of native people and how they overcame different hardships,” said Rusty Bowman, who will teach a class on firemaking and assist a class on native plants. “Any time we’re more connected to our natural surroundings, we understand it and value it, and we’re far more apt to take care of it. This understanding is critical to our successors.”
Discard any hopes for boring, droning lectures. Each of the classes will be primarily hands-on, and participants can show off their new skills to their friends afterward. In many cases, they’ll even bring home something they made, from a leather pouch to a chipped-obsidian knife.
The workshops are intended to expand the museum’s offerings to teens and young adults, as well as to raise money to support the institution in a time when paid field trips have fallen off. They were inspired in part by the popular hands-on academic classes that anthropology professor Jim Woods used to teach at the Herrett.
“Just walking into the museum is kind of like coming into class,” said Joey Heck, exhibits manager, describing how he’ll use artifacts to give participants an idea of how skills were used prehistorically. “(Students will) make the connection a little more easily than someone who is trying to flintknap on their own without prehistoric reference.”
After all the classes are complete, the instructors and any students who wish to show off what they’ve learned will offer an open house — on a date to be determined — with demonstrations for the public.
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When: 6:30-9 p.m. April 26 and 29; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 30
How much: $35 (includes materials and April 30 lunch)
How you’ll go native: Students will go to Rock Creek Park to harvest fibers of dogbane, a plant that was popular among the area’s native tribes. “It makes a really nice, strong, fine thread,” Joey Heck said. He’ll also explain how stinging nettle, sagebrush and milkweed can be used for thread, cord and rope, and how to build up thin cords into thicker ropes. “Cordage was used for so many things: nets, knife handles, fishing line, snares.”
If students advance quickly, they can use their cord to create a small pouch to take home. And those who plan to take the tool-making class later should save their cordage to tie to a bone fishhook they’ll carve.
‘Native Plant Identification and Usage’
When: 6:30-9 p.m. May 10 and 13
How much: $20 (bring a picnic May 13)
How you’ll go native: For liability reasons, Joey Heck and Rusty Bowman can’t suggest you eat or medicinally use native plants, but this class is a great start for those who want to begin to accurately figure out what that growing thing is and what the native people used it for.
“Students are going to learn to identify a number of local plants, as well as plants the Shoshone used to use in this area, chokecherry and serviceberry, willow and camas,” Heck said, describing how juniper was used for tool handles, wild rose and willow for arrow shafts, and other plants for cord-making, shelter-building and other uses critical for survival.
“When one is able to identify plants, it connects them to their surroundings,” Bowman said.
When: 6:30-9 p.m. May 24 and 27; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 28
How much: $50 (includes materials and May 28 lunch)
How you’ll go native: No, you won’t harvest your own animal or tan any hides — the deer leather the class works with will come from Moscow Hide and Fur. Students will use the leather to make a parfleche, a folded pouch traditionally decorated with natural dyes. It was “used sort of like a prehistoric handbag,” Joey Heck said. “Most of the bags that I’ve made have all been about 8 inches square, but people will be able to take what they learned from that and apply it to a bigger piece of rawhide.”
Students who plan to take the “Stone & Bone” class might instead make a pouch to carry the tools they’ll make.
‘Stone & Bone’
When: 6:30-9 p.m. June 6-10
How much: $50 (includes materials)
How you’ll go native: Awls, needles, obsidian scrapers, hammer stones, bone fishhooks … with these tools in your deerskin pouch, who needs a modern toolbox? Well, you might.
“We’ll probably use a mix; (for) some things it’s just so much easier to use modern tools,” Joey Heck said. “I have stones that people can use for sanding things, but sandpaper works much faster. If they really want to work with primitive tools, and we have the primitive tool available, they can use that.”
Students’ initial toolkit will include five or six tools, depending on the time available, made from stone collected in the Magic Valley and bone from Moscow Hide and Fur. “Once students do make their tools, they can then use those tools to make other things, or attempt to make other things,” Heck said.
‘Beginning Flintknapping’ and ‘Intermediate Flintknapping’
When: Beginning:6:30-9 p.m. June 21 and 24; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 25. Intermediate:6:30-9 p.m. June 28 and July 1; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 2.
How much: Beginning:$50 (includes materials). Intermediate: $50 ($40 for students continuing from “Beginning Flintknapping”).
How you’ll go native: Try flintknapping, and you’ll quickly gain respect for the artifacts you see in museums. In the introductory course, students will use tools similar to those used by Native Americans and get a feel for working with obsidian.
“I’m hoping students pick that up quickly, and then we can make some very simple tools,” Joey Heck said. “They wouldn’t be finished in the sense of arrowheads or spear points, just flakes that come off obsidian when they strike it.”
He will encourage beginning students to advance to the intermediate class, though students with previous flintknapping experience could jump directly into the intermediate group. The latter class will cover making bifaces, in which both sides of the stone have been worked with percussion flaking.
“Once they get the hang of making these bifaces, we’ll move into arrowheads, and look at weapons from this region,” Heck said. If students progress well, they could go home with a knife blade or a large spear point.
When: 1:30-5 p.m. July 16
How much: $20 (includes materials)
How you’ll go native: Do you have something that needs a hole in it? Take a cue from the native people of Central America and make a pump drill. “It has a spindle, typically with some sort of weight on it, and a point to do the drilling. There’s a crossbar handle that you then twist up on the spindle, and with an up-and-down motion, the spindle will turn, and drill through material,” Joey Heck said. Native Idahoans were more likely to use a different, simpler kind of drill, but the pump drill will be more immediately rewarding to students.
Students will use recycled lumber and string to make their own pump drills — then compete to see who can make a hole most quickly.
‘Atlatls (Spear Chuckin’ 101)’
When: 6:30-9 p.m. July 25-29
How much: $50 (includes materials)
How you’ll go native: Atlatls, often called throwing boards, are the precursors to the bow and arrow and are universal to every continent except Antarctica.
“As far as we know, the bow and arrow was not even introduced in North America until about a thousand years ago or so,” Joey Heck said. “Basically (the atlatl is) a stick or a flat board that you carve in such a way that it has a hook at the end, that you use to propel a long arrow with a thin shaft. It flies farther and harder than if you just threw a spear by hand.”
Students will carve the throwing boards, probably out of juniper or chokecherry, then harvest dart shafts, probably from willow or wild rose. If there’s time, they’ll learn a simple fletching method for the darts. Then everyone will stand good and far apart and yell “fore!” or “heads up!” as they practice hurling with their atlatls.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 27
How much: $35 (includes lunch and materials)
How you’ll go native: Good luck, Joey Heck said. “From my experience, it’s a tough thing to learn. … I suspect we’ll be lucky to teach everyone how to get smoke that day.”
Instructor Rusty Bowman is more confident, though he acknowledges that firemaking definitely requires practice.
“They should be able to come out of the class with enough of an understanding to be able to get materials on their own, and make fire,” he said, describing techniques that can be used. A bow drill, for instance, looks like a tiny bow and arrow and uses a spindle to create the friction that starts the fire.
Students will also learn to make tinder bundles from local fibers to catch that spark and provide the basis for a full-blown blaze.
“At the end of the day, I want to have a competition, ‘Survivor’-style, about who can get a spark the fastest or start a fire the fastest,” Heck said.