The art of camouflage is vital to hunters and the hunted. When Europeans came to the New World, their idea of camouflage was one of single color, usually green or dark brown. Many early settlers in what would be America were taken hostage or killed because they never saw their captors until they were, literally, in front of them. The native people of America were masters of the art of camouflage.
In fact, many believe that it was the indigenous people who were the first, true inventors of camouflage. This skill gave them a tremendous advantage, regardless of the inferiority of their weapons. After all, you can’t shoot what you can’t see (and frequently don’t hear).
Camouflage also allowed native people to get closer to their prey. Before they could hope to get close, however, they had to find their prey. Tracking skills were taught from a very early age, and every native American male had to learn them or starve.
Camouflage Skills – Paint
Native people learned early that being as quiet as possible, as well as blending in with their surroundings, made them next to invisible in their world. Of course, the camouflage would depend on the terrain.
In summer months, men would paint their bodies and faces with streaks of green and white to appear as part of the summer leaves and sunlight. Long streaks of brown would run down the length of their arms so that they would appear like branches. Leggings were often painted (or even made from different colored hides) in long brown and white vertical stripes, to mimic tree trunks and dappled sunlight. Leaves and small twigs were braided into the hair. Some warriors went so far as to paint small birds or lizards on their bodies to appear even more like their surroundings.
In the fall or early spring, the green camouflage was exchanged for black, brown, yellow and bits of red and gold to mimic the changing colors of the leaves and the dying foliage.
Some of the “paint” used had spiritual or protective significance to the native people. The colors of the four directions (black, red, yellow and white), for example, were thought to offer guidance and align the hunters with the forces of nature.
Camouflage Skills – Cover
Another well-known skill of the indigenous people was to cover themselves with something that appeared to be natural. If one wanted to hide among large, grey or black boulders, a person would cover themselves in a gray or black and gray blanket.
New settlers were impressed with just how close native people could get to their prey in order to kill or manipulate them. One technique that is well-documented was the use of animal hides. Some animal hides (such as baby bison or whitetail deer) were tanned so that they left as much of the animal intact as possible, including ears, tails, legs and heads (faces, minus the skull). Hunters would try to cover up their scent by rubbing grasses and bark over their bodies. Then, relying on an animal’s poor eyesight (such as buffalo, deer, elk and moose) they would cover themselves in the hide of a grass-eating animal and crawl or walk slowly, as if they were grazing animals. As long as they moved slowly and their scent did not betray them, many hunters were able to literally walk right up to an animal and either spear it or stab it.
Another trick using the animal hide was for a dozen or so hunters to gradually work behind the herd to maneuver it so that it was close to cliffs or dead falls. When their prey was in position, they could throw off the hide and yell, frightening the herd. Often, a great majority of the herd would run off the cliff and be killed on impact. Women and other hunters were waiting below to finish off the survivors and begin their tasks.
Sometimes, native people used both bait and camouflage to capture their prey. Dead falls with bait (such as a small wounded animal tied to the top of the covering) would lure animals to their deaths. Other times, native people were known to lie on the ground and cover themselves with branches and leaves. They would tie a small animal to their leg or wrist. The thrashing of the bait sometimes caused larger predators, such as hawks, weasels, or foxes to come running. Once the animal grabbed the bait, the hunter would leap out of their hiding place.
Tracking Skills 101
Of course, before the camouflage can work, you need to find the animal. Tracking is an important skill and one that most people have lost.
Becoming familiar with the footprints and scat of local animals is just the beginning. While some tracks are distinct (possums and red foxes, for instance) others look very similar, such as goats, elk, caribou and pronghorn sheep.
One tip: When you do find a set of tracks, keep the footprint between you and the sun. The light will cast a shadow on the print, which makes it stand out.
Of course, finding tracks in wet dirt or mud is easier than in hard-packed dirt. This requires time and skill. Native people were excellent trackers who could not only tell which animal they were hunting, but they also could tell their gait (whether the animal was walking or running), how big the animal was, and approximately how old the print was. All of these clues, however, take years of study to learn, which is why boys as young as two and three were taken out for walks and taught how to identify tracks.
Native people also knew that most animals will leave other signs or clues, such as chewed leaves, nut shells, broken branches, crushed leaves or grass, broken pine cones or pine needles, spots on tree trunks where they were chewed or rubbed off, feathers, or destroyed nests and tunnels, where larger animals, such as bears or wolverines, might have tried to dig for insects or grubs.
The indigenous people of America relied on nature for everything they needed, so they studied every single tree, plant and animal in their location. They knew their habits, their calls and their patterns, and they took advantage of this knowledge whenever they could.
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