Until Indigenous people stopped cultivating crops, hunting, fishing and gathering food, building their homes and even performing general life-sustaining chores, they possessed little body fat. Hunting, gardening, performing mundane activities such as washing clothes, building structures, finding firewood, etc. and using feet as transportation burned thousands of calories.
And they looked fit. Many Euroamericans have commented on the Natives’ healthy appearances, such as Oglethrope expedition member Edward Kimber, who said about the Natives in Florida in 1744: “As to their figure, ‘tis generally of the largest size, well proportion’d, and robust, as you can imagine Persons nurs’d up in manly Exercises can be.”1 Vigorous outdoor living also made a person tough, or as traveler Peter Kalm observed in 1750 as he made his way through Iroquois country:
The natives are tremendously rugged. I saw them going about these days with only a shirt on and a weapon hanging over it, often without shoes though they had on their …stockings. The men wore no trousers, the women a short, thin skirt; neither of the sexes had anything on their heads. Thus they traveled at this time through the forests on their hunting trips, both in good and bad weather. They lay in this manner during cold and rainy nights in the damp and wet forests without having any other clothes to put under or on top of themselves at night than those they wore during the day.”2
Numerous reports tell us about the physiques of historic Natives who ate unprocessed foods and who were consistently active. George Catlin observed tribes of the Upper Missouri, and commented that, “they are undoubtedly the finest looking, best equipped, and most beautifully costumed of any on the Continent. They live in a country well-stocked with buffaloes and wild horses, which furnish them an excellent and easy living; their atmosphere is pure, which produces good health and long life; and they are the most independent and the happiest races of Indians I have met with: they are all entirely in a state of primitive wildness, and consequently are picturesque and handsome, almost beyond description. . . As far as my travels have yet led me into the Indian country, I have more than realized my former predictions that those Indians who could be found most entirely in a state of nature, with the least knowledge of civilized society, would be found to be the most cleanly in their persons, elegant in their dress and manners, and enjoying life to the greatest perfection.3
Europeans were surprised to see that the Indigenous people they encountered did not suffer from the same maladies they were used to seeing. William Wood, a Puritan in Massachusetts stated about the “Aberginians or Indians Northward,” that they were “straight bodied, strongly composed, smooth-skinned, merry countenanced, of complexion something more swarthy than Spaniards, black haired, high foreheaded, black eyed, out-nosed, broad shouldered, brawny armed, long and slender handed, out breasted, small waisted, lank bellied, well thighed, flat kneed, handsome grown legs, and small feet . . . It may puzzle belief to conceive how such lusty bodies should have their rise and daily supportment from so slender a fostering, their houses being mean, their lodging as homely, commons scant, their drink water, and nature their best clothing. In them the old proverb may well be verified: Natura paucis contenta, for though this be their daily portion, they still are healthful and lusty.”4
Comments made by Europeans about the physical beauty of indigenous peoples abounds. Christopher Columbus remarked in his dairy of October 12 and 13, 1492 about the peoples he encountered in Guanahani (San Salvadore): “They are very well formed, with handsome bodies and good faces.” The next day he wrote “All alike have very straight legs and no belly but are very well formed.”5
James Adair noted the “exquisitely fine proportioned limbs,” of “Chikkasah” women in the southeast.6 Peter Kalm, noted that the Hurons “are a tall, robust people, well shaped, and of a copper color.”7 The Shawnees were similarly endowed, according to Nicholas Cresswell: “They are tall, manly, well-shaped men . . .” and “Their persons are tall and remarkably straight . . .”8
“The men are in general tall, active and well made, qualifications absolutely necessary for a race of hunters,” is how Lieutenant James M,. Hadden described men he encountered in Canada in 1776. Of course, women, who gather, garden and dress the game would also appear fit, but true to the nature of the male writers of that day, women were for the most part misunderstood in their narratives.9 One hundred or so years later, white male writers were still inaccurately describing Native women, although we can see a kernel of truth every now and then. Sherry Smith’s A View From Officer’s Row: Army Perceptions of Western Indians (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990) is a compilation of observations by officers who encountered Native peoples. Although most of these men had derogatory things to say about Native women’s physical appearances (usually because they were weathered from hard outdoor work), some admired their physical abilities, such as the two Comanche women who reportedly “lassoed several antelope” (p. 59) and the Yuma woman, whose body “was truly magnificent, and would have been a glory to a young sculptor,” (p. 89) or the Native mothers who after child birth “gathered up their babies and healthily, vigorously went on their way”(p. 64).
Observers were interested in how the Natives stayed fit. A French soldier wrote about unnamed tribes in the area of New York that “They claim that the lack of hair results from the abundance of their blood, which is purer because of their simple diet, and which produces fewer excess substances.” He concurs with the powers of a “simple diet” by stating that, “There is little doubt that their simple diet makes the savages swift runners.”10 Another traveler, Patrick M’Robert, made a similar observation in the mid-1775 about tribes in that area: “These are a tall, nible, well-made people; many of them about six feet high, with long black hair . . . their features good, especially the women. They live chiefly by hunting fishing, and upon fruits.”11
Children worked and played without the same distractions we have today. No television, video games, no Game Boys or movies to keep youngsters from staying consistently active. J. Carver, who wrote about his observations in the area in the 1760s commented that upon seeing youngsters, “I faw about twenty naked young Indians, the moft perfect in the fhape, and by far the handsomeft of any I had ever feen.”12
A Native person who gathered food (that is, they take a basket or bag and forage) was not always assured of success, which meant that they had to range wide distances to search for food. And, even if they were successful, the actual gathering and carrying the food all day was tiring. Eaton, et al., researched modern-day gatherers in Africa and Paraguay and found that when females (the primary gatherers) leave for the day, they often are gone for up to twenty hours per week. These peoples usually find an average of 15 different “staple” vegetables and perhaps up to sixty other foods depending on the seasons.13 It stands to reason that those people in other parts of the worlds would find more or less, depending on the environment they live in. Amount of rainfall, type of soil, terrain, etc. all figure into the abundance of foods available.
Even when food is available, it takes a huge effort to gather it. Using primarily a stick to dig, gatherers would often dig all day long to collect roots and bulbs. Anyone who gardens knows the feeling of fatigue and backache after just an hour of pulling weeds and bending over to inspect crops. Gatherers did much inspecting, pulling and digging; they also put the food in their bags and packs and carried the heavy haul around--in addition to carrying their infants and small children—often for miles in a variety of weather. It is estimated that the !Kung San women of South Africa walk up to 12 miles in a day of foraging, and this does not include their other daily activities.14
Hunters often have less success at finding food, but it still takes much effort to try and obtain a deer, elk, moose, bison, etc. And, hunting could be precarious. Hooves, horns, teeth, claws and massive body weight could easily injure or kill an unwary hunter. Hunters today who own thousands of dollars of rifles, Cabela clothing and what seems like hundreds of accessories know that even top-of-the-line equipment and endless patience often is not enough to garner you an animal. Many game animals catch on quickly when they’re being stalked. Sometimes a certain area is hunted out and game is hard to find. Poachers take their toll. And despite its lack of physical requirements, quietly sitting in a blind all day isn’t easy for many. Historically, hunters used a variety of methods to kill animals: running buffalo and horses over a cliff and butchering them at the bottom; driving them into pits, marshes, snow where they could be killed; throwing a spear or shooting arrows from a bow either on horseback or on foot.
Eaton posits that modern hunters in Australia and Venezuela spend twenty hours a week hunting (that is, stalking, waiting, killing, butchering, bringing the meat home), with two days off, although game now is sparcer than historically. Some, like those in Paraguay, hunt everyday.15 Exhausted hunters who had been forced to drag even a medium sized deer through rough terrain know that killing say, a buffalo, far from one’s truck presents some extra special challenges when wanting to get the meat home. But for historic Natives who had no vehicles or even horses, it was necessary for them to bring the animal to camp themselves as described by the Rev. John Heckewelder in 1788 about the Delawares: “It is very common to see a hunter come in with a whole deer on his back, fastened with a hoppis, a kind of band with which they carry loads…”16
Eaton and his colleagues measured young men’s skinfold thickness (on the back of the upper arm) in several modern hunter-gatherer societies, and discovered that they had much less body fat (4.6 mm) compared to non-hunter-gatherers in Africa and Australia (10 mm—over twice as much).17 He also found that diabetes, hypertension, obesity and atherosclerosis is unknown among the modern Kenyan Kikuyu, Broaya pastoralists and “pre-industrial” society people in Africa, Australia and South America. He and his colleagues attribute this health to the reality that their diets consist of wild plants (and subsequently, large amounts of roughage) and game that is high in protein and polyunsaturated fats. They eat little salt and saturated fat, drink only water, and consume honey as their only source of sugar.18 If we were to combine their ways of eating and moving about with our advances in medicine, then we would be very healthy, indeed.
Games, play and sports were an integral part of Indigenous life. Men and women played a variety of active sports, such as stickball, horseracing, numerous ball games, running (sprints and distance), snow snake (popular in the north where there is snow; players slide or toss a pole called a “snake” along the frozen ground), hoop and pole (a pole or spear is thrown at a rolling wheel or hoop with the goal of both landing close to each other or the hoop on top of the pole), swimming, as well as many sedentary games. Many games were played for religious reasons, not for profit. And there was a strong cultural connection between playing and a player’s identity. A game might be played in hopes of healing the sick, ensuring a good harvest, to strengthen kinship ties, and out of respect for the Creator. Players might observe a strict diet for months before a game, in addition to specific praying and ceremonial rituals. Games also were team, not individual sports. When one gambled on a team or a person, the winnings were kept within the community, not with the winner as we see today. In addition, there were no superstars to admire since there was no commercialization (ie: salaries and advertisements) associated with traditional Indigenous sports.19
The game many people today call lacrosse was known by many names among the tribes that played it (which is everywhere except in the southwest). Many Natives claim that their tribe was the “inventor” of lacrosse, so there will be no debate over that here. Regardless of who did what first, what is generally agreed upon is that many tribes played it in hopes that crops would be successful, that the tribe would prosper and, they played for enjoyment.
The traditional game of kapucha (stickball) among Choctaws that is sometimes known as ishtaboli (although this can also mean playing field) used to be played with extreme fervor and much ceremony; players and hundreds of spectators gathered at the field the day before in anticipation. George Catlin observed about Choctaws and their level of activity that, “These people seem, even in their troubles, to be happy; and have, like all the other remnants of tribes, preserved with great tenacity their different games, which it would seem they are everlastingly practicing for want of other occupations or amusements in life. Whilst I was staying at the Choctaw agency in the midst of their nation, it seemed to be a sort of season of amusements, a kind of holiday when the whole tribe almost, were assembled around the establishment, and from day to day we were entertained with some games or feats that were exceedingly amusing: horse-racing, dancing, wrestling, foot-racing, and ball-playing, were amongst the most exciting; and of all the catalogue, the most beautiful, was decidedly that of ball-playing.”20
One field Catlin saw was reportedly around 400 yards long and at each end of the field stood two poles set in the ground (the rules were apparently flexible in regards to the size of the field, so they varied from game to game). Historically, there often were hundreds of players on each side using kabocca (sticks) about three feet long with a pocket at one end, the pieces sewn together by sinew. The goal of each side was to hit or catch, then throw the leather ball with their sticks until the ball touched the other team’s poles at the other end of the field. The players stripped to the waist and wore paint on their chests, sometimes with a horse, raccoon or big cat tail (perhaps a puma) and feathers on their heads, arms and waists. After the men played, the women took the field and played just as aggressively. Kapucha was colorful and exciting and bets were eagerly made. The game also was fast-paced and violent. Broken arms, legs, noses and dislocated kneecaps were common and the players wore their scars the rest of their lives. Some players even died from injuries sustained during the game.
Tribe members continued to play in significant numbers until the turn of the century, but by that time baseball and football had become popular. Chahtas still played kapucha after that, but in decreasing numbers and often for the purpose of entertaining spectators. Today, Chahtas in Mississippi and Oklahoma play, usually at annual tribal celebrations but also in tournaments such as the "World Series of Stickball" held each year at the annual Choctaw Indian Fair in Mississippi. Players use hand-carved hickory sticks (in some games players are allowed to use two sticks) that at one end have leather or deer hide thongs pockets. The towa (ball) is made from cloth tightly wrapped around a small stone or piece of wood with a leather thong over the cloth. But, like with other sports that are played periodically, such as week-end touch football and seasonal softball, if one only plays stickball on special occasion then the chance for injuries is high. Running and practicing specific kapucha skills on a regular basis can keep one fit.
Hundreds of Natives continue to play lacrosse today and not just to stay physically fit; the psychological rewards are also great. Cherokee scholar Jeff Corntassel, for example, regularly plays a-ne-jo-di (the name Tsalagi have for the game). Corntassel spoke about a-ne-jo-di in a June 2004 personal communication:
Stickball for Tsalagi is more of a ceremony than a game. Originally called the "little brother to war," it was sometimes used to resolve territorial disputes with the Creeks, but also promoted unity amongst our people. Stickball is still played before stompdances and during the Green Corn Ceremony to remind us of our obligations to community as Ani- geel-aghi or "keepers of the fire." I play a contemporary version of stickball (lacrosse) to honor our ancestors and to ready myself as a warrior.
Running has always been a part of traditional indigenous lifestyles, originally out of necessity. Prior to acquiring horses, tribes people obviously had to rely on their feet to get them from place to the other; but, on occasion, they had to get someplace quickly. In 1680, Pueblo messengers in today’s New Mexico ran at least 300 miles from pueblo to pueblo to tell them of the uprising against the abusive Spanish. Runners had to chase game and to carry messages. Natives had what Peter Nabakov calls “runner-systems” criss-crossing North and South America, the longest one being 2500 miles from Ecuador to Chile.21 The people who traversed these trails used only their feet. Runners often ran barefoot, with minimal food.
When I coached cross country at a New Mexico high school in the early 1980s, most of the Native students in high school ran. And they didn’t run slow. An average time for the cross country girls was an 8-minute mile and the fastest Acoma boys won the state championship year after year. Although the students ran and participated in the races, it was discouraging to learn that after races, after school and on weekends, the runners indulged in more than a little drinking and pot smoking. Still, they were active, and at least for the time they were in high school, their running was a focal point. The students were lean and when I taught them about nutrition in my biology courses (my first two degrees are in biology and physics) they did sit up and pay attention. Sadly, I later learned that many of these talented runners stopped exercising after leaving high school and faded into the same legacy of poor health as have other once-fit Natives.
1. Edward Kimber, A Relation or Journal of a Late Expedition, &c.: The Oglethorpe Expedition of 1744 into Florida (Gainesville: The University Press of Florida, 1976), p. 16.
2. Peter Kalm, The America of 1750: Travels in North America by Peter Kalm, Vol. II (New York: Dover Publications, 1966); The English Version of 1770 Revised from the original Swedish and edited by Adolph B. Benson, p. 561.
3. Letter # 4 of George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of North American Indians, (First published in London in 1844); available on the web at http://www.xmission.com/~drudy/mtman/html/catlin/letter7.html.
4. William Wood, New England's Prospect, Edited by Alden T. Vaughan. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977), pp. 81-82.
5. Christopher Columbus, (Transcribed and translated by Oliver C. Dunn and James E. Kelley, Jr.) Diaro of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America, 1492-1493 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), pp. 65-73.
6. James Adair, The History of the American Indians, Particularly Those Nations Adjoining to the Mississippi, East and West Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina, and Virginia. (London: Edward and Charles Dilly, 1775), p. 2.
7. Peter Kalm, Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America (New York: Dover Publications, 1964), P. 462.
8. Nicholas Cressell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774-1777 (New York: Dial Press, 1928), p. 49, 120.
9. James M. Hadden, A Journal Kept in Canada and upon Burgoyne’s Campaign in 1776 and 1777 (Albany: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1884), p. 12.
10. J.C.B., Travels in New France (Harrisburg: The Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1941), p. 138.
11. Patrick M’Robert, A Tour Through Part of the North Provinces of America, edited by Carl Bridenbaugh (New York: New York Times, 1968)—a reprint of the A Tour Through Part of the North Provinces of America: Being, A Series of Letters wrote on the Spot, in the Years 1774 & 1775 (Edinburgh, 1776), p. 39.
12. Jonathan Carver, Esq. Travels, Through the Interior Parts of North America, in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768 (Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, Inc., 1956), p. 279. Note that “s” at that time was printed as “f.”
13. Eaton, et al. The Paleolithic Prescription, p. 32-3.
14. Idem. p. 177
15. Eaton, et al. Paleolithic Prescription, p. 31-2.
16. Rev. John Heckewelder, History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1876), p. 220.
17. Eaton, et al. Paleolithic Prescription, p.35.
18. Eaton, et al. Paleolithic Prescription, p. 45.
19. See Joseph B. Oxendine, American Indian Sports Heritage (Champaign: Human Kinetics books, 1988) for discussions about various traditional sports and games.
20. G. Catlin, Letter #49 of Letters and Notes at http://www.xmission.com/~drudy/mtman/html/catlin/letter49.html.
21. Peter Nabokov, Indian Running (Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1981), p. 19-20.
Book Cover: Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness Taken from Devon A. Mihesuah, Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), pp. 38-46.
Here are some additional references:
Bourke, John Gergory. The Urine Dance of the Zuni Indians of New Mexico. Ann Arbor: unknown, 1887.
Dumas, B. "Back to Nature: Primitive Runner Discovered in Utah." Trail Runner 26 (2004).
Hymes, Dell H. "Native American Oral Traditions: Collaboration and Interpretation (Review)." Journal of American Folklore 117, no. 464 (2004): 203-04.
Kephart, Horace. Camping and Woodcraft: A Handbook for Vacation Campers and for Travelers in the Wilderness. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1988.
Krings, Alexander, and Richard R. Braham. Guide to Tendrillate Climbers of Costa Rican Mountains. 1st ed. Ames, IA: Blackwell Pub. Professional, 2005.
Kriska, A. M., A. J. Hanley, S. B. Harris, and B. Zinman. "Physical Activity, Physical Fitness, and Insulin and Glucose Concentrations in an Isolated Native Canadian Population Experiencing Rapid Lifestyle Change." Diabetes care 24, no. 10 (2001): 1787-92.
Maria, Williams. "The People Have Never Stopped Dancing: Native American Modern Dance Histories (Review)." Wicazo Sa Review 23, no. 2 (2008): 108-09.
Mihesuah, Devon A. The Lightning Shrikes. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2004.
Nabokov, P. Indian Running: Ancient City Press, 1981.
Indianz.Com. Noble Savage Media,, Walthill, NE.
Oxendine, J. American Indian Sports Heritage: Human Kinetics books, 1988.
Rowe, David. "Taking the Sports Brief: A Review Essay." Theory & Event 6, no. 1 (2002): p.
Tosee, Mike. "To Show What an Indian Can Do: Sports at Native American Boarding Schools (Review)." Wicazo Sa Review 21, no. 1 (2006): 141-44.
Whitney, Alex, Marie Ostberg, and Nils Ostberg. Sports & Games the Indians Gave Us: With Step-by-Step Instructions for Making Indian Gaming Equipment. New York, NY: David McKay Co., Inc, 1977.