Making Fire

Curing Fish over a fire

Making Fire

Making Fire was one of the most important tasks undertaken on practically a daily basis by Native American Indians, especially if they tribe that they belonged too lived a nomadic lifestyle. One of the first things to be done when setting up a new camp was to build a campfire.

The campfire had many purposes and making fire ensured that the Indian camp would have heat for warmth and cooking but it also provided light and served to frighten animals and bad spirits. Fire was also used as a warning signal, similar to Smoke Signals.

Native American Methods of Making Fire
There were no matches and it was impractical to travel with a lighted flame, so the task of making fire was regular and had to be as quick as possible. The Native Americans generally had two basic methods for making fire:

  • By striking two hard pieces of stone together, such as chert or pyrites, which gave a spark, which was caught on tinder made from pine or cedar bark, dry pine needles or dry grass and blown to a flame
  • By rubbing two pieces of wood together. One stick was about 1 foot long with a pointed end. The other stick was only a few inches long and had several conical hollows in it. The smaller stick was placed flat on the ground and the pointed end of the other stick was placed in one of the holes and firmly whirled between the hands applying pressure. The whirling and pressure produced a fine wood dust and spark would appear. The spark was caught on tinder and blown to a flame

Native American Methods of Making Fire - The Bow Drill & Fire Pump Drill
The method of making fire by whirling and placing pressure on sticks was hard work and produced painful blisters. This experience in making fire rose to the invention of a bow drill. In a bow drill the stick is rotated with increased speed by virtue of the back-and-forth movement of a bow, the string of which is looped around it. The pump drill, as illustrated below, was a variation of the bow drill and hand drill that used a different method of getting the drill to spin.

Iroquois fire pump drill

Iroquois fire pump drill

Making Fire for Cooking
Making Fire was also an essential task when cooking was required. Before the Europeans came to North America the Native Americans did not have metals, so they did not possess pots, pans or kettles. So what methods were used for cooking food?

  • Some foods, such as root vegetables and shell fish, were roasted in the hot ashes or hot coals of a fire
  • Pieces of meat would be spitted on sharp sticks and hung over the fire

Making Fire for Cooking - Cured Meat and Fish
Making fire for cooking could be put to good use in the preservation of foods. The picture at the top of the page shows how fish was cured over an open fire. Other methods included drying meat by cutting it into strips or sheets, and drying it by hanging it on lines. Curing meat and fish means saving or preserving meat by using processes such as drying, salting and smoking. Dried meat was made into Pemmican.

Weapons and Tools
Native Indian Tribes Index

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