Background for Teachers



Living Off the Land

TPW Magazine, November 2008

This month Keep Texas Wild features Native American Indians "Living Off the Land."

Native American Indians

When we talk about Texas Native Americans, we mean all the different sorts of Native Americans who have ever lived, and presently live, in the part of North America called Texas. "Native Americans," in turn, are all the descendants, past and present, of the first people to inhabit North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean Islands. The first person to call Native Americans "Indians" was Christopher Columbus. He did this by mistake, since he thought he had landed on one of the islands east of India called the Indies (or East Indies). Actually, his voyage across the Atlantic had brought him to one of the islands off the coast of Central America, now called the West Indies. Only later did Columbus realize that he had discovered entirely new land. However, his mistaken name "Indians" for the inhabitants of his new-found island was later used for all of North and South America's native peoples, and is still in use.

The map in the 'Keep Texas Wild' magazine pages depicts tribe locations at the time of European arrival in the 1500s. Tribes moved in, left, joined and otherwise changed over time. The book Learn About Texas Indians provides an overview for youth, with The Indians of Texas by W.W. Newcomb, Jr. remaining a respected volume for adult reference.


Rock Art - Pictographs

Painted artwork is on canyon and cave walls created by ancient peoples in the Big Bend region. Most of this rock art is found at Hueco Tanks and Seminole Canyon State Historical Parks. For thousands of years, different cultures of native peoples lived in the caves and rock shelters along the Pecos and Devils rivers. Their campfires from long ago blackened the ceilings of these places of shelter. The rock art or pictographs show geometric shapes, animals, and human-like figures.

The earliest people, known as the Folsom culture because of the type of stone points they made, hunted big game animals, such as the mammoth. There is no rock art from these earliest people.

About 7,000 years ago, people hunting smaller game adapted to life in the now dry, rocky land. These people were called hunter and gatherers because of the way they lived. These people roamed the land hunting and gathering seeds and plants that were edible. These people were the first to create paintings on the walls of canyons, caves, and rock overhangs. The last of the pictographs were done by latter day Apaches, which often showed men on horseback, depicting their encounters with Spanish explorers and other Europeans.

The past inhabitants of Seminole Canyon left their mark in several ways, most notably through pictographs. The park contains some of the most outstanding examples not only in Texas, but in the world. Extensive pictographs of the Lower Pecos River Style, attributed to the Middle Archaic period of 4,000 years ago, adorn rock-shelters throughout its canyons. These and pictographs from other periods give park visitors a visual link to the canyon dwellers of the past. Of course, art supply stores did not exist hundreds or thousands of years ago. Early artisans obtained everything they needed from nature " variously colored minerals for paint pigments, animal fats and urine for binders, shells or flat rocks for palettes, and fibrous plant leaves for brushes. The canyon walls themselves served as blank canvas.

Why did the canyons' past inhabitants produce pictographs? Scientists do not always agree. Recent research into the meaning of Lower Pecos River Style murals suggests that the images may communicate important elements of the culture's belief system, such as shamanic journeys to the land of the dead and a symbolic relationship between deer and peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus.



Bison played a major role in supporting the life of Native American Indians. Bison herds also were a key species in the prairie ecosystem. Early accounts and oral histories indicate bison were once plentiful on the plains. During the late 1800s, bison were intentionally slaughtered by bounty hunters in a campaign sponsored by the U.S. Government to undermine the Native American Indians, forcing them into reservations for survival. The Goodnight ranch was a refuge for a few of the surviving bison calves, rescued after Mrs. Goodnight heard their wailing calls across the plains. The remnant of that herd is being rejuvenated at Caprock Canyons State Park as seen in this YouTube-TPWD Channel video. Many youth, especially those who have never been on a farm or ranch, are not aware of the sources of many of their foods, leather and other natural materials. There are Project WILD activities that may help students discuss this.


Additional Reading

Learn About Texas Indians

Interpretive Guide to Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site
Texas Archeology at a Glance
The Indians of Texas by W.W. Newcomb, Jr.
Rock Paintings at Hueco Tanks by Kay Sutherland, Ph.D. 
The Accidental Samaritan, Cabeza de Vaca in the New World. Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, March 2005.
The Account of Cabeza de Vaca – in his words, Texas State University library
Buffalo Soldiers: We Can, We Will. Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, April 2006.
Remarkable Plants of Texas, Uncommon Accounts of Our Common Natives by Matt Warnock Turner