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View Full Version : Did American Indians ever really put an ear to the ground?


aldiboronti
11-22-2004, 12:24 PM
The scene is in countless old Hollywood movies. An Indian will crouch down and put his ear close to the ground. He will then report that riders are coming from this or that direction and sometimes give the distance. Is this really possible?

BTW it's interesting that the OED's first cite for the phrase 'keeping an ear to the ground' is 1920, which may suggest that the practice is pure Hollywood and originated in the silent Westerns.

AskNott
11-22-2004, 06:09 PM
In a movie I once saw, an Indian guide knelt to put his ear on a railroad rail. Then he stood up and proclaimed, "Fresh tracks!"

samclem
11-22-2004, 06:49 PM
I can find the phrase as early as 1839, in a newspaper article. And it was a "white" person doing it.

Many, many cites in the 1800's.

kniz
11-22-2004, 08:39 PM
Unfortunately, there is no reference to putting their ears to the ground, but here are two articles that tell of tracking methods used by the Shadow Wolves:

Indianz.com
(http://www.indianz.com/board/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=10894)
“Did you see that?” he says. “Something was just through here.”
Heim, 31, slows, ready to track his prey — drug runners smuggling marijuana and methamphetamine from Mexico.

Heim is a Shadow Wolf, one of 18 members of an elite unit of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Shadow Wolves are American Indians who use their tracking skills to intercept large amounts of drugs — 145,000 pounds of marijuana this year — before they can reach U.S. streets.
desertusa.com (http://www.desertusa.com/mag03/apr/hunt.html)


In the Shadow Wolves’ business today, as in times past, patience and persistence are as important as tracking ability. It requires a methodical and painstaking approach to ferret out footfalls, 36 inches at a time. Success requires constant vigilance with eyes to the ground, eyes on the horizon, and eyes in the back of their heads.
Both sites have very interesting information on methods of tracking and using google for "Shadow Wolves" will give you several other hits.

Squink
11-22-2004, 09:32 PM
On ground transmissions:
Elephants May "Talk" Via Vibrations (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/07/0701_020702_elephantvibes.html) A researcher from California went to Namibia, Africa, last month to check on the vibes elephants put out and pick up. She theorizes that by making the ground rumble, the 6-ton (5,400-kilogram) animals are able to communicate over distances upwards of 20 miles (32 kilometers).

samclem
11-22-2004, 09:52 PM
On ground transmissions:
Elephants May "Talk" Via Vibrations (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/07/0701_020702_elephantvibes.html)

Obviously, an Indian Elephant. ;)

The_Llama
11-23-2004, 01:03 AM
Well, there was the Indian who put his ear to the ground, and when he got up told his cowboy friend "Buffalo come" to which the amazed cowboy asks "How the hell do you know that?" The Indian replies " Ear stick to ground."

danceswithcats
11-23-2004, 01:29 AM
Well, there was the Indian who put his ear to the ground, and when he got up told his cowboy friend "Buffalo come" to which the amazed cowboy asks "How the hell do you know that?" The Indian replies " Ear stick to ground."

Way rude-but also hellaciously funny! :D

Tammi Terrell
11-23-2004, 09:31 PM
As for the specific image of a Native American putting his ear to the ground (with or without determining the distance and approach of an enemy or a herd of buffalo), that’s certainly older than Hollywood:

From, United States War Department. “Railroad Line East from White Clay Creek.” In: Reports of Explorations and Surveys, To Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Washington, DC: A.O.P. Nicholson (Printer), 1855-1860. (Pg. 15)

[O]ur [Indian] guide related an incident which occurred to him a few years since in this pass, characteristic of the adventuresomeness of his own tribe, and of the war habits of his race.

He was traveling this pass at midnight, accompanied by his squaw only, both mounted upon the same horse, and the night so dark that he could neither see the outlines of the hills nor the ground at his horse’s feet, when he heard a sound, (which he imitated) so slight as scarcely to be perceptible to an Indian’s ear, of an arrow carried in the hand striking once only with a slight tick against a bow. Stopping, he could hear nothing, but instantly dismounted, his squaw leaning down upon the horse that she might by no possibility be seen, and placed his ear to the ground, when he heard the same sound repeated, but a few feet distant, and was therefore satisfied that, however imminent the danger, he had not been heard or seen, for no Indian would make such a noise at not in approaching his foe; he therefore instantly arose and took his horse by the bridle close to the mouth, to lessen the chance of his moving or whinnying, and one hundred and seventy of his deadly enemies, the Sioux, on a war party, filed past him within arm’s reach, while he remained unobserved.

And from Joseph Haven (1816-1874). Mental Philosophy: Including the Intellect, Sensibilities, and Will. Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1862. (pp. 73-74).

It is said that the Indian of the north-western prairies by applying his ear to the ground, will detect the approach of cavalry at a distance beyond the reach of vision, and distinguish their tread from that of a herd of buffaloes.

These accounts were, of course, written by white Americans, but they’re still early representations of a collective image we have of the American West in the 19th century. (I have no idea how widespread, routine, or accurate this practice may have been in fact, however.)

BTW it's interesting that the OED's first cite for the phrase 'keeping an ear to the ground' is 1920, which may suggest that the practice is pure Hollywood and originated in the silent Westerns.

Except that the OED cite you mention provides the first known use of “ear to the ground” in a figurative sense. (It’s like using “testing the waters” to see, for example, if you’ve got a chance to win an elected office.) As samclem points out, putting “an ear to the ground” (in the literal sense) dates back at least to the early 19th century.

-- Tammi Terrell

The_Llama
11-23-2004, 10:26 PM
Hey, I hate to use a movie reference, but it's kind of how the thread started... I just saw Hidalgo about the half Indian half White American who enters his Mustang in the greatest horse race in the world, held in the Arabian Desert. Anyway, when he used the trick, he stuck his knife into the ground, and listened to it to hear horses in the distance. I have no clue if this is truer, or if it was just a Hollywood trick to look more authentic, but it's just food for thought for this thread.

Si Amigo
11-23-2004, 11:01 PM
And then there was Jim Morrison: "With your ear down to the ground . . .I hear a very gential sound . . . very soft but very clear, very clear but not so far . . . We want the world and we want it . . . now. Now? NOW!!!