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Walk Like A Warrior

What Do I Mean?

In reading contemporary historical accounts written by soldiers (cavalry and dragoon), settlers, scouts, pioneers, and other citizens of the American frontier in the 1680s-1880s, I find mention that Native Americans (“Indians” or “Savages” in the accounts) did not walk like “white men.” Their gait, stride, and foot placement is often described in poetic terms such as “light” or “light-footed,” “fleet”, “gliding”, and often times “springy” or “spring-like.” These terms, while descriptive of the effect, do little to tell us the how or why of their gait.

Clues In History

We can find clues in the accounts given by trackers in any of the myriad “Indian Wars” or skirmishes that riddled the continent in the first few centuries spanning the settling of North America. The telltale barefoot imprint or the soft impression of a moccasin was often a giveaway that the tracker was on the trail of a Native American, but this became less reliable as more and more Anglo backwoodsmen adopted this footwear.

But there are a few accounts that mention how one could distinguish a Native American warrior’s imprint from the tracks of an Anglo by carefully inspecting the strides of the tracks. Incidentally, the strides discussed were not used exclusively by the warrior caste, but by all people of a given tribe. However, it might have been of particular value to a warrior. The key, it seems, was in the direction of the stride.

Self-Experiment Time

Try this: Stand up right now wherever you are and go for a brief walk. A mere 10-12 steps will do it. While walking, look at your feet. If you are like the vast majority of human beings you walk with the toes pointed slightly out to the side.

Now stand-stock still. Look down at your feet. Chances are you stand with your feet in this same “toes out” position. According to our trackers, the Native warrior’s imprint had zero toe-out orientation. In fact, the toes pointed in the direction of the walk.

Is this “following the toe” orientation a genetic quirk of Native American skeletal structure? An artifact of primarily living barefoot or moccasined? Or is it simply a cognitive choice? We’ll come back to these questions.

Weight Distribution

When Anglos take a step the heel lands first, followed by a rocking forward motion toward the inside ball of the foot, leading to a push off for the next step.

The Native warrior’s track, however, sees little heel imprint at all. Instead, their imprint favors the balls of their feet and/or the whole sole of the foot landing as a single unit (as if they were treating their foot like a natural snowshoe).

In Native American tracks the imprints of the ball of the foot become deeper because the calves are actively engaged to push to the next step rather than rocking into it. In essence, the balls of the feet are the 1st to make contact and the last to leave the earth with each step as you “follow the toe” with each stride forward.

If you experiment with this stride you will find that it does lend itself to such descriptors as light, gliding, and springy. One can easily imagine such a stride being extraordinarily useful for stalking, but it seems this stride was the default for Native Americans. Yes, it was used for stalking and skulking (war scenarios), but it was also in everyday life by young and old; men, women, and children alike.

Again, this begs the question: Was this a skeletal quirk? An artifact of not using hard-soled footwear over their lifespans? By choice? Bear with me, we’re almost there.

Contemporary Accounts

The contemporary accounts I mentioned, whether they be of the tribes of the Eastern woodlands, the Plains Indians, or the bands of the Southwest, often discuss incidents of remarkable endurance demonstrated by Native Americans on the move. There are many, many stories of the seemingly infinite stamina of the Native Americans relayed both admiringly and sometimes begrudgingly in military accounts from soldiers forced to face them in war.

We’ll discuss the interesting running “training” tactics used by various tribes another day, but today we’ll keep it slow and stay with the walk. And here I will paraphrase two accounts that I believe answer the questions we’ve been asking this whole time. I believe that these accounts will demonstrate that the aforementioned stride is one of conscious choice.

The Remarkable Ely S. Parker

General Ulysses S. Grant had under his command a Seneca Indian by the name of Ely S. Parker. A remarkable man who, despite being the subject of unforgivable intolerance by many, served the United States with honor, represented Native Americans with aplomb, and earned the respect of General Grant. Mr. Parker’s life deserves many words, but for now we’ll allow one anecdote to suffice as it pertains to the topic at hand.

Mr. Parker served as an engineer under Grant during the Civil War where there were often long marches through the “Wilderness.” After many days and many miles of this slogging trek, the Anglo soldiers were rightfully fatigued. Mr. Parker went to Grant and asked if he might make a suggestion to which General Grant replied “Take command.”

Parker instructed the soldiers to alter their stride from the “toes-out” position to the “following the toe” position. He offered a few words on placement, but the main crux of his instruction was that following the toes engaged more muscles in the feet and distributed the workload more equally. Mighty interesting. Here we have a Native American warrior who also happens to be an engineer who is able to articulate exactly how and why such an alteration in stride might be of value.

The moral of this particular anecdote, according to the accounts that mention it, is that the trek through the “Wilderness” was recommenced and the soldiers relayed back that they were far more refreshed and better able to bear the workload with this different method of locomotion.

So far it seems there is more than enough evidence to at least experiment with this stride, but let’s add one more piece to the “conscious choice” evidence column.

Walking Uphill

When moving uphill, Anglo tracks do not deviate from the toes-out orientation, whereas the Native American tracks abandon their “follow the toe” stride. What we find instead is a “toes-in” stride. When walking, hiking, loping up hill, Native warriors (and tribe members in general) adopted a slight pigeon-toed gait. I find this mentioned in many accounts with seldom a mention as to why…

But, then in an obscure passage we find a nameless warrior instructing an Anglo (who had adopted moccasins) to toe-in while following him up a slope.

“Why?” the Anglo asked.

“So that you don’t slip. You can grip with the feet.”

Final Thoughts

In barefoot self-experiment I find that there does indeed seem to be better traction with the toes-in method when scrambling uphill. Over the course of a few months of consciously working these techniques, I stand convinced that the “follow the toes” on flat ground and “toes-in” when going uphill are mighty useful adaptations.

Initially they call for more work from the calves that have grown used to a lifetime of heel-landing and rocking to the toes. Following the toes has let me know how long my calves have actually been dormant.

Now, whether you try the self-experiments or not is up to you, but I think we must all acknowledge that the conscious effort to make everything more efficient including our mere walking strides is a mighty thought-provoking exercise in ingenuity. What other bit of obviousness might we all be blind to?

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94 thoughts on “Walk Like A Warrior”

  1. When I ran cross country my coach told us to run on the balls of our feet because it was more efficient. This is just another example of that.

  2. My brother has always walked a little bit “pigeon toed”, we always called it. He was also the best runner throughout school. Maybe there’s a connection.

  3. Thanks for the great tips, I have never heard of these ways to walk, or should I say, the proper way to place your foot, while walking. I will try to incorporate these tips on my daily walk. Thanks

  4. Thank you for sharing this with us, this is not the first time I have encountered the information about “following the toe”, nor having the ball of the foot land first. Others have done similar studies in Africa, though the trick about pidgeon-toeing uphill is a new one.

  5. Extremely interesting topic! It’s on;y reading your short article that it dawned on me that my martial arts master actually walk with a ‘lifting’ stride! He simply says it strengthens the legs but I suppose it must be the same story as your Native Indians. Though they may not have the scientific reasons they know it works. Thanks so much for sharing. For me it a new world that I will explore thoroughly. indebted to you for changing and improving my walking!

  6. Very. True, the way Indians walk is the right way! Most people do not walk correctly .Check the heel of your shoe, if you are walking toe straight the wait on heel will be in the center, not to the side!. Learn to walk correctly, you will be glad later in life! R. R. Sorry for spelling!

  7. When I went through Escape & Evasion training in the military, my instructor told us that during the Vietnam war, Vietnamese trackers could easily follow downed airmen’s tracks. Had they (the airmen) taken off their boots and walked barefoot, they would have been much harder to track.

    On another point, as a long distance runner, the most efficient way to run is through this method. With the balls of the feet striking first and directly under the body’s center of gravity. If you were to land on your heels you impede forward momentum (loose energy) and wreck havoc on your joints in later years of life. Modern day “running” shoes have built-up heels to cushion the impact and this is exactly the opposite of what you want to have. For this reason, real athletes who run a lot have running shoes that have little or no cushion in the heel.

  8. I have no explanation, but I have walked like this for as long as I can remember. I have also noticed the toes out gait that most people use and have always found it rather odd. As for the uphill, I always use either toes in or both feet left or right depending on your direction going up the hill ( not always straight up ) and have never had difficulty getting” there”. Interesting article.

  9. It makes sense whereas the way we use our feet we get tired too quickly. And the way they use their’s and still do as far as I know they’re not fatigued as quickly.

  10. Todays Indians have other means of transportation, so I doubt they walk like their ancestors, but if any of you do a great deal of mountain hiking, you will find that grabbing the trail with all five toes will become natural and cause a slight turning in of the foot. Watch the “duck walking” flatlander that comes to the mountains to hunt, and he ain’t going far.

  11. Interesting reading, thank you, I have been conscious of my foot angle after a knee injury, good to know I’m in the right track, I’ll have to try the uphill approach

  12. Thanks for putting out this informative article. The method you describe is very similar to the ‘fox walking’ I learned at The Tracker school. In fox walking you lift your leg up instead of pushing off, which puts more pressure downward leaving a deeper track and can make more noise. With the body weight settled back with standing leg knee softly bent, the stepping foot acts as a sensor when placed gently on the outer soft ball and outer edge of foot place at a soft angle. As the foot roles inward it is sensing for sticks or noisy forest debris. Also detects for safe ground to walk on while keeping your soft eyes up and seeing just above the horizon using peripheral vision to detect movement while tracking. At any moment you should be able to freeze or lift your foot if the initial foot placement is not desirable due to a stick, unsafe ground, etc. As mentioned in the article, toes pointed in direction of travel. Your foot then roles inward until it is flat with heel. Next comes shifting your body weight forward. Your body glides forward. If someone were watching you, your head would be moving as if on a rail, not bobbing up and down. Repeat on the other side. This is the basic mechanical movement as I understand fox walking which is one method passed on by the first nations people. If you watch an African lion video closeup walking towards the camera, you will see this similar method of walking. Conventional shoeware is designed for our heels to land first. This took me a lot of intentional practice to reprogram from plantigrade walking. Practicing barefoot on sharp gravel teaches you pretty fast how to walk in these softer ways. Enjoy.

  13. I appreciate this article. I learned this as a boy. Although over the years I’m not totally in line as I used to be. Much of this was due to being in the Military. Even though I don’t fully walk following my toes anymore, I still at age 75, can out-walk many years younger people even in their 20’s. It’s such an efficient way of motion and takes much less effort equaling better endurance even at my age.

  14. Another benefit of walking toes-in becomes more obvious in higher growth, the higher the more obvious. When walking toe-in, your feet will push the high plants out to the side instead of cutting a single path instead of two parallel paths and having a bunch of plants between your legs. You are “cutting trail” by making only one set of tracks instead of two. Also, if the grass is wet, you tend to get more wet on the outside of the feet and legs than wiping a lot of water on the inside of feet and legs. This drier effect can extend clear to your crotch in really high grass if you walk like an Indian. So two benefits are: expending less energy by cutting a single path and keeping your legs dryer.

  15. very interesting article, My mother was a ballet dancer and it seems her feet were often pointed out even when running. and she could outrun me in a short sprint when I was playing high school football. It would be interesting to know what the Roman soldier’s toe orientation would be, thanks for the article.

  16. MY DAD DURING THE 1ST WW WAS TOLD BY A DOCTOR THAT HE WALKED IN THE PROPER MANNER SLIGHTLY PIGEON TOED.[MORAL] THEY KNEW ABOUT THIS WALK OVER 100 YEARS AGO. I ALSO BEING A KOREAN VET FOUND OUT IT WORKS

    DON KHUN

  17. My Dad, who ran traplines as part of his income, said to watch the Coyote’s gait when coverihg a long distance at speed. It’s a flat glide with essentially no up/down bounce. From that gait they can bounce up to look over brush.

    PS Back then Coyotes were rarely/never seen near civilization. True even in my young adulthood, and I’m 75. Calling changed that a little, but they came from long distances in that quick flat glide. Even then we had to be far from civilization to get them.

  18. A’s usual, excellent information.Thanks Mark.i am going to try to incorporate this these techniques.I do however use the lift my leg approach when walking.there are not many hills or inclines here but if I run into any I will remember the toe in method
    Thanks

  19. The native Americans who worked on high rise buildings were also noticed to walk toed in.
    Does follow the toe allow a more quiet step?

  20. Sounds interesting and will try it but you didn’t mention about down hill surfaces are they altered also or do we follow the same pattern as flat surfaces

  21. This is great. I was taught to sneak like this when I was 6 they called it “fox walking” but I don’t use it when not sneaking. I never thought it would help with anything else. I will have to make it a habit.

  22. I found this article very interesting because the Australian Aborigine walks the same way. It is easy to tell if the person you are tracking is an Aboriginal or a European, and it is in the toe-point.

    I have noticed that the peoples of the world seem to have a gait specific to their broader racial grouping.

    Asians, Middle Easterners, Europeans and Aborigines all have a recognisable track, even down to the length of the stride compared to the height of the person. I noticed that the natives of Papua New Guinea step shorter than Europeans, moving their legs more often and yet with greater security and traction on the slippery slopes of the tropical hills and mountains.

    I have always had an interest in tracking, I grew up in the Australian bush and tracking was part of life, a life skill that if you did not learn it you were at a detriment. By the time I enlisted in the Army I had learned that city people don’t track, and they don’t navigate on direction, rather on street signs. It was a mind-opening experience.

    We can learn a lot from people that the greater community would call primitive, for the primitive people can find water where a European would die of thirst and they can out-walk even long distance walkers, but at their pace. From the Australian bush to the rainforests of New Guinea I have found myself often asking the locals to slow down or let me catch my breath. They all walk with their feet parallel, this must be part of their secret.

    I have tried to emulate their styles, but in short order it hurts my hips. I am simply not designed to walk like this. I have tracked Western children, children who have lived mostly in bare feet and they still walk toe out. Toes parallel or toes out, it is more than just cultural.

    The “Indian walk” (Aboriginal walk) does seem to have many advantages, but it results in a total change of gait, running style and the distance over which people travel and how they do it.

    Thank you for a very interesting article, I have never had the privilage of tracking a Native American. On my one visit to the USA I never got off the beaten track, everywhere I went was dominated by tourism. I would love to hunt in your Black Hills or in the Rockies one day.

    Keep up the good work.

    Chris …

  23. WHEN I WAS YOUNG, AGE 10 MANY OF MY JEWISH FRIENDS HAD MUCH TO SAY ABOUT HOW PROUD THEY WERE OF THEIR FATHERS: I had no father, and mom worked late into the evening. I didn’t have much to be proud of. However I watched many westerns and I loved the Native Americans (Indians) because they loved the land and respected the life of the animals they used and hunted. I began watching them closely, and picked up their toe in stride long ago, as I heard it told on one story where the tracker, a Native American, spoke about how noisy the Angelo was in the forest, and how easy they were to track. I adopted the ‘Choctaw Indian tribe as my own, and told everyone my father was a Choctaw Indian, I became blood sisters with a Seminal girl that befriended me and Kathy and I were the talk of the 3-5th grade. Yes there is so much you can learn from other cultures, if we only took more interest in learning instead of belittling. I walk like a Native American, and I ride horses as well. The leaves don’t crunch under my feet in the forest.

  24. Interesting article! I will have to try that. I wonder if it might improve my balance any. It certainly couldn’t hurt to try!

  25. I started walking like an Indian when I was in the 5th grade. Non Indians walk with their feet pointing outward that I call a duck walk and it makes tracking a non Indian easy. Feet walking pointed outward is also a sign of weak ankles. Although Indians seem to walk almost pigion toed. I practiced the Indian walk every day coming home from school and looked at my tracks to make sure I was walking correctly until it became natural to me.

  26. I started walking like Indian when I was in the 5th grade. Non Indians walk with their feet pointing outward making it easy to track a non Indian. That walk so called a duck walk is easy to track. That so called walk is a sign of weak ankels. I practiced the Indian walk on my way home from school looking back st my tracks when possible to see if I was doing it correctly until it became natural.

  27. F.Y.I. I AM APACHE OF ARIZONA. AT MY AGE I STILL OUT WALK ALL MY CHILDREN. I WALK SLIGHTLY BOW-LEGGED AND NO TOES OUT.

  28. Interesting. My mom was half indian and the rest Irish/English. She and an older sister taught me to walk that way and why.
    Mom was from a tribe in Maine; The Penobscot People, and I never forgot the teaching.