Naked But Not Afraid: Why Millennials Are Learning Primitive Skills

This summer, Earth Knack— a school highlighted in this week's feature article, "Doug Hill Is Defending the (Modern) Caveman With Primitive Skills Classes" — teamed up with Arvada-based Sarqit Outdoor Learning School for a weekend-long gathering at Happy Dog Ranch south of Chatfield State Park, where primitive-skills instructors came together to learn from each other and teach dozens of students, a mix of seasoned veterans with wilderness training and millennials searching for answers.

Earth Knack founder Robin Blankenship stood on the Littleton prairie, flanked by her son and another instructor, both in their late twenties. They looked over instructors’ campsites, at teepees and other structures made of canvas and tree trunks. Smiling and nearly giddy, Blankenship spoke about the positive impacts of being outside in nature, noting how her skin has evolved to experience the wind instead of fluorescent lighting and temperature-controlled rooms, and how her eyes are constantly having to adjust to different depths in the field instead of staring at a computer screen all day.

Her business has evolved, too. She founded Earth Knack in 1990, but interest in primitive skills has surged in the past few years. More and more young people started coming to her classes, and “pretty soon everyone was in buckskin and they were all there and the drumming was going on all night again, finally.... It was a resurgence of young energy,” she said.

Just as she did with Doug Hill, she continues to take on young protégés. Jillian and Sam Liebl both did internships with Blankenship, and today the husband-and-wife team are instructors and event coordinators for Earth Knack; they were part of the team at Happy Dog Ranch.

Twenty-five-year-old Jillian is from the Midwest; the first time she went camping was when she was nineteen. While “proselytizing” to students, she tells them that they don’t have to be born into a naturalistic lifestyle. It may not happen overnight, but skills like basket-weaving are ingrained in us, she said, and the motions involved just need to be brought out, as she learned firsthand.

She and Sam incorporate a primitive lifestyle into their modern one simply because “it feels good,” she explains, adding that she prefers living close to the earth to “seeing nature as a wallpaper or a playground.” At the same time, though, she’s a millennial and doesn’t deny “that phones and technology are important, especially if you want to teach classes and have people come and be able to make a living.”

The couple is using modern tools to get people more interested in learning primitive skills. This summer, they teamed up with New Belgium brewery to put on a monthlong event called Naked But Not Afraid, offering weekly basic survival classes for five dollars a class in Frisco. They’ve also been talking to a Salida bar owner who wants the couple to offer a fire-by-friction class at the bar and then put on a wild-foods dinner cooked over the fire they started. While they accept that a lot of people aren’t going to want to spend days tanning hides or carving bows, the couple feels that if they can teach people a few primitive skills over a couple of beers one night, they’ve brought them that much closer to nature.

Like many millennial instructors, Sam once thought about growing up to be a writer or lawyer. Instead, he teaches people how to make hide shorts and which wild plants to eat. Unlike Jillian, Sam got hooked on nature early, when his grandparents bought him a book called Why Not Eat Insects? and his grandmother introduced him to batter-fried grasshoppers, which gave him the idea that he could walk out the door and eat wild food. That got him wondering whether he could make a living off the land — and whether he could teach others how to do the same.

Sam thinks the “old-timers” practicing primitive skills see it more as a hobby, while “our generation of millennials, we’re looking for an alternative.”

He also thinks they’re challenging the Leave No Trace movement of the 1970s, which was designed to get people to enjoy nature and leave with nothing except a picture. That’s a concept that doesn’t fit with the primitive-skills lifestyle, he notes, since it discourages any real connection with nature, separating humans from it as though we weren’t animals on the earth, too.