Meet Jim Robertson, teacher of the Old Ways

Jim Robertson is a practitioner and teacher of the survival skills of Native Americans that have become largely lost and forgotten. He teaches to school children in the Santa Monica Mountains through the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority in association with the National Park Service and the Topanga Canyon Docents in association with the California State Parks. He often attends Rabbit Stick and Winter Count. He frequently demonstrates fire-skills and trap-making at the classes of the School of Self-reliance.

On a recent Saturday morning, Robertson was demonstrating the use of the Piute deadfall, a method used not just by the Piute, but widely among the Native Americans, for capturing small game.

The hard part is the trigger mechanism, which supports a large rock or log. Once the class is gathered around, Robertson shows how the various pieces are made. There is one vertical piece, whose top is chiseled. Another diagonal piece pivots on top of the vertical twig, roughly the size of a pencil. So far so good. Robertson shows how the pieces are to work. The rock will be held up by the diagonal piece of wood, which is held in place by a string tied to its lower end, to which a small toggle is tied. The toggle wraps around the vertical piece. And then there is a long bait stick that holds the toggle in place, which is pressed against the rock.

If that sounds very complicated, well, it is! Yet, millenia of Native Americans used this method, and several variations of it, to capture the small game that comprised the bulk of their meals.

Robertson is concentrated and intense as he demonstrates how to secure the large flat rock in place above the trigger mechanism.

“It has to be just-so,” explains Robertson. “Too secure and it won’t topple when an animals eats the bait. Too loose and it will fall in the wind.” After a few attempts, Robertson shows how it’s done, and each student gets to try.

Everyone likes to learn how to use these primitive traps, there are many that Robertson teaches. However, he always emphasizes that he does not actually set any traps up with students, since these devices are often illegal. “The one exception to this is a genuine survival situation,” explains Robertson. Still, he does not condone causing unnecessary suffering of any animals due to poor worksmanship with the snares and traps.
“Do your practice with stuffed animal toys,” suggests Robertson.
“When I am practicing all-out survival in an area where it is legal to use dead fall traps, the killing of wildlife is still kept to the bare minimum because I regard the animals as a part of our family and, as with all life, they deserve the utmost respect, reverence, and consideration,” says Robertson.

As a young child, Robertson would sometimes sneak out of the house before dawn for a full day of adventure and not return until after dusk, to the consternation of his parents, though he thinks his father was secretly pleased.

“As I got a little older, my many natural athletic abilities and pursuit of a professional baseball career kept me kind of distracted from my beloved wild lands until I sustained a strange, painful, life altering illness,” explains Robertson. “The illness forced him to slow down, and to re-evaluate his life. One of his new priorities was to get back into the wild more often.

“It was here, in the wild, that mother nature performed its healing magic on me, in its own time, at its own pace, teaching me the quiet lessons necessary for me to grow and move on. It was largely due to this powerful illness and healing experience that I felt compelled to become a naturalist, environmentalist, aboriginal skills, wilderness/survival instructor,” explains Robertson with a big infectious grin.

For six months in 1970, Robertson lived in a large tent in a hidden little canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains. “An old high school buddy of mine owned the land and he loved the idea of me living on his wild, raw land. I absolutely loved living there, “ explains Robertson. “The outdoor showers were phenomenal, the rattlesnakes were friendly as were the deer, rabbits and quail. The nightly music of the great horned owl, crickets and frogs was majestic as they lulled me to sleep at night.”

Robertson had no phone, television, or radio during this time, and would drive into town every few days to work on his insurance business. His tent living came to an end when he and his girlfriend returned from a five week trip to Europe, and found everything destroyed by the Santa Ana winds and the winter rains.

Robertson said that the only downside to this camping experience was that occasional curious hikers would stumble upon his place when they weren’t home and invite themselves in to our living quarters, burning incense, etc. He said this was disconcerting and that ironically he sometimes felt safer in the city than we did in the wild. “Regardless,” says Robertson, “the whole experience was among the best in my life!”

Robertson can be reached through Aboriginal Skills, at or (310) 395-0943. You can also check his Facebook.

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