For many of us, our understanding of Native American history ends up a bit simplified. We hit a few major milestones in our history courses, bounce through some examples from entertainment (for better or worse), then watch it fade into the background without it impacting our lives.
But we’re missing so much! The umbrella term “Native American” refers to an immensely diverse history of Indigenous peoples who lived everywhere from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America over tens of thousands of years. And while that’s a far more complex history than can fit in a single month’s worth of attention, we can start expanding our perception by considering just a few of the lasting contributions Native Americans have made to society.
|Checks and Balances: Brian McKenna, anthropology professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn explains that when the thirteen colonies were fighting, Onondaga leader Canassatego encouraged them to set boundaries to distribute power. He shared the Iroquois Great Law of Peace as an example on how to set checks and balances. In fact, Benjamin Franklin invited the Iroquois Grand Council of Chiefs to speak to the Continental Congress in 1776 to give advice.|
|Corn: Author and historian Patrick J. Kigler reminds us that corn was carefully cultivated by Indigenous peoples from wild grass into an edible crop 10,000 years ago. Later, Native Americans taught Europeans how to grow it. And it’s far from the only food source adapted from the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. From Peruvian potatoes to chocolate from the Mayans to staple crops like beans and squash, Kigler estimates that 60 percent of our foods originated from Native American origins.|
|Kayaks: Designed by the Inuit of the Arctic, kayaks—small, narrow boats with a sealed cockpit—were originally built using wood or whale bone frames covered by animal hides. Today, “the design is still essentially the same,” says Dr. Gaetanna De Gennaro, supervisory specialist at New York’s National Museum of the American Indian and member of the Tohono O’odahm tribe.|
|Snow Goggles: The Inuit are also who we can thank for the predecessor to today’s sunglasses. They used goggles made from wood, bone, antler, or leather to prevent overexposure to sunlight as it reflected off the snow. De Gennaro says, “They’d put a slit in there, to simulate the way that you can squint. It cut down on the ultraviolet rays that got into the eyes.”|
|Raised-Bed Agriculture: Mentioned in Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield’s book, American Indian Contributions to the World, Indigenous peoples from South and Central America made advancements in enriching soil for use in raised garden plots. Called “chinampas” and used in lakes or on swampy land, this technique is a forerunner to today’s raised-bed vegetable farming.|
|Topical Pain Relievers: Keoke and Porterfield reference a range of anesthetics and topical pain relievers in their book: jimson weed ground into a plaster for use on abrasions, capsaicin from hot peppers for topical pain relief, and teas brewed from American black willow bark which contains the chemical salicin, an active ingredient in modern aspirin.|
|Syringes: While the technology didn’t appear in European nations until the 1850s, Native Americans used syringes fashioned from animal bladders and hollow bird bones to inject medicines into the body.|
|When it comes to managing the impact humans have on our planet and the mounting effects of climate change, Professor McKenna says the Iroquois have some advice: “The Iroquois have the seventh generation principle, which dictates that decisions that are made today should lead to protecting the land for seven generations into the future.”|
Take Away: If your understanding has been narrow, this year’s Native American Heritage Month is the perfect time to begin expanding your perspective. As Dr. De Gennaro says, “People don’t realize the ingenuity or the knowledge that native people had, and continue to have about the world around them.”