Gifts from the Indians ; Native Americans Not Only Provided New Kinds of Food and Recreation, They May Have Given the Founding Fathers Ideas on How to Form a Government

By Case, Nancy Humphrey | The Christian Science Monitor, November 26, 2002 | Go to article overview

Gifts from the Indians ; Native Americans Not Only Provided New Kinds of Food and Recreation, They May Have Given the Founding Fathers Ideas on How to Form a Government


Case, Nancy Humphrey, The Christian Science Monitor


He'd been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold as a slave in Spain. Aided by friars, he'd escaped, spent two years in London, and finally made his way back to America. But when he walked into his Indian village of Patuxet in 1619, he found nothing but bones. His tribe had all died of disease.

But that was only the beginning of the story of Tisquantum, or Squanto, as he came to be called. He had learned to speak English during his ordeal. Now he was specially qualified to help the English settlers, who arrived in his homeland in 1620 and established Plymouth Colony. Squanto was an invaluable interpreter. He promoted peace between native peoples and the Pilgrims and taught the settlers the survival skills they needed to survive a second winter. He showed them what foods could be gathered or grown in the new land. The most important of these was corn.

In ancient times, native Americans had gathered the seeds of a wild grass and planted them. By saving seeds from the best plants and growing them the next year, they encouraged the formation of ears, or cobs, on the plants. Early corncobs were only a few inches long and had eight rows of kernels. Gradually (it took thousands of years), the ears of corn grew larger.

The corn Squanto taught the Pilgrims to grow gave such a plentiful harvest that the Pilgrims were amazed. Corn was far more productive than any cereal crop they knew. Today, corn is by far America's biggest and most valuable crop.

Corn - including popcorn - was eaten in the three days of Pilgrim and Indian feasting that we recall today as the first Thanksgiving. Squash, beans, fish, venison (deer meat), and various "fowls" (probably turkeys, ducks, and geese) were also on the menu. The feast, in fact, may have been the Indians' idea.

The Pilgrims, who had nearly starved their first winter, were thankful for the abundance of food. They were especially grateful for Squanto. William Bradford, governor of the small colony, wrote in his diary that Squanto was "a special instrument sent of God for [our] good."

As more Europeans came to America, they learned of other native foods from the Indians, including maple sugar, cranberries, clams, pecans, and persimmons, among many others.

But food wasn't the only thing native peoples contributed to today's American culture.

Not only food, but fun, too

Lots of things we use for outdoor fun were invented by native Americans. Kayaks were made by Eskimos for hunting seals and walruses. Made of skins stretched over a wooden or bone frame, these long, narrow boats (often 20 feet by 20 inches) were fast.

Canoes - popular all over North America - were expertly crafted of birch bark, animal hides, or other light materials. The Ojibwas of the Great Lakes used to race their canoes. They paddled standing up!

Snowshoes and toboggans were also designed by native Americans. Snowshoes let hunters jog over the deep snow for hours. A toboggan, with runners made of strips of bark that naturally curled up at one end, was a great way to haul their game home.

The Indians enjoyed games - especially one they called "ball play." The sport was hugely popular and played passionately by tribes all across North America. It was the forerunner of our game of lacrosse.

Teams that could include hundreds of men competed on a field that might be half a mile long. Some versions let players use two sticks, and several balls might be in play at once. It was a game of great skill, but also very rough. George Catlin, an artist who spent eight years living among Western tribes in the 1830s, observed "hundreds ... running together and leaping, actually over each other's heads, and darting between their adversary's legs, tripping and throwing and foiling each other in every possible manner."

Some scholars see another, much more profound Indian legacy in America's form of government. …

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