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
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
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
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. …