There Would Be No Fourth of July Without the Iroquois Nation
What We Owe the Aboriginal People of the Americas: A Debt That Cannot Be Repaid
Aboriginal people in the Americas have made tremendous contributions to the rest of the world. When I delivered the two-hour presentation my book is based on, I titled the first section “Indian Givers,” also the title of a book by anthropologist Jack Weatherford. The first slide listed titles of the five-part presentation I would be giving. If I was presenting to an Aboriginal audience, I would hear groans when people started filing into the room.
The Indian givers concept has taken on a negative connotation over the years. “Indian givers” usually refers to someone giving something and then taking it back. I would tell my Aboriginal audiences, “By the time I am finished my presentation you will be very proud to be an Indian giver.” I also encouraged them to change the language we use to describe ourselves.
Etymologist David Wilton says the concept of an “Indian gift” arose when newcomers misinterpreted the Aboriginal practice of bartering: “To an Indian, the giving of gifts was an extension of this system of trade and a gift was expected to be reciprocated with something of equal value. Europeans, upon encountering this practice, misunderstood it, considering it uncouth and impolite. To them, trade was conducted with money and gifts were freely given with nothing expected in return. So this Aboriginal practice got a bad reputation among the white colonists of North America and the term eventually became a playground insult.”
Aboriginal people gave the world gifts of many everyday things we now take for granted. Once you know the many contributions of Aboriginal people, you will realize the genius of our Aboriginal ancestors.
* * *
The following is from Bev Sellars’s Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival, available from Talon Books in August.
Aboriginal people have been here for thousands of years. Artifacts found at our community heritage site in Soda Creek, British Columbia, date back four thousand years. Artifacts found in other parts of the Americas date back a lot longer than that.
When the newcomers first came from Europe, the population in the Americas were solid, secure, and strong, with Aboriginal people occupying the land from the North Pole to the tip of South America. Some estimates put the number of Aboriginal people in the North, Central, and South America between 90 to 112.5 million. Each Aboriginal group, from the Inuit in what today is Nunavut to the Yaghan in Terra del Fuego, had strict, formal forms of conduct that governed every aspect of their lives. Births, deaths, marriages, land titles, songs, dances, conflicts, and all personal conduct were governed by sacred ceremonies that had existed for thousands of years.
Before Contact, Aboriginal society depended on an economy for the most part that comes from the land, plants that grow on the land, animals that walk on the land, and fish that swim in the waters. Over thousands of years of occupation in the Americas, we developed a wealth of cultural intelligence about the land. When the newcomers came to the Americas, we freely and generously shared what we know of the land to help them adapt to their new life here.
Today people around the world enjoy foods, languages, and medicines without being aware of their origin. Aboriginal people have contributed to the world economy, introduced new sports, improved transportation, strengthened military strategy and government, and inspired art and architecture.
Two of our most significant contributions are silver and gold. The mountain with the richest silver ore deposit ever discovered is Potosí, perched in the Bolivian Mountains of South America. When I went to Lima, Peru, in 2013 and met with Aboriginal people from ten South American countries as part of the Latin American Observatory of Mining Conflicts (OCTAL by its initials in Spanish), the Aboriginal people from Bolivia knew exactly which mountain I was asking about. It was a treat to speak with Aboriginal people who knew the history and could share their stories with me. Some claim they could have built a bridge across the ocean from South America to Spain with the silver extracted from Potosí. The Aboriginal people of Mexico’s Guanajuato and Zacatecas, two other silver mines of historic significance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, would share similar stories, I’m sure. The silver that originated in their resource-rich territories was traded not only in Europe but in Ming Dynasty China, inspiring trade routes around the world.
Gold was equally important. The Aboriginal peoples of South America had collected a wealth of golden treasure over centuries of mining and metallurgy. The first flood of new gold into Europe came as a result of the Spanish seizing the accumulated wealth of the Aztec in what is now Mexico, the Muisca in Colombia, and the Incas in Peru. Gold mining then became an obsession as newcomers tried to find El Dorado, the fabled land where, after the king bathed each morning, servants would adorn his body with gold dust until he shone like the sun.
In their pursuit of silver and gold, newcomers discovered many other riches, including new foods like corn, beans of all kinds, and squash. Aboriginal people introduced Europeans and the rest of the world to whole new families of foods: potatoes, tomatoes, green, yellow, and red peppers, zucchini, peanuts, pecans, pumpkins, artichokes, chocolate, avocados, vanilla, mint, curry, chilies, paprika, cranberries, maple syrup, wild rice, chewing gum, sunflower seeds, papaya, and more. This bounty of food crops were taken to Europe from the Americas and they changed world cuisine forever.
With the introduction of the potato and other American crops, the European population exploded. Before Contact all empires in Europe, from Greece and Rome to Persia and Egypt, had based success on their control of grain production. Situated in the warmer southern countries where it was easier to grow grain crops, these empires provided colder northern countries with food. Following the introduction of Aboriginal food crops such as the potato, northern countries such as Germany and Russia rose as world powers because they had gained a food supply independent from these warmer southern countries.
Other plant-based contributions from the Americas had equally significant economic consequence. Two– cotton and rubber – were essential to the Industrial Revolution. I would even go so far as to say that without the meeting of the two worlds there would have been no Industrial Revolution.
Thousands of years before Charles Goodyear patented the vulcanization process that made commercial rubber viable, Meso-American peoples used a similar process to transform latex from the native Castilla elastica tree into rubber goods for a variety of uses. MIT researchers show that Meso-Americans, a culture that flourished in what is now Mexico and Central America from at least 2000 BCE. Written records of the Spanish conquistadors indicate that these Aboriginal people wore rubber footwear. Archaeologists have found rubber balls, rubber bindings to tie a stone axe head to its wooden handle, moulded rubber figurines, and evidence of rubber adhesives.
When rubber was first encountered by the newcomers, the Europeans viewed the material as a curiosity but quickly forgot it in their search for gold, silver, tobacco, and other profitable products. With the Industrial Revolution two centuries later, rubber became important for everything from hoses, belts, matting, flooring, footwear, all the way to pencil erasers. Think of all that would not exist if we did not have rubber. Eventually newcomers started rubber plantations in other parts of the world and its use spread, especially with the twentieth-century invention of the automobile and bicycle and their use of rubber tires. Even though the rubber tree is native to South America and experimentation with latex from its sap was developed by Aboriginals before Contact, the reason Charles Goodyear gets credit for the invention of rubber is that in 1844 he registered with the U.S. Patent Office the vulcanization process that makes rubber more durable.
Cotton from the Americas also brought important economic change during the Industrial Revolution. The large supply of raw cotton available from the Americas transformed European society. Manufacture of machines for spinning threads and weaving cotton into fabric began an industrialization process in Europe that over time developed factories for other goods that attracted rural workers into urban centres, increased mobility, liberated them from class structures, and improved health and well being. Cotton for clothing improved health around the world because they now had a regular change of clothing.
In addition, the “dirty Indians” of the Americas showed Europeans the benefits of sweats or bathhouses. The Spanish were horrified when they first arrived to see the Aboriginal people bathing on a regular basis. The Spanish believed that disturbing body oils by washing would allow sickness in, and so they bathed on a very limited basis and wore perfume to cover up the smell of their unwashed bodies.
Plants with medicinal effects are other important Aboriginal contributions. When Jacques Cartier and his men reached the shores of the Americas in 1535, they were very sick with scurvy, a sickness developed because of lack of vitamin C. It is well documented that the Aboriginal people knew of this disease and showed Cartier how to cure himself and his men with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) decocted by boiling winter leaves and the bark from the white spruce tree.
Aboriginal peoples have always used the natural world to cure illnesses, and many of the medicines, ointments, and salves we use today originally came from Aboriginal people. Aboriginal peoples still gather and use these medicines. Many of our people make the yearly pilgrimage in the spring to gather pitch from certain trees for medicine. We boil it and make a liquid drink; we make an ointment used for burns, cuts, and other skin abrasions, and we use a certain type of pitch as a chewing gum. All have great healing attributes.
For example, several years ago, it seemed everywhere I looked rosehip extract was being advertised. At the time I thought, “Wow, someone has discovered a new product.” I was impressed and determined to try these rosehips so I bought some as part of a vitamin supplement. A while later I went to a community event at Sugar Cane, a neighbouring Aboriginal village, where an elderly lady, Roberta “Birdie” Gilbert, had her usual table full of plants and medicines that she collected on an annual basis. I went over to say hi to Birdie. On one table she had displayed something I knew in our Secwepemc language as Sekwew – but Birdie’s sign read “Rosehips.” I had been eating Sekwew all my life and knew the medicinal qualities of the berry. Dried, we used it to make tea; fresh, we ate the skin of the berries because of its nice flavour. I knew not to eat the seeds because as the elders warned us, “It will make your bum itchy!” I told Birdie, “That’s what rosehips are? Rosehips are Sekwew?” I told Birdie my little story and we both laughed at my ignorance.
After Contact Aboriginal people shared our knowledge of these and other plant-based cures with the newcomers. In fact, by 1820, the United States Pharmacopeia listed more than two hundred medicine and drugs supplied by Aboriginal people. Researchers today are still collecting medicines used by Aboriginal people. These newcomers may have renamed some of the plants and marketed them under new names, but all of the plants were already in use by the Aboriginal peoples.
Unfortunately, the Aboriginal people had no medicines for diseases the newcomers brought with them. From the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, when forts and fur trading posts were established across North America, Aboriginal people came into close contact with the newcomers and epidemics of smallpox and other diseases ravaged Aboriginal populations.
In our area, the Cariboo region of British Columbia, first Contact took place 1793, when Alexander Mackenzie trekked through our territory on the way to the sea, that Secwepemc people had first contact. When Simon Fraser explored our territory in 1808, we established trade relations with him and the North West Company he represented. Later we supplied Fort Alexandria, built on the Upper Fraser River in 1821, with salmon, meat, berries, roots, and pitch for repairing canoes. In eastern North America, Aboriginal people supplied the forts with corn, maple sugar, wild rice, buffalo meat, and buffalo robes.
Without the initial help and the sharing nature of the Aboriginal people, the newcomers would never have survived. Most Europeans had never hunted. English citizens in particular could not go out and kill the King or Queen’s venison. Everything in the kingdom belonged to the Royals, who hunted for sport and not survival. A commoner in Europe caught hunting faced severe punishment. When the newcomers got to the Americas, the Aboriginal skill and accuracy in hunting must have astounded them. Newcomers relied heavily on Aboriginal hunting skills.
The men at Fort Simpson, a fur trading post established in 1831 by the Hudson’s Bay Company in Tsimshian territory near the mouth of the Nass River in British Columbia, totally depended on food provisions from Aboriginal people in that area. A notation in one of the Fort Simpson journals read: “If the Indians don’t stop celebrating soon we will starve to death.” I am assuming it was potlatch season and the Aboriginal people were otherwise occupied taking care of their own affairs in the business and government matters dealt with through the potlatch ceremony.
Even though the newcomers had food all around them in the form of plants, seafood, birds, and other bigger animals, they had no knowledge of how to get it. At Fort Alexandria on the Upper Fraser, a journal entry states: “When the Fort men ran out of food they ate their horses and, in one case, all they had left was an old bull. They killed it for food until the Indians had time to hunt or fish for them.”
Aboriginal people not only supplied necessary provisions but also guided newcomers through the new land. Without help from Aboriginals who knew their territory because successive generations had walked the land, named its plants, rocks, and animals, looked after it, and collectively owned it, Simon Fraser and other explorers would never have found trails they followed to “discover” the continent without Aboriginal people showing where to find them. Trail networks across the continent were well-maintained as trade routes to every part of the American continents. The only time newcomers would have had to break new trail would have been when they did not have an Aboriginal guide to lead them on well-laid out paths. Nevertheless, newcomer culture believes the myth, perpetuated by popular TV shows like Daniel Boone, that, “When we came here this was a savage land and we tamed it with our bare hands.”
History books refer or name only a few Aboriginal guides, even though we know we played a major role in helping newcomers safely find their way. One Aboriginal guide is well-known, however: sixteen-year-old Sacagawea, who accompanied Lewis and Clark east to west from May 1804 to September 1806. Sacagawea helped Lewis and Clark find their way, I assume, by communicating with Aboriginals along the way using hand gestures and sign language; she could not have known all the diverse languages she met along the way. Aboriginal peoples speak many different languages and so used a universal sign language to ease trade and communication between nations. In my territory, sign language was a necessary part of our culture and was used extensively during trade with other nations.
The newcomers had no names for the new sights they saw in the Americas so used traditional names of the Aboriginal people. Some of these names are moose, caribou, raccoon, opossum, chipmunk, barracuda, cougar, puma, jaguar, skunk, shark, wigwam, parka, poncho, toboggan, canoe, and tomahawk. Even weather descriptions such as hurricane, chinook, and blizzard come from Aboriginal languages.
Many of the place names we have today also come from the Aboriginal languages. The original name for Kamloops in our nation was Te’Kemlups but the newcomers could not properly pronounce it and so the Anglicized version became accepted. On Vancouver Island, Nanaimo was originally Snuneymuxw. In Nova Scotia, Shubenacadie is the Anglicized version of a Mi’kmaq word and Pictou is from the Mi’kmaq word Piktook. In Ontario, Mississauga is named for the nation of the Mississaugas and Toronto originated as the Mohawk phrase tkaronto, meaning “where there are trees standing in the water.” Place names across the Americas originated in languages of the Aboriginal people who first lived there. A few other examples are Nunavut, Yukon, Ontario, Ottawa, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Arizona, Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kentucky. Heritage Canada runs an amusing Heritage Minute on TV every now and again of how Canada got its name, derived from the Iroquoian word kanata meaning “village.”
It is estimated that the English language now contains about 2,200 words taken directly from the Aboriginal languages of America. The word caucus is an Aboriginal word and, again, did not come into the English language until the newcomers came to the Americas. The word may derive from the Algonquian cawaassough, meaning an advisor, talker, or orator, and was first used in Boston, Massachusetts, in the early part of the eighteenth century. Words such as utopia (1551), anarchism (1640s), socialism (1837), communism (1843), and other social forms entered the English language only after Europeans came to the Americas. The talking stick and the notion that only one person be allowed to talk at once with everyone respectfully listening knowing they too will get a chance to talk comes from the Aboriginal peoples.
When the Europeans came to the Americas and witnessed the talking stick and the individual freedom it represents, the newcomers began to envision new forms of political life and a more egalitarian way of living. Equal democracy and liberty as we know it today did not originate in European societies. Individual freedom in Europe was unknown because ordinary people were considered subjects of kings, queens, and tsars.
In contrast to the European rulers, American Aboriginal people did not “belong” to their leaders. The leaders, in most nations, were many and did not have special privileges despite their responsibilities. Aboriginal chiefs and leaders had to earn their positions by proving their merit and accomplishments to their people. Hereditary chiefs were trained almost from birth to assume their role as leaders of their people. Chiefs were selected for a certain skill such as hunting, warring, dancing, or other skills. The Aboriginal laws made sure everyone had equal opportunity and also had consequences for the ones who did not work as hard or were quarrelsome. Even though Aboriginal people did not have a monopoly on freedom and individuality, they did achieve the highest cultural development of them and that eventually spread to other countries.
Aboriginal governments in the Americas were well established long before the newcomers arrived. The United States of America developed its Constitution based on the Iroquois Confederacy traditions. When the newcomer thirteen colonies were trying to put together a government they did not know how. These people were not royalty from their countries and forming a new government was a challenge. It was Benjamin Franklin and others who studied the Aboriginal governments of the Americas suggested a government like the Iroquois Confederacy. The end result was that the newcomers took from the Iroquois and came up with their own constitution. Obviously it has been changed over the years but if you look at the U.S. Constitution and the Iroquois Confederacy, it is very similar in many ways. Bill Clinton and George Bush, when they were presidents, thanked the Iroquois for contributing to the formation of the United States Constitution. One has to wonder how many other countries took forms of government from the United States and were indirectly influenced by the Iroquois or other Aboriginal governments. Other political traditions adopted from Aboriginal people are used worldwide today.
Of course giving credit where it is due is hard for those who want to believe the myth that the Aboriginal nations were waiting on the shores for someone to come and rescue them from their plight. I challenge that view with this glimpse into the contributions of Aboriginal people. My guarantee to you is that the more you research the more you will realize how much the world has adopted Aboriginal culture. It may have been added to or altered, but without the original contribution many of the things that exist today would not have spread around the world.
Consciousness is now rising and many of the traditional ways of Aboriginal people are being embraced. Just as Columbus did not “discover” America because millions of Aboriginal people already lived here, the historical wisdom of the Aboriginal people is now only being explored and “discovered” by non-Aboriginals.
It grieves me to think of how much we have lost. Instead of trying to quash centuries-old civilizations, traditions, and beliefs, think how much better the world would be if we had combined all the best parts of our collective wisdom gained over the centuries. I think of the Aboriginal philosophers, the historians, the medicine men, the healers, and all other Indigenous leaders whose knowledge and wisdom is now diminished because of the attempt to totally obliterate Aboriginal cultures.
Feature image: The Trial of Red Jacket, John Mix Stanley, 1869.