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7 Ways Indigenous Nations Shaped America

The history of America cannot be considered complete without recognizing the contributions of Native Americans. As the historian A. Irving Hallowell wrote, Indigenous peoples introduced Europeans to “new food plants, new drugs, new dyes, tobacco, unheard-of languages, novel modes of life that provoked moral and political disputation and challenged the authority of old traditions, fresh subject matter for original themes in literature.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day was created in 1991 to acknowledge the contributions of Native Americans — and to replace Columbus Day, a controversial holiday which glosses over the cruelty committed by white European settlers on Idigenous peoples, including enslavement of the natives. In 2021, Indigeous Peoples’ Day is October 11. Here’s a look at just a few of the ways Indigenious peoples impacted American culture.

Powhatan and Patuxet: Aided in the Survival of Early Settlers

Painting of Settlers in Jamestown trading with Native Americans in a fort.
Credit: MPI via Getty Images

The survival of America’s first white settlements hinged on the knowledge of the native population. The settlers at Jamestown would have likely perished during the brutal winter of 1609-1610 were it not for the help of Powhatan captives, who managed 40 acres of maize. The same was true of the Mayflower pilgrims in Massachusetts, who learned how to plant corn thanks to the teachings of the famed Patuxent interpreter, Squanto. The settlers, however, did not return the favor, and continued to take more and more of the natives’ land.

Iroquois: Influenced Federal Power

Engraving showing the five Iroquois nations meeting.
Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Today, students are often taught that American democracy has its roots in ancient Rome or Greece. But the American republic also took cues from the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Philosophers like John Locke, whose writings influenced the creation of the United States, wrote with amazement about how the Confederacy vested power in people, not a monarch. Meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin wrote letters to the Iroqouis, seemingly calling out how people incorrectly viewed them as “ignorant savages,” and spent significant time learning about their federal-style government. In 1751, Franklin wrote, “It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such an union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.”

The idea that the American republic was influenced by the Iroquois can be polarizing, and is often over- or understated. Some argue that American democracy was copy-and-pasted from the Six Nations. Others argue that the Iroqouis had no influence at all. Most historians, however, occupy a middle ground. "It is a fairly important idea that a great many societies and networks influenced American constitutional thought, the Iroquois among them," historian Gautham Rao tells Politifact.

Pima: Developed Farm Irrigation

Aerial view of irrigation canal and agriculture above the Avra Valley in Marana, Arizona.
Credit: Tim Roberts Photography/ iStock

Without water, there can be no agriculture — and no civilization, for that matter. The Pima understood this challenge intimately. Around 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, the nation developed sophisticated irrigation systems across the arid deserts of Arizona, making the region habitable. (And establishing life in what is now Phoenix.) Those technologies paid off. Today, agriculture first cultivated by Native Americans makes up 60% of the world’s food supply, including pumpkins, cranberries, squash, pineapple, avocados, peanuts, and, of course, corn.

Plains Indians: Initiated Early Sign Language

1880 drawing of person displaying the sign for "sun" in Plains Indian Sign Language.
Credit: FLHC 1F / Alamy Stock Photo

Native Americans communicated through sign language centuries before the development of ASL. First recorded in the 1520s, the system — now called Plains Indian Sign Language — was used as a lingua franca by dozens of native nations across the American continent, including the Navajo, Cree, and Crow. The system allowed disparate tribes — many of which spoke completely foreign languages — to communicate and trade. While American Sign Language would later take inspiration from multiple language systems, the sign language developed by Native Americans remains one the world’s oldest and most widespread.

Algonquin: Created Lacrosse

Looking down on an orange Lacrosse ball in the pocket of a Lacrosse stick.
Credit: cmannphoto/ iStock

First played in southern Canada more than 200 years ago, early lacrosse games were a chaotic ballsport consisting of hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of participants at one time. When Europeans began settling on North America, some tribes used the game to win the newcomers’ trust. In 1763, the Ojibwa people of Michigan used lacrosse as a Trojan Horse. With the British troops watching in the audience, the native athletes slowly worked their way to Fort Michilimackinac, and once they got close enough, they took the fort.

Native Nations: Promoting Conservation

Two Navajo women wrapped in handwoven traditional blankets standing on cliff in Monument Valley
Credit: grandriver/ iStock

Writers often attribute the rise of the American conservation and environmental movement to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring. However, Native Americans have been promoting conservation since the beginning of time. In fact, some tribes, like the Anishinaabe, don’t have a word for “conservation” because, to them, it’s much more than a political philosophy — it’s simply a fact of life. A 2019 U.N. report found that land managed by Indigenous populations had stronger biodiversity than land managed through modern agricultural methods.

Native Nations: Shaped Modern-Day Words

Blank chat bubble pair sitting on blue background.
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You cannot drive around the United States or speak English without bumping into a Native American contribution. At least 26 state names have native origins, including Arkansas (“downstream people”), Mississippi (“great water”), and Ohio (“beautiful river”). English words that have native origins include "chipmunk," "hammock," "chocolate," "tequila," "canoe," and "opossum."