November is Native American Heritage Month, a special opportunity to honor the original inhabitants of this land. Not only were the first Americans stewards of our land and its resources, but they created many inventions still in use today. Here are a few that have significantly impacted modern life and, without which, our experience living in the U.S. may be drastically different.
What started naturally as wild teosinte grass in Mesoamerica was cultivated and hybridized by Native Americans through intentional pollination and cross-breeding. Over the course of centuries, what we know as corn spread up through Mexico and across North America. Anthropologists believe that the earliest Native Americans to cultivate corn were Pueblo tribes in the southwest around 1,200 BCE.
Ubiquitous in Colorado during the spring and summer, the kayak was originally created by the Inuit tribes in the Arctic. Boats were designed with a sealed-off hull to keep the paddler safe and dry, should the boat capsize. Inuit builders used sealskin and other animal hides, however, the body design hasn’t changed much at all from the original style.
This device is ubiquitous in the medical industry, used in backcountry first-aid kits to hospitals and everything in between. Indigenous people in the Americas created syringes by using hollowed-out aviary bones and dispensed liquid by connecting these to animal bladders, filled with various liquids. These early syringes were used to irrigate wounds, clean ears, and inject medication.
Native Americans paved the way for the modern-day pain relief we use. Medicinal plants, like willow bark and jimson weed, and plant by-products, like capsaicin, were ingested as antiinflammatories and pain relievers. Now, holistic healers in the United States frequently turn to these native practices instead of enlisting over-the-counter items like aspirin.
The oral birth control we use today in the U.S. is a relatively new invention based on centuries old practices of the original inhabitants of North, Central, and South America. Plant-based practices for preventing conception have been around for at least two centuries. Native Americans often used dogbane and stoneseed as a means to lessen the likelihood of becoming pregnant. While these medicines are not as effective as modern-day contraception, they are still utilized as alternatives for women who can’t tolerate hormonal birth control options.
It’s difficult to highlight the contributions of Native American communities without also bringing up the violence, forced assimilation, and displacement that almost every Native American community experienced at the hands of settler expansion and occupation. While our country continues to reckon with this past and seek ways to repair injustices, we as individuals do our part in a few ways.
We can learn about Native American history from the individuals who experienced this history, follow and support Native American creators, participate in cultural education opportunities, avoid appropriating Native culture, and talk about the past with accurate language that depicts the theft and genocide that took place on the native land we live on. Here’s a list of Indigenous American Activists to follow in an effort to learn and grow. Additionally, here are informative accounts created by Native American individuals that share history, culture, and new ways of thinking that support equal power: @blk.native, @changingwomxn, @illuminative, @naethrowsheavyrocks, @impact, and @nativewomenswilderness.
Along the Front Range, there are numerous nonprofits partnering with Native American communities to celebrate cultures, protect Native languages, and advocate for change in systems that actively oppress indigenous communities. Check out Spirit of the Sun and the National Colorado Intertribal Powwow Association.