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What Did the Natives Ever Do For Us?
editorial by David M. Switzer
In Orson Scott Card's novel Pastwatch he asks the question: If you could change the past, what should you change -- if anything? Here's an alternate-reality scenario for you: What would have happened if the Native Americans had given deadly diseases to the Europeans instead of vice versa? You probably know that, in addition to being killed in wars, the Natives in the New World were killed by diseases that were brought over by the Europeans. You probably know that Natives generally acted in a very friendly manner towards the newcomers, at least until they realized what the Europeans intended to do to them and the land they had taken care of for millennia.
You probably know that Natives acted as guides when the Europeans were exploring the New World. You probably know that corn, otherwise known as maize, was a Native crop. If you're in Canada, you've probably seen the TV commercial that informs you that the name for our country comes from a Native word for village. But did you know that English contains about 2200 words taken directly from Native languages? Did you know that the Natives gave the early colonists food, and also taught them how to hunt and what crops to grow?
When the Europeans were exploring the New World, they encountered a lot of things that they'd never seen before. They used, and we still use, Native words for a wide variety of things. Animals such as moose, chipmunk, and jaguar. Trees such as hickory, mahogany, and mangrove. Foods such as squash, avocado, and tapioca. Topographical features such as bayou, savanna, and muskeg. Weather phenomena such as hurricane, chinook, and pogonip. English is an international language today, in part due to its revitalization from Native Americans.
When the early colonists were arriving in the New World, hunting was a sport practised by aristocrats in the Old World. Since the colonists were not aristocrats, they didn't know anything about hunting. Eventually the colonists learned how to hunt for food -- and they did it the way the Natives taught them. The Natives used techniques such as whistles, decoys, and camouflage. The colonists did know how to grow crops, but many of the crops they tried to grow didn't grow very well in the New World. Eventually they learned how to grow different crops that the Natives had been growing.
The fur trade played a very important role in North America for about three centuries. Native men and women did almost all of the trapping and processing of animals such as beaver, deer, and seal. The fur traders made a huge amount of profit, and this money financed the further settlement and development of the land. In the early nineteenth century John Jacob Astor's company had a monopoly on the fur trade in the United States. He was one of the world's first millionaires, and invested much of his money in New York -- which is one of the reasons why that city became so important in the twentieth century.
When you think of slaves you probably think of black slaves from Africa. But many Natives were enslaved as well, a practise started by Christopher Columbus and continued in various forms until 1924 when the United States finally gave all Native people citizenship and full constitutional rights. Columbus financed later expeditions by selling slaves he brought back from the New World. Slaves were sold in Europe, in the Caribbean, and within the New World. When colonists won their wars against Native tribes they often took slaves from the survivors. Slaves were used as farmers, domestic workers, sailors, soldiers, and miners.
Malaria still kills people today but there was no cure for it until it was brought to the New World and the Natives discovered that one of their medicines, Peruvian bark, cured it. The Europeans had no cure for scurvy until the Natives gave them one; then, of course, a European took the credit for discovering the cure. Natives had laxatives, emetics, astringents, and stimulants. They had a cure for amoebic dysentery, and a scalpel as sharp as steel. Many Native techniques and cures are still unknown today, and no doubt many have been lost. Likely around 90 per cent of Native Americans were killed in the first century after Europeans arrived in the New World. Despite their superior knowledge of medicine, the Natives were decimated by many diseases from the Old World that their immune systems didn't know how to deal with.
We are taught that our democratic ideas come from a long line of European thinkers going all the way back to ancient Athens. But Jack Weatherford argues that the European thinkers took more from Native Americans than ancient Greeks. Many people simply dismissed the Natives as savages, but others remarked upon their freedom from authoritarian rulers and institutions, a very different situation than anything they had in Europe. Soon after the European discovery of the New World people like Sir Thomas More were including Native ideas in their philosophical and political writings. The mingling of European and Native American ideas led eventually to modern notions of democracy, as well as other political theories.
So why was it that so many people saw the Natives as savages and didn't realize how advanced they were in areas such as politics, medicine, and farming? The Natives, especially in North America, generally didn't have the same markers of civilization that the Europeans were used to. Jack Weatherford puts it this way: "The continent did not speak to the newcomers because the civilizations of North America did not always speak in loud stone. They spoke in earth and wood, in fiber and textile, in bead and shell."
The many ways, voluntary and involuntary, in which the Native peoples helped the Europeans and the rest of the world is a huge debt on our part. A debt that has been largely unacknowledged much less repaid.
Jack Weatherford suggests that "the scramble of peoples and cultures in North America has created a cultural mixture that probably will not be repeated in world history until we encounter life on another planet." Hopefully by then we will have learned something from how things went the last time.
In my next editorial, I'll tell you about something else that the Natives can teach us today -- something crucial to the survival of our species.
Orson Scott Card, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. Tor, 1996.
Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. Crown, 1988.
Jack Weatherford, Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America. Fawcett Columbine, 1991.
David M. Switzer teaches Computer Science, but he also tries to teach his students about other things -- and he tries to learn from them as well. He's been reading a lot of stunning Canadian science fiction and fantasy lately -- for example, Julie E. Czerneda, Robert Charles Wilson, Phyllis Gotlieb, and Charles de Lint. His favourite card game is bid euchre, and he holds a bid euchre party at his house every few months.
Cover artist Dwayne Harris lives with his wife Amy and their two cats, Sinatra and Figaro, on the northern edge of the Ozark plateau. Although he is traditionally trained in oil painting, in 1995 Dwayne bought a computer and now works almost completely digitally, preferring the broader range of tools this medium offers to the artist. In his art Dwayne is fascinated with the idea of making the implausible seem highly possible, therefore his favorite subjects are usually Science Fiction and Fantasy. Dwayne has worked as an editorial cartoonist, an artist for a screen printing shop, a creative artist for a major newspaper, a web designer, and a freelance illustrator. More of Dwayne's work can be viewed here. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: July 2, 2010
Copyright © 2000 David M. Switzer