If a time machine dropped you into the Americas in 1491, what would you find? A vast, empty continent roamed by small bands of people, fighting to survive? No way! Both North and South America before the arrival of Columbus played host to very large urban civilizations, powerful militaries, huge agricultural economies, and an impressive diversity of religions, languages and art styles. Amazing feats of engineering were the norm in this world as people from Tierra Del Fuego to Baffin Bay carved out their lifestyles in wildly different ecological regions. You might have seen evidence of this ingenuity in things like the Igloo, or the Tipi, but have you ever heard of the Inka Roads, or the floating city of Tenochtitlan? Whether they were living in a huge empire or a small tribal nation, Native American people had to be creative in the ways they stored, spread, and communicated the information that each group needed to survive. Let’s examine some Native American communication techniques that go WAY beyond the stereotypical “smoke signals!”
Despite 770,000 square miles of terrain that encompassed the
highest, snowy Andes, the Amazon rainforest, Pacific Ocean beaches and several
fierce deserts, the massive 12 million strong Inca Empire innovated one of the
most rapid and efficient messaging systems in the premodern world! It relied on
a specially trained team of expert marathon runners to relay the messages that
were vital to the management of the huge empire. Chaskis were elite endurance athletes
trained from childhood to run fast on some of the toughest high-altitude
terrain on earth. Chaskis passed
messages anywhere along 25,000 miles of
specially designed Inca Roads.
They ran several miles at a sprint until they reached the next Chaski
station. There they would pass the
message and the next runner would be off like the wind. Chaskis took their job very seriously and
knew that if they were found to pass an incorrect message, they would be thrown
off a cliff. Running their non-stop,
high speed relay race, they could pass a message from Ecuador to Chile in one
week, an amazingly fast result for the world before electronic
Large-scale empires like the Inca needed to know exactly
what was happening in every corner of their massive territory and had the
resources to train and support thousands of Chaskis for all their communication
needs. But what about smaller scale
societies, especially nomadic ones that moved around a lot? Sometimes there is a stereotype that small
scale groups like the Natives of the North American Plains were in such a
struggle for survival that they did not have time for things like technology,
history, and philosophy, but this is not true.
The Sioux had a system of recording and communicating their history that
suited their needs perfectly: The Winter Count.
In the Sioux world, years were not counted from Dec.-Jan.
but measured from first snowfall to the next year’s first snowfall. At the end of the year, elders met to decide
what was the most important event of the year past; that event would forever
name and define the year. A special
member of the group would design a pictograph representing the event and add it
to a special hide that showed each year’s pictographs in succession. Some of these Winter Count hides ran over 100
years and could be constantly renewed by painting on fresh hide when the old
one decayed. The keeper of the Winter
Count also served as the group’s historian, using the winter count to tell
stories of what happened each year, keeping the group connected to their past
and able to learn more about themselves for the future. The Winter Count hide itself was easily
portable and made of simple materials, making it a perfect technological fit
for the highly mobile the Plains Natives.
Because of their speed, agility, strategy and the general ability to rain down death from any angle while on the back of a speeding horse, North American Plains Natives are considered some of the finest horse cavalry fighters in world history, second only to the Mongols. We may be familiar with Plains Natives’ incredible fighting style from movies, but movies do not capture the deep and respectful relationship with horses that marks Plains Native life to this day. You may have seen Native horses in movies covered in paint and symbols, but did you know these symbols function like a language, communicating messages about both horse and rider at the speed of a gallop? Different Plains Native groups have different interpretations, but to the Lakota Sioux, things like horseshoe shapes or a drawing of a buffalo indicated the riders’ success in previous battles, horse raids, and hunts, and things like a patch of color with dots or a handprint indicated the horse itself was experienced in battles, raids and hunts, all at a glance for friends and enemies alike to see. In a world where mobility in the grass sea was key to survival, and horses were as dear as human relatives, the visual language of horse paint was an important expression of identity and status. Plains Native Tribes are frequently misunderstood as primitive, when in fact their way of life was often a finely calibrated and highly considered relationship with nature and each other that had evolved to fit the challenging ecological niche they occupied.