Native Communication

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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!”

Inca Road
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Learn more about the Chaskis – Inka Teachers Guide
Learn more about the Chaski Runners

The Winter Count
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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. 

Get up close to a Winter Count Calendar

Horse Cavalry
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Lakota paint symbols used in “Dances With Wolves” explanation

Buffalo hunting scene from Dances with Wolves

People of the Horse, Native American Horse Culture Today

November E-News: Native American Science!

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In November, we celebrate change – in more ways than one! We’re already halfway through the fall season, and we still see and feel many changes: it begins to get just a little bit colder, almost every leaf has fallen to the ground, and everyone is anticipating the first snowfall. One thing that never changes throughout the year is the fun and excitement that learning brings! November is National American Indian Heritage Month. This month we investigate how science was used in the everyday lives of Native Americans all across our country. From astronomy to chemistry to meteorology, Native American’s incorporated science into their way of life & made their mark with scientific research that can still be used today. 

National American Indian Heritage Month celebrates and recognizes the accomplishments of the original inhabitants, explorers and settlers of the United States. In 1990, Congress chose the month of the November to recognize the American Indians as this month concluded the traditional harvest season and was generally a time of thanksgiving and celebration for the American Indians.

American Indians were very insightful people. Their scientific observation began with their established relationship with nature – used to teach them the importance of scientific concepts like astronomy, geology, biology, chemistry and even physics. American Indian knowledge and inventions sprung from hunches or intuitions, rather than modern day scientific observation which involves rigorous and systematic study.  Many of the foods we eat and the medicines or remedies we use were introduced by Indians. Here are a few of the ground breaking contributions that Native Americans gave to the future of modern day science. 


American Indians were very careful scientists. They learned important facts about objects in the sky and used them to tell time, to predict the changes of the seasons, and to use maps. Today, American Indian scientists help us learn more about the sky and galaxy. In fact, Native Americans have known for thousands of years that there was a black hole located through the center of the bowl in the big dipper. NASA discovered it just a few years ago.

John Herrington – Astronaut


American Indians knew that the world was round long before Europeans ever did. For example, this is reflected in the Lakota Creation Story. The first four beings – Inyan (rock), Maka (earth), Taku Skan Skan (sky), and Wi (sun) are all round because roundness is the most sacred state. The inclusion of this information in such an ancient story shows that the Lakota have known that the Earth is round for many thousands of years.

Dr. Robin Kimmerer – Plant Ecologist


Maize is a popular food, and it is well known that it was a gift to the rest of the world from the Native Americans.  What is not commonly known is that corn is the result of one of the most amazing plant breeding accomplishments in the history of the world. Maize is the result of many years of cultivation and domestication of a wild grass known as teosinte. Arturo Warman, a maize historian, has called maize “a thoroughly cultural artifact, in that it is truly a human invention, a species that does not exist naturally in the wild and can only survive if sown and protected by humans.” It is also believed that the domestication of maize is directly related to the rise of civilization in Mesoamerica. Since the days when it was given to Columbus, maize has affected everything from land use, to food production, to cuisine, and to population growth around the world.

Dr. David R. Burgess – Biologist


Another amazing fact about corn is that the Native Americans used alkaline substances to remove the hard exterior of corn once it hardened. Once corn dries, the outer edge of it becomes lignified. This means that the cells around the center of the corn kernel become tightly latticed, like the weaving of a basket. Native Americans were able to use the alkaline substances to soften the corn and make it edible again. Often, certain kinds of corn were kept hard so that the people could make foods like popcorn from them.

The Native American tribes who live in areas where there are cedar trees have always known to throw cedar on a fire during a thunderstorm. Grandmothers and Mothers would throw pieces of cedar on the fire when lightning was near, because they knew that cedar warded off lightning. What is the value of this in the world of Chemistry? Because cedar wood has a negative charge, it repels lightning; therefore, throwing cedar into the fire reduced the risk that lightning would strike the area where the people were. Native Americans have had a practical understanding of Chemistry since long before the science itself was developed.

Dr. Jani Ingram  Chemist

Many pharmaceutical drugs that are commonly used today come from our Native American ancestors. Their extensive knowledge of medicinal plants has contributed to present-day medicines that include salicin. Willow contains salicin, which is acetyl salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. They used complex pain killers long before aspirin was developed by modern science. Native Americans would boil a tea or chew the willow leaves or inner bark. The leaves and inner bark contain the medicinal extract, which helped relieve minor pain from headaches, joint pain, and toothaches. The same way aspirin is used today. The willow is often given the nickname ‘toothache tree’. Over 200 medical drugs and their source can be linked back to Native Americans for their use of healing plants.

Without written records, historians must work backward from oral traditions preserved in written form or dissect physical remains to uncover many of the purposes or reasoning of their ancient scientific discovery. Native Americans have made scientific contributions in every area of endeavor and affected many aspects of modern day American life. All of these contributions came from incredibly insightful Native Americans that learned about the world around them, not from the internet but from actually living in it.  

Additional Resources:

– For a full database full of Native Americans & their contribution to the world of science, check out the SACNAS.  The SACNAS celebrates both the traditional  knowledge and (Western) science contributions of Native Americans to the nation’s scientific endeavor.

– Think About it Thursday: Did Native Americans Use Science?

– The Law Library of Congress : Native American Heritage Month

– : Celebrate Native American Hertiage Activities & Lesson Plans