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.
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.
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.
– 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
– EducationWorld.com : Celebrate Native American Hertiage Activities & Lesson Plans