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Forgotten Founders

During the years following the landing of the Pilgrims, American Indians contributed many foods to the diet of a growing number of Euro-Americans. By the twentieth century, almost half the world’s domesticated crops, including the staples — corn and white potatoes — were first cultivated by American Indians. Aside from turkey, corn, and white potatoes, Indians also contributed manoic, sweet potatoes, squash, peanuts, peppers, pumpkins, tomatoes, pineapples, the avocado, cacao (chocolate), chicle (a constituent of chewing gum), several varieties of beans, and at least seventy other domesticated food plants. Almost all the cotton grown in the United States was derived from varieties originally cultivated by Indians.

Rubber, too, was contributed by native Americans. Several American Indian medicines also came into use among Euro-Americans. These included quinine, laxatives, as well as several dozen other drugs and herbal medicines.

Euro-Americans adapted to their own needs many Indian articles of clothing and other artifacts such as hammocks, kayaks, canoes, moccasins, smoking pipes, dog sleds, and parkas. With the plants and artifacts came the Indian words used to describe them, and other features of what, to the Europeans, was a new land. Half the states in the United States of America today bear names first spoken among Indians; the thousands of words that entered English and other European languages from American Indian sources are too numerous even to list in this brief survey.

Assertions have also been made that Indian contributions helped shape Euro-American folk songs, locations for railroads and highways, ways of dying cloth, war tactics, and even bathing habits. The amount of communication from Indians to Euro-Americans was all the more surprising because Indians usually made no conscious effort to convert the colonists to their ways. While Euro-Americans often used trade and gift giving to introduce, and later sell, products of their cultures to Indians, Euro-American adoption of Indian artifacts, unlike some of those from Euro-Americans to Indians, was completely voluntary.

In the words of Max Savelle, scholar of the revolutionary period, Indian artifacts “were to contribute their own ingredients to the amalgam that was to be America’s civilization.” This influence was woven into the lives of Europeans in America despite the fact that Indians lacked organized means of propagation, but simply because they were useful and necessary to life in the New World.

Unlike the physical aspects of this amalgam, the intellectual contributions of American Indians to Euro-American culture have only lightly, and for the most part recently, been studied by a few historians, anthropologists, scholars of law, and others. Where physical artifacts may be traced more or less directly, the communication of ideas may, most often, only be inferred from those islands of knowledge remaining in written records. These written records are almost exclusively of Euro-American origin, and often leave blind spots that may be partly filled only by records based on Indian oral history.

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