American Indian Civilization: Ten Things You Might Not Know

American Indian

Some little-known facts about the American Indian and their contributions to American life. You may be surprised at what you learn. – Photo of Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy Chiefs, 1871

On this holiday let us change the focus of the day to the First Nations, the American Indian, the people who suffered the most as a result of Columbus’ voyages to the new world. The first tribe he discovered, the Arawak, paid a terrible price for wearing gold jewelry and decorations. Columbus was sure that he had found a land of untold treasure. He was correct, of course, but he valued the wrong things. Gold and jewels are pretty but they won’t help you if you are hungry or cold, if you don’t know how to live with the land. The early settlers to these shores learned that the hard way. And for helping them, the Natives were slaughtered: between 1500 and 1900, a population of about 12 million on two continents was reduced to around 250,000. But let’s leave that horrible story for another time.

Instead, let’s look at some things that most non-Indian Americans don’t know about the influence of American Indian cultures on our own. For example, did you know that the Inuit invented the kayak? Here are ten more things you may not know…

Unsung gifts from American Indian cultures

◙ Twenty-six of our states’ names have their origin in American Indian words. The natives of these states probably know about the origin of their state’s name but it’s likely the rest of us do not:

Alabama – From a name of a local tribe, may have come from alba amo, which means “to clear brush.”
Alaska – From Alaxsxix, Aleut for “place the sea crashes against.”
Arizona – From alishonag, meaning “little spring.”
Arkansas – The name of the Quapaw Indian village, Acansa, means “southern place.
Connecticut – From Quinnitukqut, the name for the Connecticut River. It means “long river.”
Dakota – From the tribal name of the Dakota Sioux, meaning “the allies.”
Illinois – From the local Illini tribe. Illiniwek means “best people.”
Iowa – From Ayuhwa, a name for the Oiway tribe. It means “sleepy ones.”
KansasKansa is the name of the local tribe. It is short for “people of the south wind.”
Kentucky – From the Iroquois Kentake, meaning “meadow.”
Massachusetts – “By the hills,” from the Wampanoag, Massachuset.
Michigan – From the Potawatomi name for Lake Michigan, Mshigem or Misigami, meaning “great lake.”
Minnesota – From a Dakota Sioux word, Mnisota, which means “cloudy water.”
Mississippi – Comes from the Ojibwe, Misiziibi, meaning “great river” or “Father of Waters.”
Missouri – Named for the local tribe, the Missouria. Known as the “big canoe people.”
Nebraska – From the Omaha-Ponca and Otoe for “flat river,” Nibthaska.
New Mexico – Is, of course, named for Mexico. Nahuatl means “the city of the Aztecs.”
Ohio – From the Seneca name for the Ohio River, Ohiyo, which means “it is beautiful.”
Oklahoma – A name for the state of the “Red people” from the Choctaw, okla homma.
Oregon – A transplant from the Algonquian brought by settlers. It may mean “beautiful water.”
Tennessee – From the Cherokee, Tanasi, the name of a town in that region. May also be a name of a chief.
Texas Taysha is from the Caddo language and means, “friend.”
Utah – Named for the Ute tribe, local to the area. It means simply, “people.”
Wisconsin – From the Ojibwe, Wishkonsing, their name for the Wisconsin River. It has no specific meaning.
Wyoming – From the Lenape, Chwewamink, meaning “by the big river flat.” A transplant from Pennsylvania.

◙ Much of the food we now eat came from the American Indians. Really! Over 62% of all the food we eat today was originally developed by North and South American Indian people. Corn, of course, but also beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, wild rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, avocados, papayas, artichokes, peanuts, nut oils, maple syrup, persimmon, cucumber, cranberries, melons, chewing gum, mint and chocolate. Pemmican, a kind of jerky, was made from any kind of meat. Movies wouldn’t be the same without popcorn – thank the American Indians.

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◙ The seal of the Six-Nations of the Iroquois was the model for the Great Seal of the United States and their constitution was a model for our own. The eagle in the Six-Nations seal was holding 6 arrows in its talon, which was changed to 13 by Congress. The arrows are symbolic of the Great Law of Peace, which defines the functions of the Grand Council of the Nations. The Constitution of the 5 Nations – the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas – was adopted in August of 1142. When the Tuscaroras joined later, it became the 6 Nations. The Iroquois chiefs were invited to the Continental Congress in June of 1776 to speak about their confederacy, expressing the hope that ours would follow in their footsteps. They also gave John Hancock the name Karanduawn, meaning “Great Tree.”

◙ American Indian cultures discovered oil long before the Europeans did. Oil from tar pits, and from pockets which seeped from the ground, was filtered through oil or clay. The Seneca would use it for ceremonial fires and to make a petroleum jelly-like skin lotion. The Chumash collected asphalt from the La Brea tar pits and would use it to trade for goods with other California tribes. It was used to caulk canoes, to seal baskets used to contain water and as a glue for spear and arrow points.

American Indian languages alive today

◙ The Cherokee alphabet, which is really a syllabary, was created in the early 19th century. Each symbol represents a syllable, rather than just a letter. The syllabary is written nowadays in chart form, with vowels in a column along the top and consonants and consonant combinations in a row along the left side, like so:


Cherokee is a southern dialect of the Iroquois language. It was put down in symbol form by Chief Sequoyah between 1809 and 1824. Beginning with logograms, which he decided were too cumbersome, Sequoyah devised a series of symbols based on combining Latin letters and Arabic numerals. The syllabary was used by the Cherokee for 100 years or so, with books (including the Bible), newspapers and almanacs published using the system. It is still in use, as many Cherokee are trying to preserve and revive it in schools and universities.

◙ American Indian sign language — also known as hand talk — was in use across the continent when the Europeans arrived. It was so widespread because it served as a common language among the tribes, who had about 40 dialects and languages. It was also used within tribes as an alternative form of communication and as the primary language for the deaf. Modern sign language was heavily influenced by its American Indian predecessor. You can learn more about American Indian sign language by following the link at the start of this paragraph.

◙ The sport of Lacrosse was created by American Indian tribes and was observed both in Virginia and east of the Mississippi. The earliest description of a similar game is from 1689 in An Account of the American Indians in Virginia by (we think) John Clayton, a minister at Jamestown. But it was a game that the French watched Great Lakes tribes play with a stick — which they called a lacrosse — that is virtually the same as the game we play today. The stick with a basket at the end was developed by the tribes of the Mississippi plains, the Great Lakes area and all the way up to Manitoba. It varied in size and curvature according to the tribe. The balls were made of hide filled with animal hair or moss, though some tribes used wooden balls (ouch!). The playing field was any open area and could be up to a mile in length, with up to hundreds of players on it at once. The game was much like we know it today, if a bit more violent. It was not unknown for limbs to be broken and even fatalities to occur. The American Indian players did not wear protective gear. Lacrosse was played for fun, as a social interaction, but was sometimes a way to settle arguments or territorial disputes. Every tribe had a myth about how the gods created the game and, to them, the ball was symbolic of the sun.

Two-spirit people was the term over 155 American Indian tribes used for gay members of their societies. The name came from the belief that gay people carried two spirits within. They were seen as visionaries, healers, care-givers and were revered by their tribes. In some tribes, if a child was thought to be of two spirits, a ritual was performed to decide which way to raise him or her in which a choice had to be made between the masculine bow & arrow and the feminine baskets. A boy who chose baskets was known as “berdache.” In others, a singing circle was held and it was observed in which fashion the child danced — male or female. The two-spirit person was believed to be powerful and were often called on to learn healing, mediation, dream interpretation and other shamanic disciplines. Some would become singers, storytellers and keepers of the tribal wisdom. The American Indian acceptance of two-spirit people was unquestioned… until the Europeans came along and brought their prejudice with them. It is only recently that two-spirit people are regaining their position in American Indian culture.

American Indians in the military

◙ More American Indian men serve in the United States Military per capita than any other race or ethnic group. Going back as far as the Revolutionary War, American Indians have fought with distinction for this country. Many tribes fought in the War of 1812 and for both sides in the Civil War. The Indian Scouts were established as a branch of the Army in 1866 and they served in the West until the 1900s, participating in General John J. Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa and with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The unit was disbanded in 1947 after the last member retired. In WWII, approximately 44,00 American Indians served out of a total population of 350,000. They have continued to serve in the U.S. military at proportionately higher numbers than any other group.

◙ One of the greatest ways American Indian soldiers served in WWII was as “Code talkers.” These Navajo Marines took part in every Pacific assault from 1942 to 1945, in all units. But the thing they did best was send messages that confounded the Axis powers. The idea was presented by Philip Johnson, the son of missionaries who was raised on the Navajo reservation. While Choctaw had been used for some codes in WWI, this unit of Navajo soldiers created a code that was never cracked. They did most of their work in the Pacific theater, where the Japanese were completely flummoxed by their language. The code talkers went unrecognized for a long time because their language remained a classified code long after WWII ended. Finally, on September 17, 1992, they were officially recognized and honored at the Pentagon where a permanent exhibit about them is part of the building tour.


The influence of American Indian culture on our own is much larger than most people realize. When the Europeans came and began to “civilize” the tribes, we lost a lot of knowledge and wisdom. Luckily, much of it was kept by the tribes, even as they were forced to adopt the European lifestyle. We are now bringing that wisdom back out into the light and sharing it with everyone. The ecology movement of the 1970s drew upon the American Indian belief that the Earth is sacred and that we are its caretakers. Many liberals were deeply influenced by this philosophy, which includes the ideas of sustainability and conservation. There is still much to learn from American Indians and we are happy to share. Wado.

A quick note about terminology. As a descendent of Cherokee/Choctaw and Chiracahua Apache peoples, I have always tried to use the preferred term for the family of tribes in this country. I thought, like most people, that “Native American” was that term. But, in doing more research into my heritage, I found that “American Indian” is preferable. And while “Indian” is a reminder of where early explorers thought they had landed, it’s pretty much unavoidable. It’s best to use the individual tribe’s name wherever possible. But, if not, most of us don’t have a big problem with “Indian” as long as our home continent is added.