November is Native American History Month

by William Loren Katz on November 25, 2011

This October as many Americans celebrated “Columbus Day” men and women from more than half a dozen Native American nations marched to Zuccotti Square to voice support for “Occupy Wall Street.”  Invited to address the famous General Assembly, they linked their original experience with “colonialism and corporate greed” to OWS demands and current struggles of the world’s Indigenous people.

Roberto Borrero of the Taino people represented the first victims of foreign invasion, land seizure, greed, bigotry, slavery since in 1492 Columbus landed on what had been their “Turtle Island.” He and the other Indigenous men and women called on the General Assembly to end “Columbus Day” and to fight for the restoration of rights for Indigenous people.

Columbus had “discovered” a land inhabited by tens of millions of people. Native Americans were grouped in 600 large and small societies that spoke 500 distinct languages, and boasted some cultural structures as complex as any in Europe or Africa at the time. Early European explorers and settlers in the Americas depended on the skills and generosity of their Native hosts.
No early foreign settlement could have lasted without the cooperation of Native Nations. Indigenous people taught Europeans how to clear forests, plant and harvest crops, and how to survive in the new environment. The newcomers learned to use fish heads as fertilizers, build traps that snared game, and construct birch bark canoes for travel and fishing. They were instructed about what animals offered the best food or skins for clothing and shelter. They were warned about dangerous animals and poisons.

Twenty major agricultural products and 40 minor ones were introduced to the world by Native Americans. Almost half the world’s crops were first grown by Indians. In addition to the staples of corn and potatoes, there were tomatoes, pumpkins, pineapples, sweet potatoes, manioc, squash, beans, maple syrup and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Cotton now grown throughout the world is derived from a Native American species.

From Native Americans, Europeans learned how to make and use canoes, snowshoes, moccasins, dogsleds, hammocks and smoking pipes. Indians taught the newcomers the uses of the rubber ball, central to most of today’s athletic contests. Europeans were shown new ways of creating crafts, jewelry and preserving leather.

Native Americans also introduced new ideas to the newcomers about psychology, medicine, diplomatic negotiations and the care of environment. European philosophers studied Indian concepts of freedom, self-discipline and commitment to community. The white settlers listened, but did not always learn. John Collier, a white scholar who lived for years with southwestern Indians, said of their spirit: “Could we make it our own, there would be an eternally inexhaustible earth and a forever lasting peace.”

Native Americans were tolerant of new ideas and people and welcomed the first Europeans despite their odd and greedy ways. They quickly saw Europeans had enslaved African people just as earlier they enslaved Native people. Therefore they welcomed the African newcomers to their villages and often depended on their skills and understanding of the common enemy. They saw no need to face the European invaders alone, and the invaders always seemed to be marching westward into new Native lands.

Photo: A Native American delegation at Occupy Wall Street on Columbus Day 2011. The group included a descendant of the Taino people who encountered Columbus in 1492.

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