To The American Indian
By CHIEF MARK LITTLE BEAR
We humans have an ‘amazing ability to twist facts and distort the truth until it fits — or, at least, seems to fit — our pet theories. As the saying goes, we sometimes blind ourselves until "we can’t see the forest for the trees." Which is unfortunate because, the truth is usually deeper, and richer and far more exciting than the cut and dried stories around which we build so many legends.
For example, consider the myth that the white folks have about how our ancestors brought civilization to this continent from Europe. That particular fairy tale would have us believe that the white pioneers conquered an unmapped wilderness and introduced a superior concept of agriculture, government and justice to the savage and ignorant Indians that settlers found here.
Which makes a fair-to-middlin’ story, of course, but the truth is a lot more interesting... because it just happens that those pioneer ancestors of ours and the folks who stayed in Europe all learned a great deal more from the American Indian than the Indian learned from them.
To get right back to the beginning, there wasn’t much real "conquering of the wilderness" done by those early white settlers. In both North and South America, the white man moved west on Indian trails. . . some of which had been blazed centuries before Columbus set sail for the New World. The Indians also taught the white man how to stalk and snare wild game, gather food plants and grow, harvest and prepare crops that he had never seen before. Even our white-biased history books mention a few of the thousands of times that Indians fed, adopted and otherwise saved colonists, pioneers, and explorers when the going got too rough for the white man.
Few of us realize the tremendous impact made upon the rest of the world by food, fiber and other crops developed by the American Indian. "Irish" potatoes, "Turkish" tobacco and "Egyptian" cotton, you know, were all introduced to civilization by the Indians — as were sweet potatoes, corn, tomatoes, beans, peanuts, pumpkins and chocolate.
One of the crops changed the course of history when the white man found that a family that starved on four acres of wheat could thrive on one acre of potatoes. The multiplication of farm wealth dramatically raised the standard of living in Europe and the British Isles and laid the foundation for a vast expansion of commerce and industry. Even today, in this country, four out of every seven dollars earned by agriculture is earned on a crop developed by the American Indian.
Having those seven dollars instead of only three is important in far more than just an economic sense. Without the Indian gifts to American and world agriculture, we all might still be scrimping along at the level of permanent semi-starvation that blighted the spirit of Europe so severely (remember feudalism, serfdom and debtors’ prison?) right up until the discovery of the New World.
In the field of medicine, it’s interesting to note that all our millions of dollars spent on modern research have not yet turned up one medicinal herb that wasn’t already known to those so called "ignorant" Indians — quinine, cocaine, witch hazel, oil of wintergreen, even a primitive form of penicillin — and hundreds of other natural medicines were discovered and used by the red man long before the first white doctor landed on these shores.
And did you know that the United States Constitution owes more to the Iroquois Confederacy— with its suffrage for both women and men —than it owes to any earlier document written by white men? In fact, even the democratic councils or town meetings for which New England is famous were first organized under the guidance of that same Iroquois Confederacy.
Benjamin Franklin freely admitted that he lifted much of his "original" wisdom directly from the American Indian and Thomas Jefferson often stated that the concept behind the Declaration of Independence and first Bill of Rights were based on the teachings of the red man.
Nor should we forget that the sports of pre-Columbian Europe were primarily concerned with killing or the practice of killing: jousting with and without armor and the slaughter of stages, bears. "Sportsmen," in fact, in its European sense; is used to denote someone who kills for pleasure rather than for food or profit.
The South American Indian, of course, helped to change all that on Columbus’ second voyage to the New World, when they introduced him to rubber balls and the games that could be played with bouncing toys. Thus began the white man’s preoccupation with relatively bloodless group sports and team play that eventually evolved into football, soccer, baseball, basketball, tennis and other related games.
And let us not forget that "ignorant," "primitive," Indians invented the tepee (only the most practical and most comfortable tent ever devised), moccasins canoes, hammocks, packbaskets, trampolines, toboggans, snowshoes, and a whole host of other things that our society now calls its own.
And let us not forget that — in the Europe that Columbus came from — bathing was considered a sinful indulgence. The "dirty" savages he discovered here so shocked Queen Isabella by their often repeated engagement in the practice that she instructed her "civilizing" agents to order the Indians "not to bathe as frequently as hitherto."
Yes, sir, sometimes we just can’t see the forest for the trees. I think it was an Indian who said that.
United Eastern Lenape Nation
Adopted Tribal Peoples
By Chief Mark Little Bear
Rt. 1, Box 22
Winfield, TN 37892
Phone (615) 569-4960
FNB Chronicle, Vol. 5, No. 3 – Spring 1994
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
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