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post Indian Contributions to Modern Day Culture

June 29th, 2009

Filed under: Interviews & Articles — admin @ 7:05 pm

by W. St. Germain

You can’t watch a western like The High Chaparral without encountering an Indian sooner or later. This proud and free people had their lifestyles changed dramatically with the settlement of the West. Having said that it wouldn’t’t have been easy for the white settlers either, they certainly paved a path to the present. However this article will focus on the Indians and their contribution to modern society. While I agree that their lives changed, often for the worse, and their culture was affected all was not lost. Hardly a day passes that we don’t say at least one word that originated from an Indian language. We’d certainly have different diets without them.

John Cannon Learns Apache in The High Chaparral

John Cannon learns to speak Apache in this scene from Last 100 Miles

Okay, so what are some examples? Well, the word okay for a start! It is a casual term of approval or agreement. We often spell it as OK or O. K. but the proper spelling is Okay which, when you think about it, does have an Indian look to it. I was surprised to learn that over half of the states in America, 27 to be precise, have names directly associated with Indian tribes.  There are numerous Indian groups and all have fascinating stories.  The next passage briefly describes and names four Indian tribes which have American states named after them. After reading it, see if you can guess which states are named after which group.

There are several subdivisions of Sioux Indians; the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota though all consider themselves of the same culture. The different first letters are only a pronunciation modification. Sioux is the name they use when talking to non-Indian people. What we call Illini are in fact called the Illiniwek Indians of the American Midwest. One of five South-Western Siouan tribes, the Kaw Indians are another group whose name has been altered to Kansa for English speaking people.

Which state do you think is named after the Dakota tribe? What about the Illini, Kansa and Massachuset Indians?

Some states are not named after Indian tribes but after the ways in which Indians described the landscape. Can you match the names below with the descriptions given?

Indiana                        Alaska             Mississippi                   Wyoming

  • The Great Land
  • Father of Water
  • Land of the Indian
  • The Great Plain

John Cannon Learns speaks with Cochise in The High Chaparral

John Cannon speaks with Cochise in Apache in The Last 100 Miles

But what about other words? Not all English speaking people live in the US and yet they use Indian terms too. Numerous food and animal names are of Indian origin, far too many to cite here but I’d like to share a few. For example, I recently helped my son research cashews for a school assignment. We learned all kinds of interesting facts about this delicious nut. We discovered that in 2007 Vietnam was the world’s largest cashew exporter. In 2009 The Ivory Coast (Africa) was the world’s second largest but guess who the world’s FIRST cashew producers were? You’ve got it, the Indians (who also named them for us). One wonders what Vietnam and The Ivory Coast would have as their major exports were it not for the Indians.

Other yummies like strawberries, blueberries and of course maple syrup are often associated with North America so it might be less of a surprise to learn that we have the Indians to thank for cultivating those too. However, fruits like the persimmon, guava and pawpaw are often considered exotic imports – because these days, they are usually imported. But guess who we have to thank for naming and cultivating those items? Yes, you’re seeing a pattern here aren’t you? Persimmon was a particular surprise. For some reason, I always associated them with Jerusalem in Israel, largely because every time I watch a movie about Jesus he, or people around him, seem to be eating them. Funny how we make up our minds about things isn’t it?

Scene from The Hanging Offense, The High Chaparral

Buck and Mano go to the Apache camp to speak with Cochise in the scene from Hanging Offense

We often associate the humble potato with the Irish but… you’ve got it! The many varieties, which could make up an article in themselves, are all with us thanks to the Indians. I have a great weakness for pecan pie and owe them a huge thank you for bringing the pecan to our attention – and into my life. Avocado, tapioca and even tomatoes – you wouldn’t think it would you? I bet every reader has more than one of the very few foodstuffs I’ve mentioned here, in your homes as you read. Everything I have described has an Indian name for which there is no English translation.

Kayaks, hammocks, toboggans and – a great love of both Americans and Aussies – the barbecue are all Indian creations, again with names for which there is no English translation. What about animals? One would expect a people so closely connected to the land would have names for the animals they’ve encountered. I was aware that some animals had Indian names. When I questioned people if they knew of any, the names moose, caribou and squirrel seemed well known but did you know that the mighty jaguar and cougar were also Indian names? So are coyote and skunk.

Naturally, I wanted to know which fashions could also be credited to this wonderful people (I was positive there would be something!) The first one isn’t exactly fashion but imitations are now for sale everywhere in the western world. I’m talking about the Indian Dream Catcher. I see them in windows of houses and dangling from rear view mirrors of vehicles. The original models are traced back to the Ojibway (Chippewa) Indian.

Traditionally, Dream Catchers were small round, or tear shaped, rings of willow with a loose webbing of sinew or later, wools. They were decorated with feathers, beads or other small objects of importance. These dream ‘filters’ were hung over a sleeping child’s bed with the belief that only good dreams could pass through and into the child’s mind. Nightmares were trapped like a fly in a spider web. What a beautiful idea.

Obviously, if they’re hanging in vehicles dream catchers are looked upon by many as merely decorative since one would hope the driver didn’t intend to sleep behind the wheel. Nightmares would certainly be the last thing they’d have to worry about. New Age stores are a popular place to buy them and I’ve seen some huge and elaborate ones. I often wonder what the Indians must think of those.

Buck and Manolito trade horses with Cochise in The High Chaparral

Manolito and Cochise converse in Apache in this scene from Hanging Offense

Indian tribes were usually recognized by the ornamentation they wore. This includes the fringed leatherwear. Moccasins, mukluks and parkas are also of Indian design.

Beading techniques, ribbon work and Seminole patchwork are admired and copied by fashion designers worldwide. The Seminole patchwork bears a striking resemblance to much of the distinctive Mexican clothing we are familiar with. This isn’t surprising since Indians were found along the borders of Mexico’s Northern state of Coahuila.

Clearly, while we changed their world permanently, they too, changed ours. Imagine a world without the things I have described. When I think that this is only a drop in the bucket… Well, there’s no question we have much to thank them for.  Okay (couldn’t resist using it) I’ll close and wish you good health and fine weather. If you get any blizzards or hurricanes, thank the Indians for giving the names of those events to the weather forecaster.  I’m going now, to make a salad for my lunch. It’s a variation on the potato salad where I add cherry tomatoes and chunks of avocado. For dessert I will have a fruit salad; strawberries, blueberries, apple, and persimmon. Being a pecan lover, I might even sprinkle a few of those over it. Pity there’s no time to bake a pecan pie.

I really must thank the Indians for my lunch. Without them, I’d be looking at a bowl of lettuce.


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