A look back at Native American heritage

A drawing of Squanto teaching Pilgrims to plant corn. The ;success of his teaching resulted in the Thanksgiving celebration that we observe.

When planning our traditional Thanksgiving meal, we don’t usually think of the origins of the turkey, squash, corn, beans, sweet potatoes and pumpkin that are often included. All are New World contributions, and effective means of planting the vegetables were taught to the Pilgrims by the Wampanoags who lived in eastern Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims settled.

Since November is Native American Heritage Month, officially declared in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, it is appropriate to recognize some of the many contributions by the people who lived in North America before our European ancestors arrived.

It is estimated that approximately seven to 10 million indigenous people populated the area north of the Rio Grande River when those settlers arrived. Sadly, they brought European diseases, especially smallpox, for which the native peoples had no immunity. As a result, their populations were soon decimated, with as many as 90 percent dying.

Tisquantum, known to schoolchildren as “Squanto,” was captured by the Spanish in 1614 and purchased by Spanish monks, who sought to convert him. When they gave him his freedom, he made his way back to his homeland in Massachusetts in 1619, only to find that his entire village had died of a European disease. Nevertheless, he taught the Pilgrims the “three sisters” method of planting corn, beans and squash together, using fish for fertilizer, resulting in their first good harvest—the reason for the Thanksgiving celebration in 1620.

It should be noted that feasts of thanksgiving and harvest celebrations had long been practiced in North America, before the arrival of the Europeans.

Other New World food contributions include blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, grapes, plums, raspberries, walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, carrots, cabbage and collards. From Mexico we also acquired tomatoes and avocados, and, from Peru, potatoes, among other good foods. How boring the diet of the Europeans must have been before 1492!

Other foods served at the 1620 feast included duck, goose, rabbit, chicken, venison, fish, shrimp, lobster, clams and oysters. So if you’d like some variety this year, there are lots of “traditional” foods to choose from. 

Native Americans contributed a number of words to our vocabulary: “caribou,” “chipmunk” and “skunk,” for animals the Europeans had never seen; “hammock,” “toboggan” and “moccasin” for new items; “mahogany” for a new tree; “hurricane” for a huge storm that sank many ships; and—happiest of all—“barbecue”!

However, their most notable vocabulary contribution is to U.S. state names. Fourteen are of English origin; seven, Spanish; and four, French. The rest are of Native American origin.

We know that Texas’ name derives from the Caddo word for “friend,”—“tay-sha”—which the Spanish thought was their tribal name. English speakers came up with the pronunciation we use.

Two other states’ names also mean “friend”: North and South Dakota. “Dakota” is Sioux for “friend.”

Although most of the original 13 colonies have English names, two are Native American: Connecticut and Massachusetts. The first derives from Algonquin “Quinnehtukqut,” meaning “beside the long tidal river.” “Massachusetts,” meaning “at the great hill,” is the tribal name of the indigenous people in that area.

Likewise, Iowa is the name of a Sioux tribe, and Illinois, of the Illini tribe. “Alabama” comes from the Albamaha tribe who lived in that area; it means “plant gatherers.” “Utah” is the Apache name for the Ute people. 

“Oklahoma” is the Choctaw translation of “red people,” combining “ukla”—“person”—and ‘humma”—red.” “Hawaii” is the native Hawaiian name for “homeland.”

Rivers were very important to the Native Americans, and several state names are based on rivers, “Wisconsin” and “Tennessee” being two of them. The former, “Ouisiconsin” is the French version of the Miami Indian name for the river running through that state, and “Tanasi” is Cherokee for the latter’s largest river.

“Ohio” is Iroqouis for “good river,” while “Nebraska”—“Ñí Brásge”—means “flat water” in Omaha, the name of the people who lived in that area. The Ojibwa provided “Misshikama”—“big lake”—for “Michigan,” and the Algonquin, “Misi-ziibi”—“great river”—for “Mississippi.”

But Native Americans did not simply provide names for the majority of our states; according to Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquoian League of Nations provided the model for our federal government, with certain powers given to the central government, and the rest reserved for the individual states.

Perhaps most important, as we worry about the increasing effects of climate change, is the Native American approach to ecology. All the tribes share a deep respect for the land and for life forms, and they continue to demand practices that result in clean air and water.

“Kentucky,” the state where my one Cherokee ancestor that I know of lived, is Iroquois for “land of tomorrow.” With the help of our Native American brothers and sisters, let’s hope we can create a good future.