With the vast array of Native innovations that manifest in our daily lives even today, Indian Country Today Media Network feels compelled to highlight yet another crop of such inventions that have made their way to the modern world. These are all culled from American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations (Checkmark Books, 2002), by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield. Now online in pdf form, it is a 401-page treasure trove of Native innovations.
We start, fittingly enough for this time of year, with what is today a stalwart of winter sports but which was originally invented by the Anishinaabe, “who designed them for travel along footpaths,” according to the book. “The word toboggan is a French mispronunciation of the Chippewa nobugidaban, a combination of two words meaning “flat” and “drag.”
This long, narrow, runner-less sled, constructed of boards and bent or carved upward in front, could be pulled by people or dogs and were adopted by both early French explorers and later by European settlers, the book notes. It was but one of many winter tools invented by Indigenous Peoples in northeastern Turtle Island that have evolved into recreational items and pastimes today.
The Olmec, who lived in what are today Veracruz and Tabasco states in Mexico, were the first people known to play with rubber balls. One such ball, dated 1000 B.C., was found in the pre-Columbian archaeological site of La Venta, in Tabasco. In later times the Maya and Aztec made hollow and solid rubber balls used for playing a team sport on huge ball courts—not unlike modern soccer and basketball.
Barbershops and Hair Salons
Long before European contact, the Aztec people lived and thrived in large, sprawling urban centers complete with barbershops and hair salons. Ancient Aztec barbers had jobs much like present-day hair stylists: Patrons would choose a look and have their heads shaved, washed and styled.
Long before John Smith could even lend a hand in the kidnapping of Pocahontas, American Indians in New England were dipping popped corn and peanuts into thick maple syrup to make this ancestor to Cracker Jacks and Fiddle Faddle. Tribes indulging in the treat also included the Chippewa and others from the Great Lakes regions. Though a delicious snack, caramel-dipped corn also kept well during the winter months while retaining its nutritional value, proving a healthy mainstay during otherwise scarce times.
Worldwide, snackers as of 1990 chowed down on a collective 1.5 billion pounds of potato chips annually—and we owe all this to Mohawk cook George Crum. He is credited with slicing potatoes into slivers and deep-frying them to appease the ire of railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, who kept sending back his French fries for being too thick. It was 1853, and Crum could not seem to get them thin enough for the testy baron. The frustrated chef then swapped out his knife for a vegetable peeler, shaving them into paper-thin slices, as the book recounts. A multi-billion-dollar industry—not to mention Crum’s own restaurant, which sold what were originally marketed as Saratoga Chips—was born.