Native Innovation: 5 Indispensables You Didn’t Know Were Cherokee

Edward Rapier, in Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper, 1878, via Kansas Historical Society Texas Longhorns being driven to a cattle rendezvous through Dodge City, Kansas. Cherokee-Scottish trader Jesse Chisholm is credited with creating the route.

Much has been made of the indigenous innovations that go largely unrecognized in today’s societies.

Indian Country Today Media Network, having profiled a number of these, has decided to give credit where credit is due, by highlighting who thought of what. Here is the first of several lists on what various tribes have contributed in the name of science, health, transport and just plain convenience. Without further ado, we give you five items that the Cherokee pioneered the use of, culled from our favorite source, the exhaustively researched Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations (Checkmark Books, an Imprint of Facts on File, 2002), by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield.

The Chisholm Trail, and (Possibly) the Convenience Store

Many indigenous inventions get shared credit, with many tribes and cultures developing and using variations on a theme simultaneously. But props go solely to the Cherokee for this cattle-driving road that still exists today. In fact the trail is named after one particular Cherokee, the part-Scottish trader and interpreter Jesse Chisholm, who singlehandedly created one of the most popular cattle trails as he drove herds from Texas to Kansas. His exploits have been recounted in numerous places, even a graphic novel.

“Chisholm established the route as a wagon road in 1832 to haul freight from Kansas in order to stock his trading posts,” say the authors. “Some western historians credit him with being the father of the first chain of convenience stores, since his posts sold provisions to the cattlemen on their way north.”

Anthelmintics, or Intestinal Anti-Worm Medications

Long before Chisholm began driving cattle, several cultures including Cherokee were using anthelmintics, a fancy clinical name for worm medicine, an anti-parasitic.

“One of the most effective and widely used antiworm herbs of American Indians was the pinkroot, the book says. “Sometimes this plant is called the Indian pink, the Carolina pink, worm grass, or wormroot. A beautiful wildflower, it grows two feet tall and has about 12 flowers. The Cherokee and Creek of the Southeast discovered that the roots, which contain an alkaloid, would kill intestinal parasites. They also knew that ingesting too much pinkroot could be fatal since it becomes toxic in large doses.”

This was adopted by early European settlers to Turtle Island, the book notes, and “was a standard home remedy for Americans until the early 20th century, when it was replaced with derivatives of the alkaloids found in this American Indian biopharmaceutical discovery.”

Double Cropping, or Multiple Cropping

When European settlers arrived, they found several tribes, the Cherokee among them, planting crops on a rolling basis in the same field so that they would mature at different times, creating a steady supply.

“Indians of North America routinely made two and sometimes three successive plantings of crops,” the encyclopedia says. “Colonial farmers soon adopted this practice.”

In what is today Georgia, the Creek and Cherokee Indians used this method. So did the Apalachee and Timucua Indians in today’s north Florida, and the Hidatsa on the banks of the northern Missouri River.

Mint Tea

Tribes all over Turtle Island used botanical mints, the Cherokee among them.

Plants that belong to the mint family (Lamiaceae) contain a volatile oil in their stems and leaves. It is this oil that gives them their distinctive aroma and taste,” the book states. “The Chippewa of the Northeast drank mint tea, as did the Cherokee of the Southeast.”

The Cheyenne used it medicinally, for coughs.

Soft-Drink Ingredients, Specifically Sassafras

Though we think of cola and other sodas as all-American drinks, most of us don’t know the half of it. Neither root beer nor Dr. Pepper would be possible without Native innovation, including that of the Cherokee.

“The Cherokee used sassafras as an intestinal worm medicine and for colds,” the encyclopedia says. “European colonists in North America made root beer from sassafras, wintergreen, and birch, plants that American Indians had used as medicines over hundreds of years. Sassafras was used by the Iroquois of the Northeast and the Cherokee and the Seminole of the Southeast as a blood purifier. The Chippewa of the Midwest and Cherokee also drank sassafras tea as a beverage.”

Not only that, but sassafras tea became known as a “wonder tonic” among non-Indians, the book says.

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