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American Indian contributions and the lie of savagery

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A large contribution by the Oneida Nation of New York to the National Museum of the American Indian was announced last week ? $10 million to help build the Smithsonian Institution's 15th and likely last major museum on the Washington Mall. The announcement gave evidence that the impulse to contribute is alive and well in Indian country.

The Oneidas' is the third such hefty contribution by Indian nations to the up-and-coming national museum. Added to the earlier donations by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribal Nation of Connecticut, the Oneida contribution bolstered this critically important national project that will provide a permanent presence for Indian cultural representations at the center of America's political geography.

More than a museum, the NMAI is a tremendous cultural endeavor. A century after the heyday of anthropology and the "other-directed" study of Indian people, here arrives an academic institution directed and substantially advised by American Indian culture-bearers, academics, writers, artists and other professionals. By its own definition it is, "an institution of living cultures dedicated to the preservation, study and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of the Native People of the Western Hemisphere." It holds a monumental collection of Native cultural artifacts, family and tribal treasures spanning thousands of years and Native cultures from throughout the Americas.

We find it particularly appropriate that American Indian nations that manage successful enterprises ? such as the Oneidas, the Mohegans and the Pequots ? donate to such a major source of academically based yet community-connected, scientific knowledge. Such strategic donations represent a profoundly useful way of sharing the wealth to push back one of this country's major misconceptions: that Native peoples of the Americas had no appreciable culture prior to contact with Europeans.

The Oneida donation coincided with the arrival in the mail of a new book, "Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World: Fifteen Thousand Years of Inventions and Innovations," that deserves our acknowledgement and appreciation. Published by Facts on File, Inc. and edited by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield, the new encyclopedia is a treasure trove of information about the large range of technologies and productions of American Indian peoples throughout the past history of known inhabitation of the Western Hemisphere. Although certainly not intended as an exhaustive study, this is indeed the most comprehensive compilation of American Indian inventions and contributions to date. It is most worthwhile and should be on the bookshelves of every library and home in America.

As the editors point out, during the very early contact period, early adventurers, including Christopher Columbus, wrote many accounts that marveled at the many accomplishments they found in their travels among American Indian nations. Most spectacular to the early Spanish were the large, well-regulated and supplied cities of the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas. The Andean road system, for instance, was more sophisticated than that of Rome. The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, before its destruction by the conquistador Hernan Cortes, was home to more than 250,000 people, as large as any major European city of the time.

These were truly magnificent urban centers and featured guilds and professions of very learned people, which provided medical and other services quite at par if not more complex than those found in Europe at the time. Surgical techniques were practiced by the Mesoamericans that were not yet known in the Old World. The Aztecs conducted cesarean sections and also procedures to remove cataracts from eyes, using thin pieces of obsidian flint as scalpels. The Aztecs also used anesthetics and antibiotic medicines (sap from maguey) to combat infections and balsam as a disinfectant. They performed amputations (blood vessels were cauterized with heated stones) and constructed prosthetic limbs. Bone doctors were common and are still found in Latin American Indian communities. In South America, brain surgery was performed and medical anthropologists who have studied human remains of these patients report a survival rate of 83 to 90 percent.

But making the most impact on European minds (and palates) was the variety of agricultural production, including medicines and foodstuffs available throughout the Americas. Of course, the pharmacology of American Indigenous peoples was (and is) truly prodigious. According to the editors, "North American Indians had medicinal uses for 2,564 species of plants." They extracted medicines from some 10 percent of the "flora available to them." Over 200 of American Indians' many discoveries are today part of the U.S. Pharmacopoeia. Seventy-five percent of the 120 drugs made from plant extracts today originate in traditional indigenous medicine.

Of the many contributions of American Indians to the agriculture and nutritional base of the world, much has been written. The editors go over this in fine detail. Most people know about corn, potatoes and beans. There is much more ? cocoa, manioc, papaya, avocado, cashew, all manner of peanuts, chilies, artichokes, pineapples, pumpkin, tomatoes, squash, tobacco ? enough to say that today's world would be quite a deprived place without these American Indian gifts.

We could add long lists of items in many areas: cropping systems, architecture, astronomy, dentistry, dyes, varieties of clothing and footwear, fiber, stimulants, containers, transportation, embalming, distillation, etc. Indian life and the traditions of invention sought the simple and the functional or useful. It used almost exclusively local or regional materials; it tended to work with rather than in opposition to natural cycles and characteristics of elements.

The trouble was that not long after recording their marvelous first impressions, conquistadors and other colonists began the long and intense process of denigrating the capacity of American Indian peoples. The brutality of colonization, the intent to take the Indian peoples' possessions ? land, natural resources and labor ? had to be justified. In the public record of the colonial period, then, American Indians became "brutes," "beasts that talk," "a race incapable of civilization." The so-called discoverers even speculated widely about other potential origins for some of these accomplishments, such as a "lost tribe of Israelites," or as Erich Van Daniken asserted into the 1970s, extra-terrestrials.

The implication has been that American Indians could not possibly have produced the wonderful feats of engineering required for the pyramids of Meso- and South America, the mounds of Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis or any of the many wonderful constructions and innovations listed in this wonderful encyclopedia. The early use of terms like "savages" and "heathens" helped to dehumanize Native people and equate them to animals. It set the stage for hundreds of years of denial that is still being fought and overcome today.

The National Museum of the American Indian ? a major scientific center within the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution ? managed and now generously financed by Native professionals and intensely counseled by traditional elders from throughout the hemisphere, is a major bulwark of that struggle to bring out the truth about the histories and cultures of our peoples. That financially successful Indian nations, such as the Oneida Indian Nation of New York and the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot Nations of Connecticut, see fit to contribute such substantial gifts to its construction and growth, is a clear sign that the spirit of contribution and the wish to set the record straight is alive and well in Indian country.