Celebrate Native American Heritage on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Seven contributions from Indigenous Nations that changed America

Indigenous Peoples’ Day occurs on the second Monday in October in many parts of the United States and the first Monday in October in Canada. In 2023, it is observed on Monday, October 9 (October 2 in Canada).

What is Indigenous Peoples’ Day? Why is it celebrated on the same day as Columbus Day? Here is a bit more information about the holiday and its history. 

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What Is Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

Indigenous Peoples’ Day honors the histories, cultures, and perspectives of Indigenous peoples and their ancestors who lived on the land now known as North America. They existed in these areas for thousands of years before the first European explorers arrived. 

The human history of the United States and Canada begins with Native Americans. After stewarding the land for generations, Indigenous peoples introduced Europeans to “new food plants, new drugs, new dyes, tobacco, unheard-of languages, novel modes of life,” and much more as the historian A. Irving Hallowell wrote back in 1957.

Here’s a look at a few of the ways Indigenous peoples impacted American culture.

Historic Jamestown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Powhatan and Patuxet: Aided in the survival of early settlers

Survival of America’s first white settlements hinged on the knowledge of the native population. The settlers at Jamestown would have likely perished during the brutal winter of 1609-1610 were it not for the help of Powhatan captives who managed 40 acres of maize. The same was true of the Mayflower pilgrims in Massachusetts who learned how to plant corn thanks to the teachings of the famed Patuxent interpreter, Squanto. The settlers, however, did not return the favor and continued to take more of the natives’ land.

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah/Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Iroquois: Influenced federal power

Today, students are often taught that American democracy has its roots in ancient Rome or Greece. But the American republic also took cues from the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Philosophers like John Locke whose writings influenced the creation of the United States wrote about how the Iroquois Confederacy vested power in people, not a monarch.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin wrote letters to the Iroquois seemingly calling out how people incorrectly viewed them as ignorant savages and spent significant time learning about their federal-style government. In 1751, Franklin wrote, “It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.”

The idea that the American republic was influenced by the Iroquois can be polarizing and is often over- or understated. Some argue that American democracy was copy-and-pasted from the Six Nations. Others argue that the Iroquois did not influence at all. Most historians, however, occupy a middle ground. “It is a fairly important idea that a great many societies and networks influenced American constitutional thought, the Iroquois among them,” historian Gautham Rao tells Politifact.

Casa Grand Ruins National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Pima: Developed farm irrigation

Without water, there can be no agriculture—and no civilization, for that matter. The Pima understood this challenge intimately. Around 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, the nation developed sophisticated irrigation systems across the arid deserts of Arizona making the region habitable (and establishing life in what is now Phoenix). Those technologies paid off. Today, agriculture first cultivated by Native Americans makes up 60 percent of the world’s food supply including pumpkins, cranberries, squash, pineapple, avocados, peanuts, and, of course, corn.

Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Plains Indians: Initiated early sign language

Native Americans communicated through sign language centuries before the development of ASL. First recorded in the 1520s, the system now called Plains Indian Sign Language was used as a lingua franca by dozens of native nations across the American continent including the Navajo, Cree, and Crow. The system allowed disparate tribes, many of whom spoke completely foreign languages to communicate and trade. While American Sign Language would later take inspiration from multiple language systems, the sign language developed by Native Americans remains one the world’s oldest and most widespread.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Algonquin: Created lacrosse

First played in southern Canada more than 200 years ago, early lacrosse games were a chaotic ballsport consisting of hundreds and sometimes thousands of participants at one time. When Europeans began settling on North America some tribes used the game to win the newcomers’ trust. In 1763, the Ojibwa people of Michigan used lacrosse as a Trojan Horse. With the British troops watching in the audience the native athletes slowly worked their way to Fort Michilimackinac and once they got close enough, they took the fort.

Newspaper Rock, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Native Nations: Promoting conservation

Writers often attribute the rise of the American conservation and environmental movement to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring. However, Native Americans have been promoting conservation since the beginning of time. Some tribes like the Anishinaabe don’t have a word for conservation because, to them it’s much more than a political philosophy—it’s simply a fact of life. A 2019 U.N. report found that land managed by Indigenous populations had stronger biodiversity than land managed through modern agricultural methods.

Tuzigoot National Monument. Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Native Nations: Shaped modern-day words

You cannot drive around the United States or speak English without bumping into a Native American contribution. At least 26 state names have native origins including Arkansas (downstream people), Mississippi (great water), and Ohio (beautiful river).

English words that have native origins include chipmunk, hammock, chocolate, tequila, canoe, and opossum.

Worth Pondering…

We are fortunate to inhabit this jewel in the Cosmos and it is our responsibility to take care of it.

—John B. Herrington, member of the Chickasaw Nation and the first Native American astronaut in space