The theme for the March book club meeting at the McBride Library was, “A Book That Opened Your Eyes.” One of the books that did that for me was Indian Givers by Jack Weatherford. Here is my review:
Starting in the third grade and carrying on throughout my life, I have had a special interested in Indians. As a child, I made a feathered headdress, I did beadwork, and worked on other Indian crafts, I read books about Indians, collected the flint arrowheads that could sometimes be found in the plowed fields of Indiana and visited Indian sites in both North America and Central America.
Through that interest, I had learned a great deal about First Nations People, most of that knowledge was either about how they lived or how the got exterminated. Indian Givers, this seemingly inconsequential book, that I first read twenty years ago, made me totally change the way I viewed Indian culture because it showed me the immense contribution they made to the world and everyone alive today.
The first section of the book deals with the transformation that occurred in Europe because of the massive amounts of gold and silver, robbed or extracted through the forced labor of Indians, by the Spanish. Although initially sent to Spain, this enormous wealth soon spread throughout Europe through trade.
Before it arrived, gold and silver was only for the rich, but soon there was so much of it, even common people had access to it in the form of coins. Most of the gold and silver artifacts and decorations seen today in the cathedrals and palaces of Europe were made from the gold stolen, or mined by Indians in South America and Mexico. Previously in Europe, land was the basis of wealth, the huge influx of gold and silver changed the economies of Europe so that soon wealth could be measured and accumulated in the form of currency.
The enormous amount of silver from the Americas, spread across the world initially into Spain, then through Europe, then into India and China through trade and the English piracy of Spanish ships. The huge amount that poured into Europe caused the value of silver to plummet. It raised the economy of all nations effected, and created the rise of capitalism, but the Indians who worked as slaves in the mines got no benefit.
The English piracy of the Spanish was initially financed by investors who formed a company for piracy. (Queen Elizabeth was one of the investors that profited, and who later knighted their pirate Drake, as a reward for the enormous returns on their investment). This company was so lucrative that other companies were formed to exploit other riches, like the Hudson Bay Company to exploit furs in North America.
The Americas were a vast warehouse of new items developed by the Indians, then exploited by Europeans:
They took North American cotton with its longer fiber.
They copied Indian Dyes to color it and started using sisal for rope.
Indians developed rubber for rain coats and hats, balls, and bungy-like cords for tying, and even invented vulcanizing rubber with sulfur, something that was later rediscovered by Europeans.
The ancient Incas specialized in agricultural experimentation and built numerous experimental areas where crops were grown in different ways. When the Spanish arrived the Incas had already developed over three thousand types of potatoes in the Andes. For instance, they perfected potatoes that matured rapidly, others that grew slowly, some that grew best in moist areas, and others that needed very little moisture. They created potatoes in a myriad of colors. Presently in the US, only about twenty varieties make up three quarters of potato production.
The introduction of the potato to the rest of the world had an enormously beneficial effect on both health and population. Before its arrival, the European diet was based largely on growing grain, which worked well around the Mediterranean, but was a dicey proposition in more northern countries, due to shorter growing seasons, cold, rain, and pests. This prevented these countries from really thriving, because of their large population of poor farmers, who often had to live hand to mouth.
Once the peasants got over their initial reluctance to the potato, their conditions improved greatly. It grew more quickly than grain, produced more calories per acre, and provided more nutrients. Once introduced, some country’s population tripled in one hundred years.
The beans the Indians developed (kidney beans, string beans, snap beans, frijole, the common bean, butter bean, navy bean, Lima bean, and pole beans) increased the amount of protein in the European diet. In Africa it was the American Indian peanut that increased protein. Next to the potato, it was the Sunflower that was the most important Indian contribution to Russia.
Corn, while a staple in America, never caught on as a food for the people of Northern Europe who used it as an animal food. It improved the health of their livestock instead. It did become people food in Southern Europe and along with the introduction of other Indian developed foods, caused huge population increases in Italy and Spain.
The sweet potato gained a huge acceptance in Asia and China which is now the world’s biggest grower. I noticed in The McDonald’s in Hong Kong you could buy corn and a red bean dessert.
Amaranth grain has become one of the most important cereals in the diet of highland people in India, China, Pakistan, Nepal, and Tibet.
The Indians developed what we know as corn or maize from a small insignificant wheat-like grass. Through the centuries they bred a wide spectrum of varieties.
Some of their corn varieties thrived in moist cool New England-type climes, others flourish in hot humid Southeastern settings, while still other varieties were bred for the very hot dry desert-like environments of the American Southwest and Mexico. Indians purposely bred corn to have the thick husk to protect the kernels from insects. They did so much breeding on corn that, because of the husk, it could no longer re-seed itself and must be planted by humans.
Other food the Indians developed for us: chocolate, vanilla, tortillas, popcorn, hominy grits, maple syrup, tomatoes, sweet peppers, chilies, cashews, cranberries, turkey, tapioca, jerky, Cracker Jack (popcorn and maple syrup), Avocados, squashes, a myriad of nut and berries.
Think about some “ethnic” food that you like from elsewhere in the world. Most of those dishes, as you know them, didn’t exist before the discovery of America and the contribution of those Indian-developed foods, like tomatoes, peppers, corn, chocolate and potatoes.
Indians gave the world three-fifths of the foods now produced.
Another contribution was in the field of Government:
The book makes the case that democratic concepts such as “equally and freedom” were inspired and spread by people like Thomas Paine, who saw it in the Indian societies he witnessed. The US government which was unique when it was created was largely based on the League of the Iroquois, a government structure set up by a handful of northeastern Indian nations.
People like Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson all favored and contributed ideas based on the League of the Iroquois. Ideas included, representatives to the large councils were chosen by everyone in the Indian bands, and in these large councils, no one was permitted to interrupt or heckle when a representative was speaking, unlike in Parliamentary governments.
Unlike what is commonly thought, Indians didn’t have “chiefs” (a European word and concept) they chose leaders, but these leaders didn’t rule, but lead through the consensus of the people. Supreme authority rested with the group, not an individual. One of the most important Indian concepts was that of a caucus, where a group would meet and talk through a problem. “Caucus” is an Algonquin word.
Both the League of Nations and the UN’s General Assemble were bases on the Iroquois federal system, where each country, no matter it’s size, is equally represented.
Indians were the first to develop a huge range of medicines such as Quinine to cure malaria, a vitamin C concoction to cure scurvy, willow bark containing aspirin for headaches, and petroleum jelly among other things. They used obsidian blades as scalpels for surgery that were sharper than anything until the laser beam was developed.They successfully did brain operations by drilling holes through the skull to relieve pressure on the brain, and their patients lived.
They knew more about the heart and circulation system than Europeans at the time. The Aztecs bathed daily, something abhorrent to the Spanish. Most Indians tribes used steam baths or sweat lodges.
Drugs used by Indians
Coca- used to reduce hunger, later used by Europeans for cocaine and early Coca-Cola
Canoes, kayaks were invented by the Indians.
Amazingly engineered roadways through the high Andes mountains deep valleys, and jungles, that ran thousands of miles and were used by runners in a communications system similar to the pony express.
I found the whole book interesting but the chapters that I found most fascinating were on the subject of food plants development. It made me realize that most of my favorite foods were all the results of the Indian agricultural technology.
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