Native American Culture

by Evelyn J. Mocbeichel

During elementary school grades the study of Native American Tribes often becomes more prevalent preceding our Thanksgiving celebration.  Most people do not realize there are over 560 Native American tribes, with the Navajo, Cherokee and Sioux being the largest. My grade school lessons covered several of the largest tribes and so did my children’s grade school lessons. One teacher of our daughter had an intensive study about the Hopi tribe and included an activity that was creating a copy of a kachina doll, known for being “an immortal being that brought rain and other aspects of the natural world and society.”  Our daughter was so proud of her artistic duplication of the teacher’s model she displayed it in her room well into her high school years. During several vacation visits we took to a friend in Arizona, much of the sightseeing trips centered on the vast culture of Native American tribes and of course the beauty of desert landscapes. We traveled around Flagstaff, Sedona and went as far as the Grand Canyon on a weekend excursion. Our visit included walking the trail where the Sinagua cliff dwellers lived and the Red Rock area where the Hopi tribes inhabited. The word Sinagua meant “without water” as they lived on high cliffs and had to walk down a long distance to the river below for their daily water supply. Arizona is rich in culture and has a long list of tribes that populated the region over the centuries, with the Navajo Nation now the largest reservation in the U.S.

We have many words in our English language that originated from Native Americans. For instance one of our autumn foods, squash, comes from the Narragansett people of Rhode Island that called it “askutasquash”. It is surmised was then shortened by the pilgrims to just “squash”. Then there are pecans, often used in stuffing or pies and that words derived from the Algonquian language pronounced “pakani” or “pakan” and again English converted it to pecan. Besides food words, some clothing or other artifacts found their way into English and are easily recognized today. Take the word moccasin, the fur lined footwear we all know. Several tribes had variations for the word, with the Powhatan calling it “makasin,” close to what it sounds like today. The fun water activity where many people enjoy riding a kayak was originally a working craft used by the Inuit people of Alaska and Canada for hunting.  With the Inuit spelling it their way, it is written as “gajag,” but we say kayak, close to how they pronounced it phonetically. Along the way, even some geographical locations and states derived their names from Native American tribes that lived there. For instance, the Mississippi River that flows through ten states from the Northern U.S. down to Louisiana got its name from the Ojibwa people.   They lived in Minnesota, where the river began, and in their language called it “misiziibi” meaning it was a “great river.” They were a branch of the Algonquian group of languages and the name stayed the same, except for English spelling now. There is so much more to learn about the heritage of the Native American tribes of our country and the vast contribution they’ve given to our current day culture.