“I do not think the measure of a civilization is how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man” ~Sun Bear of the Chippewa Tribe.
Natural resources were important to every part of Native American life: from the clothes they wore to the food they ate, their medicine, the homes they lived in, and even their recreation. Many Native Americans shared the belief called animism, which is based on the idea that all parts of nature (animals, plants, and inanimate objects) have a soul or spiritual essence. Through legends and customs the Natives Americans were taught to respect nature and work with nature. They were taught how to use the seasons to determine what food was available, when to plant their crops, and where to build their homes. The prosperity of their community depended on how well they were able to use their surrounding resources. Careful stewardship of natural resources was directly tied to community success and survival.
All of the food the indigenous peoples of America ate came from nature. There were no Whole Foods, Starbucks, or Panera Breads; the plants and animals that surrounded them supplied everything. The Native Americans hunted, fished, grew crops, and gathered berries. The food they ate depended on the season and the location. Many of the tribes were expert farmers: they grew large crops and utilized planting, harvesting, and irrigation practices that were advanced. Their main crop was maize (corn), but they also grew squash, rice, beans, fruit, and nuts as well as other items. They hunted buffalo on the plains and deer from the forests. Birds and other small game were also a staple. The tribes living on the coast ate fish, seals, and whale. Meat could be eaten fresh or dried and stored for later. Treats were made from maple syrup, dried fruits, and corn (popcorn, of course!). Medicine was also made from ingredients found in nature. In fact, most of the plants we use today were first planted and cultivated by the Native Americans.
Native Americans were the first people living in the Americas. They lived here before there were Home Depot or Lowes stores, so they had to construct their dwellings using natural resources: fur and hides; poles, wood bark, planks, grasses and reeds; and clay, mud, and tar (pitch). Homes were built into mountains and cliffs, trees, ice, and earth. Some tribes were nomadic and had to make homes they could take with them, such as teepees; some homes had to be made quickly and were not permanent. Igloos were made from ice and wigwams were made from branches and hides (for waterproofing). Clay was used for bricks to make adobe houses. Plank houses were made from long planks of cedar wood. Bedding, furniture, pots and pans were all fashioned from ordinary objects found in their surroundings. The homes of the Native Americans had to be practical and functional, but it was also a place of pride for them. They shared their home and all that was in it.
The fashion trend for the times was all natural: furs and hides were the primary source of fabric, but some tribes made clothes and blankets from plants or (weaving) thread. The men often wore a breechcloth made of leather and, in cooler climates, a fur coat and leggings or boots made of leather. The women usually wore a skirt or a tunic made of leather and fur. Footwear, such as moccasins and mukluks, were also fashioned from animal hides; more casual shoes were made from corn husks. Beads of clay and shells (wampum), porcupine quills, feathers from birds, dye from plants, and bear claw necklaces were some of the natural materials used as accessories and also used to decorate their clothes. Clearly, there was a use for every part of the plant or animal, and many times more than one.
Games and toys the Native American children played with were made from materials that came from the earth. Dolls were made from corn husks. Acorns made great spinning tops. Games were played using walnut shell dice, counting sticks, bones, and stones. There was no shortage of activates for the children and adults. A lively game of stickball (lacrosse) could be a major event drawing crowds of people from many tribes.
Art work played an integral part in the Native American culture. Women would spend hours weaving baskets and rugs of colorful dyed thread. Teeth and bones were carved into tokens that paid homage to their animal friends. Porcupine quills were used to create intricate designs of squares, triangles, and diamonds on their clothing and linens. Beautiful artwork made from dyes using berry juice and other plants have endured through the decades. Music was also important to the Native Americans. Their musical instruments were hand-crafted with care and patience. Flutes were made from wood, clay, bamboo and bones. Drums were made from wood and skins or hollowed logs. Rattles were made from gourds. These instruments were used in tribal rites and rituals; much Native American folklore was passed on through song.
Today we can go to a convince store, a grocery store, or a department store for whatever we need. We are a consumer society. We buy something, use it, and then throw it away. We have become a careless and wasteful society. Perhaps, we should all look back and follow the advice of the Americans that came before us: The Native Americans used their natural resources wisely. They were united in their belief that they could get everything they needed from the earth and motivated by their love of nature. They worked as one to steward their natural resources and to make sure natural treasures remained in tact for future generations. They taught their children about the importance of love, peace and natural living. They understood that they were only as strong and good as the resources around them. Without the gifts that Mother Nature gives, they could not have survived. It is, thus, imperative that we turn over a new leaf as a society. If we look to the past we will find all of the answers that we need to address the most challenging problems we face today.