In with the old—Native American technology can teach us now

As Columbus Day approached earlier this month, an increasing number of United States communities decided to designate the federal holiday as “Indigenous Peoples Day.” This is a good idea in principle.

It would be better if the holiday’s name could be further amended to recognize the spirit of exploration—to include the intellectual exploration that constitutes modern education, which could certainly benefit from more Native American perspectives.

This is not to disregard the exploratory importance of the Age of Discovery. While Columbus’s contingent was not the first party to reach the Americas, the 1492 expeditionaries were the first whom mainstream historians know to have navigated what could be described as a wholly blue-water route to the “New World.” (As compared to predecessors from Northern Asia and Northern Europe, who traveled over landmasses or relatively close to them, and those from the South Pacific, who fell short of completely crossing the world’s largest ocean.)

The technological and educational framework that facilitated Columbus’s “discovery” merits recognition. However, the way that it helped institutionalize affronts to modern humanist standards deserves the kind of critique that has engendered Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations. .

Many other civilizations across the Eurasian landmass have committed similar affronts in their own histories, though much of this history is rarely considered.

This attitude of omission also applies to the array of technological advances that were discovered or created by pre-modern civilizations spanning the Americas—including Inca, Muisca, Maya, Aztec, Anasazi, and Mississippian—which are rarely discussed. This undervalues the importance of notable Native American advances in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as well as the balance between technological advancement and the natural environment.

Modern technology education would do well with broader consideration of, for instance, Aztec civil engineering, Incan knotted-string information coding (i.e., the quipu system, which is somewhat analogous to binary computing), and a range of topics in Mayan mathematics and medicine.

The application of such technologies in concert with the natural world could also be valuable.

A page of the Madrid Codex, one of very few paper-based Mayan writing samples to survive deliberate destruction during Spanish conquests, loosely translates to modern English as “the Flower Deity with cacao, 12 winals [Mayan short months] after the first flower.” (Almanac 65-72, Frame 11, author’s translation, influenced by Vail and Hernández).* The specific observation about seasonal changes suggests an appreciation for the natural process that brought the Mayans a sacred food, in spite of their demonstrated ability to overburden their surroundings.

Thankfully, a shining example of Native American values creating social and commercial value exists in Upstate New York, where the Onondaga Nation has invested in Plantagon—a pioneering developer of sustainable architecture for urban agriculture. Intellectual exploration of this sort is what really deserves its own holiday. K

Bowie Daniel Hall is an AmeriCorps VISTA member at the Westminster Economic Development Initiative. He was previously a banker with Citi and HSBC and a Global Health Corps fellow on a USAID project in Uganda.

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