California Native Contributions

Facts and quotes gathered from Emory Dean Keoke & Kay Marie Porterfield, American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations (2003).  The source provides many other contributions of pre-contact Native Americans and lists additional resources for further inquiry. The following are only a few of the numerous contributions pre-contact California tribes have made to our world.


Chia—Medicine, Water Purification, and Food: Many California Native peoples carried chia seeds to sustain them on journeys.  “When the Spaniards forced California Indians to march long distances to missions where they were forced to live, the Indians often subsisted on a spoon of chia seeds mixed with water to see them through a 24-hour march.”  Members of the Cahuilla tribe placed chia seed in irritated eyes to reduce inflammation and remove foreign matter.  The Cahuilla also used it to purify alkali drinking water and to disinfect wounds.  The Spanish, impressed with these medicinal uses, adopted a mixture of seeds and water as a remedy for fevers and packed chia into gunshot wounds to prevent infection.  Today, chia is grown primarily for food.  In fact, in Argentina, chia has now overtaken beans as a profit-making crop.

Detergents: “Unlike Europeans, who tended to eschew personal hygiene . . . American Indians washed their clothing as often as practical when it became soiled, including both cloth and hide garments.  They also used plant-based detergents as body soap and as shampoo.” California tribes used various plants as laundry and personal detergents.  The Karok pounded bulbs of the “soap plant” to clean clothing and buckskin blankets; the tribe also rubbed the roots and crushed the leaves of saltbrush on garments as a cleaning agent.  The Diegueño used the mashed and grated root of the soap plant to clean and whiten articles of clothing.  All of these plants were used as shampoo as well.

Fish Traps: “Fish traps, or weirs, are devices constructed in shallow water in order to catch large numbers of fish or lobsters. The fish find it easy to swim into these traps but difficult to exit them. . . . This was an efficient method of fishing that required little labor.”  The Ajumawi, Pit River Indians, a tribe that lived in what is now California, used stone fish traps to catch fish spawning in lake springs.  The traps also aided the fish in spawning and helped the tribe manage its important dietary resource.

Forest Management: “American Indians had been deliberately shaping the character of the forests for centuries before they began the practice of agriculture, thousands of years before the arrival of non-Indians.”  In California, Indians used controlled burns to kill mistletoe growing on oak and mesquite trees.  They burned off chaparral covering the Sierra foothills, using a practice reported by a Spanish explorer in 1602.  Wildfires were prevented because there was less dead underbrush to serve as fuel.

Jojoba—Hair Conditioner, Appetite Suppressor, Salve: California Indians rinsed their hair with conditioners made from jojoba seeds, an ingredient found in many modern shampoos and conditioners.  “In the 1700s Father Junipero Serra, founder of 21 California missions, wrote in his diary that Indians used jojoba to suppress their appetites when they could not find food and as a salve for bruises, sores, cuts, and burns.”

Running: “Indigenous people throughout the Americas relied on sophisticated systems of specially trained runners to send messages to other tribes, receive news, and move goods along trade routes. These couriers, who sometimes ran in relays, were able to cover great distances in incredibly short times.  Hernan Cortes reported that not more than 24 hours passed after he landed in Chianiztlan in the spring of 1519 before couriers had taken that news to the Aztec ruler, Montezuma, who was 260 miles away.”  Runners for the Nomalki, a central California tribe, ate special diets and trained daily.  When they retired at the age of 40, their tribe took care of their post-retirement needs because of their life service to the tribe.  The Chemheuvi of California had a running guild.  The Luiseño Mojave had a running tradition and ate chia seeds—a high-energy nutritional source—to sustain themselves on long journeys.

Stretchers“A stretcher is a device that is used for transporting injured people one at a time. It is composed of two long poles with a long piece of strong fabric stretched between them.” California tribes were known to use stretchers, part of a large number of pre-contact American Indians who invented “stretchers for medical use independently of any other cultures.”

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