How Native Americans shape the American experience

November 12, 2019

November’s designated as Native American Heritage Month. But Anthropology Associate Professor Brian McKenna reminds his students in campus’ Indians of North America course that we benefit from the knowledge of this country’s indigenous people all year long.

Brian McKenna is a middle-aged white man who is bald. He is wearing a pair of rectangular glasses, and a powder blue button-up with a black tie. Brian is speaking to a student.

This article was originally published on November 12, 2019.

Standing in front of a full classroom, Anthropology Associate Professor Brian McKenna speaks about Native American contributions to community structure, medicine, government systems, agriculture and environment. Students seem a bit surprised. 

McKenna continues: And the names of more than half of our states.

“States, cities, communities. So many of our places have native origins,” he says. “I think destroying who or what was on the land and then naming the spot after what was once there is the American way. Think of apartments with names like Deer Park Run. No one sees deer there because the construction pushed them away or destroyed their food sources. But it does sound really nice.”

McKenna talks honestly, with a bit of dark humor. And his class appreciates him for it. Their hands are constantly raised with questions and contributions to the discussion. And he gets students to relate to the material he includes in his lectures.

Since we all can’t sit in his classroom — there are only about 40 desks, after all — here are some of McKenna’s course take-a-ways.

When it comes to the environment, Native Americans can teach us.

“Most of us are concerned about climate change and what’s left of our resources. But Native Americans are way ahead of us on this. The Native Americans lived here 20,000 years without messing it up. The Iroquois have the seventh generation principle, which dictates that decisions that are made today should lead to protecting the land for seven generations into the future. And American Indians are the ones we see fighting to preserve what is left; look at the Dakota Access pipeline protests and the Enbridge pipeline actions Up North. If we really want to stop or reverse the damage that’s been done, they have examples we can follow.”

Sixty percent of our consumed foods have Indian origins.  

“Like fries? I’m Irish, but my history can’t take credit for the potato. That’s the Peruvian Indians and the Incas. How about chocolate? That’s the Mayans. Fall foods like squash and beans? The Native Americans have a long tradition with those foods and the New England colonists learned from them. And if you have a drink on your desk, remember that there wouldn’t be a soda industry without the coca leaves from the Indians of Bolivia. Corn? You already know. Unfortunately, that one’s led to the capitalistic creation of corn syrup. But that’s what I call the Indian’s revenge.”

Much of our prescription knowledge comes from Native American medicine.

Look in your medicine cabinet. If you have aspirin in there to help with a headache, know it comes from the willow bark of the poplar tree. Don’t thank Bayer; thank an Indian. They had 20,000 years to get to know their land and have so much knowledge of botanical medicinal properties. The early American explorers were known to write it down and take it back to Europe with them. Dogwood reduces fever. Trillium eases the pain of childbirth. A small amount of Curare — not too much, it’s poisonous — stops lockjaw cramping. UM-Dearborn Emeritus Professor Daniel Moerman published a Native American Ethnobotany Book and put it online. Type in a symptom and you can find what Natives Americans —  thousands of years ago and today — use for relief. It’s a reminder that we are walking over and past medicine all of the time.

If you like the idea behind our Constitution, thank the Iroquois.

“There are leaders who helped form our government who aren’t traditionally mentioned in World History. When the original 13 colonies were busy fighting each other, Onondaga leader Canassatego encouraged them to unite and shared the Iroquois Great Law of Peace as an example on how to do this. Benjamin Franklin printed Canassatego’s words and invited the Iroquois Grand Council of Chiefs to speak to the Continental Congress in 1776. It’s where we got our checks and balances, two branches for passing laws, the impeachment process and more. Our government is descended from theirs — Congress officially recognizes this now. It’s too bad we didn’t include their seventh generation principle.”

After class ends and students have filtered out of the room, McKenna — an environmental journalist and medical anthropologist  — explains how an Irish man from Philadelphia became so involved with Native American culture. He says it began with a chance meeting with a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) as a teen in the mid-1970s while traveling across America.

“Basically, I was dropped into history.”

Professor McKenna

While staying with a newly made friend in South Dakota, McKenna met a Native American from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The man — McKenna pauses and thinks about giving a pseudonym, then decides anonymity is best — was a body double for a leader of AIM. McKenna recalled how much he admired the man’s bravery in standing up against police brutality and systemic poverty in extreme circumstances. He relayed how this experience sparked his curiosity about the history and culture of American Indians.

“The courage I saw really was life changing. After getting to know some members of the Pine Ridge reservation, I was shocked at the level of ignorance about the American Indian Movement during that time. I wanted to do what I could to dispel myths and bring awareness,” says McKenna, who’s spent time during his career working with American Indian Health and Family Services in Detroit and at National Public Radio’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Years later, McKenna is surrounded by engaged students who, just like he was, are curious about Native American history and want to build community with native peoples. McKenna’s taught the course — created by Emeritus Professor Daniel Moerman in 1974 — for 15 years.

Not only does McKenna teach, he encourages the students to interact with tribal communities — noted alumna Kay McGowan, a writer of the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is a frequent guest speaker; students also do a project where they are encouraged to get to know Native culture first-hand.

“For the class project, students have the opportunity to reach out to a first nation. “I’ve recently had a student document the repatriation of ancestral remains from U-M. He went to the Saginaw Chippewa’s Recommitment to the Earth ceremony in Mount Pleasant. Other students have attended powwows or visited a Native American museum. I want our students to learn from native people directly,” McKenna says.

“And I update my course every time I teach it. For example, I’m using David Treuer’s 2019 “The Heart of Wounded Knee” right now. Treuer graduated from U-M with an anthropology degree. I want to make sure I’m relating to my students of today about issues the Native Americans are facing today. People evolve so my course can’t stay stagnant.”

But there is something that remains the same: Native American influence on shaping American culture.

So, in honor of the month — and Governor Whitmer’s recent decision to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day — McKenna wants to create awareness of cultural appropriation and have us appreciate American Indian contributions that enhance our lives all year round.