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Giving Thanks to the Original Innovators of The Americas

Dear Readers,

As yet another Columbus Day is about to be observed in the U.S.,
I'm reposting this article for you
from my current location in the city named after
the ever wise Chief Seattle.

I wrote this blog post two years ago
in honor of those
we actually should be celebrating. 

Please share it with others. 
This is yet another piece of history, our-story,
that we all should know.

And may the second Monday of every October
soon be resurrected and known officially as
Indigenous People's Day!

I am no fan of the Columbus Day holiday that is still unfortunately observed in the U.S.  My hope is that in time this day will instead honor the 2.5 million Native Americans or American Indians who are all who remain in the U.S. of the 50-100 million inhabitants of the Americas who were here when the European invasion and genocide began.

And so today, on this Columbus Day, in recognition that he did not "discover" America, I choose to honor a some of the countless, little known innovations made by the wonderfully creative indigenous Americans that have ultimately benefitted the entire planet.

  • Almanacs: Containing meteorological and astronomical information, these were invented by the Mayans around 3,500 years ago.
  • Calendars: Developed throughout N. America, Mesoamerica, and S. America, used since 600 BCE. So precise that by the 5th century BCE they were only 19 minutes off!
  • Chewing gum: Made from the spruce tree in New England. The Mayans were the first people to make it from latex gum.
  • Long-fiber cotton: Its export helped to fuel much of the Industrial Revolution throughout the world.
  • Embalming: Egyptians began their mummification around 2000 BCE, 3000 years after the Chinchoro of S. America began the practice.
  • Foods, Glorious Foods!

Approximately 60% of the food upon which the world’s population depends was developed centuries ago by American Indian agrarians who domesticated crops including: six species of maize/corn (150 varieties), five major species of beans, hundreds of varieties of potatoes, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, a range of nuts, avocado, wild rice, and more.

Popular snack foods derived from American Indian agriculture include potato chips, french fries, and popcorn.

And where oh where would humanity be without chocolate (Mayan and Aztec) and Screen shot 2011-10-03 at 3.28.19 AM

  • Gold plating – The Moche (Peru) dissolved gold using an Alum/Saltpetre/Salt mixture which was then deposited onto copper vessels.
  • The Incan highway system with roads and bridges all up and down South America and foot messengers who would have put the Greek marathon runners to shame.
  • Medicines: Aztecs far surpassed simply knowing which bark made good aspirin or could be used to for quinine to treat malaria, or which berries treated scurvy. Using their sophisticated obsidian knives, Azteks knew how to perform a variety of surgeries, from the mundane to brain surgery.
  • Anesthetics: American Indians used coca, peyote, datura and other plants for partial or total loss of sensation or consciousness during surgery, whereas non-Indian doctors didn’t have effective anesthetics until after the mid-19th century. Other medicines include Novacaine, syrup of ipecac, and astringents.
  • Political theory: The Iroquois Confederacy of upstate New York represented a union of six tribes. Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers borrowed heavily from the democratic Iroquois “federal system” of government when they planned the union that became the United States. The U.S. Constitution bears more resemblance Screen shot 2011-10-09 at 10.56.32 PM to the model of the League of the Iroquois than the Greek Senate or English House of Lords. The whole idea of a balance of powers, of electing representatives, of governing by consensus all came from the Indians who were generally ruled, not by a “Big Chief,” but rather by a council of elders.
  • Rubber products: Rubber balls, rubber balloons: The Olmec (Mexico) produced rubber balls by mixing rubber tree sap and latex around 1700 BCE. Along with the Maya, they discovered the process of vulcanization in waterproofing such items as capes, shoes, bottles, tarpaulins, ponchos, and baskets.
  • Sports: Field and ice hockey and lacrosse (Canadian First Nations). Basketball was played by the Olmec over 3,000 years ago following their invention of the rubber ball.
  • Sciences: The science of ecology as well as the American Indian belief system teaches that all life is interrelated and interdependent. This relationship is expressed in American Indian oral traditions and conservation practices.
  • American Indian mathematic achievements include the development of highly accurate calendars and place value arithmetic. The Mayans of southern Mexico and Central America were the first people to use the concept of zero in mathematical calculations.


  • Diapers, asphalt, megaphones, hair conditioner, hammocks, the spinning top, sunscreen, syringe needles, petroleum jelly, and freeze-drying foods such as meat jerky.

Much is owed the the indigenous peoples of the Americas. –This includes acknowledgement of their immense creative and innovative genius.
Speaking of which, I want to thank Northern Cheyenne artist Christopher Rowland for use of his wonderful paintings, titles listed in order, below. To see more of his work, go to


For those who wish to support the human, legal, and economic rights
of our living, breathing, fellow American
indigenous brothers and sisters,
the following organizations work diligently on their behalves
and need us to give back, in whatever ways that we can:

And one organization that supports American Indian innovation initiatives:

Screen shot 2011-10-09 at 10.52.42 PM


"Gifts" 70"x40" oil on canvas (1991).

"Little Man" 48"x36" oil on canvas (1997). Son of Scalp Cane, Northern Cheyenne.

"Blessings" 28"x22" oil on canvas (2005). Buffalo Calf Trail Woman, a warrior woman of the Northern Cheyenne.

Cat Eyes w fish friendWho among us has not heard this unfortunate maxim repeatedly from the time we were very young?  This cautionary saying has been brandished as a means of squelching natural human curiosity for 400+ years, when it was first penned for characters in plays by Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.  However, some version of these sentiments has likely been in existence for millennia, serving to instill trepidation into the hearts of children and adults alike that trouble comes to those who ask too many questions!

But don’t believe it!!  Resistance is not futile!  Reawakening our innate sense of inquisitiveness and wonder is essential to cultivating our creative and innovative mindsets.  Leonardo da Vinci’s voracious curiosity led him to being rigorous in seeking ways to examine everything from a range of perspectives.   He sketched his subjects from different sides, and from above, and/or below.   The powers of observation that he honed seemed almost super human. He knew that it was only in this manner that he could come even close to understanding a thing’s essence.

As another important means for regaining fresh perspective, he encouraged people to take breaks from their work and relax or put their attention elsewhere, often to find that new ideas would then emerge.  Most of us have heard stories of brilliant insights coming to people when their minds are “unfocused,” when they are in the car, shower, bed, exercising, etc.  Einstein said he got his best ideas while shaving.  Abraham Lincoln also wrote, “Such [thoughts] often come in a kind of intuitive way more clearly than if one were to sit down and deliberately reason them out.”  It is an experience many of us have shared, having great insights emerge when we are doing something seemingly unrelated to the topic of inquiry. 

So — how curious are you?  In How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Gelb provides a “Curiosità Self-assessment.”  Ask yourself whether you:

  • Take adequate time for some form of contemplation or meditation – mental “down time” when you are not thinking about anything in particular.
  • Are always learning something new.
  • Seek out different perspectives when making important decisions.
  • Read a lot.
  • Learn from children.
  • Are skilled at identifying and solving problems.
  • Look up words you are unfamiliar with.
  • Continually learn about other cultures.
  • Know or are learning foreign languages.
  • Would be described as open-minded and curious by those who know you.
  • Love learning. Da Vinci Workbook

I highly recommend either going through Gelb’s da Vinci book or the accompanying Notebook.  Some people intend to go back through the book and do the exercises, but never get around to it.  So it might be best to just dive into the Notebook.

In short, Gelb recommends five types of exercises for cultivating our curiosity.  Helpful guidelines for these and related practices are provided in the book and workbook:

Practices such as these and others outlined in the book can encourage us to keep our inquiring minds alive while continuously helping us to expand our intellectual, expressive, professional, and interpersonal capacities.

  1. Keep a journal for a range of types of notes, observations, and questions to be contemplated.  Gelb offers good suggestions for topics.
  2. Find the right questions:
    Gelb writes: “You can increase your problem-solving skills…. [By] shifting the initial emphasis away from focusing on finding “the right answer” and toward asking “Is this the right question?
    …Instead of continually asking how to get to water, nomadic societies became agrarian and stable when they began asking, “How do we get the water to come to us?”
    Exercise: Ask the Five Whys of things, as well as What? Who? How? & Where?  Contemplate them in your notebook.
  3. Continually Learn New Things:
    “Just as iron rusts from disuse, and stagnant water putrifies, or when cold turns to ice, so our intellect wastes unless it is kept in use.”  Leonardo da Vinci
    “Your progress in learning will correlate directly with your willingness to play and embrace feelings of unfamiliarity and foolishness.”  Michael Gelb 
    a. Pick a “by when” date that you will begin to pursue your “some day” hobby now
    b. Learn a new language.  "Babies dive into learning language as early as they are able and don’t worry about sounding foolish – so can you!"
  4. Continually build your vocabulary.
  5. Nurture your emotional intelligenceBe curious about yourself.
    Differing from “self” obsession, some level of curiosity about oneself is healthy and necessary for emotional growth.  It can increase one’s self-awareness along with compassion for others and the ability to relate to them with less reactivity.  “Know Thyself” seems to have been a guiding precept for the maestro as well as for Socrates. 
    Exercise:  Ask trusted loved ones, friends, and colleagues questions such as:      
    i. What are some of my blind spots and areas for improvement? (In my hospital chaplaincy training, we called these our “growing edges.”)
    ii. What are some of my best qualities?
    iii. What can I do to be more effective, helpful, or sensitive to others?


    Gelb recommends just listening; maybe asking some clarifying questions, but avoiding the temptation to justify (as difficult as this may be).  I admit this might be bit of a scary exercise for some of us, but its value can be immense.

Instead of listening to my preferred talk radio station on my long drive between the Washington, D.C. area and my home in central Virginia, other sorts of sound tracks allowed my mind to wander the other evening.  I started thinking about three of the seven key habits in the book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, which happen to correspond to practices recommended by the “stand-out” leaders cited in the 2010 IBM CEO study:

  1. Curiosità, and questioning;
  2. "Dimonstrazione": Experiential learning, which goes with the willingness to make, and learn from, mistakes, and,
  3. "Sfumato": Comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity.

It then dawned on me that these ways of being all relate to overcoming fear.  Even the term used in the report, “stand-out,” implies people who are willing to follow their own instincts and speak their truths in the face of “group think” and at the risk of rustling feathers, or worse.

I’d been wondering about the linkage that those successful leaders alluded to between
Standing out in a field
creative/innovative thinking and “integrity.”  As was said, yes, it does take courage to question the status quo, go into unknown territory, and be willing to learn from mistakes. But I then saw a deeper connection: that overcoming one’s own fears requires personal integrity.

As President F.D. Roosevelt said, “… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Although the two words, “curious” and “courage,” are not etymologically related, it occurs to me that they are intertwined.  Both require a willingness to question, to forge into the un-known, and to risk making mistakes.

It seems to me that fear is what sabotages our capacities for creative expression and innovative thinking.  It is fear that seduces many of us and keeps us in our comfort zones.  It is those people who have no choice, or those who are inspired by the greater visions, who exhibit to us time and again that “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

What moves us to overcome our fear?  Inspiration.  The word “inspire” derives from the Latin: “to breathe,” and is related to the word “spirit”: “The vital principle or animating force within living beings.”  Inspire: (American Heritage dictionary, 4th Edition)

1.    To affect, guide, or arouse by divine influence.
3a. To stimulate to action; motivate
5.    To be the cause or source of; bring about
6.    To draw in (air) by inhaling.
7.    Archaic  b. To breathe life into.  

Brave people, warriors on any number of fronts, consistently say that they do experience fear, but they push themselves beyond it for the sake of others or because they are inspired by causes or visions beyond themselves.

We were born inspired with curiosity about life and possibilities.  As little children, most of us didn’t fear being “wrong” when unfettered imagination was allowed and for which there was no right or Teacher --( wrong.  But gradually, fear crept in as we were acculturated to come up with the correct answers, to draw between the lines, and not be perceived as too different, “weird” or “stand out” from the crowd.  Actually, come to think of it, this is ironic in America, where the dominant culture is considered to be the most “individualistic”  in the world… Food for thought for a future blog post. 

Some say Leonardo da Vinci was the most curious man who ever lived.  But then, there was Socrates, who inspired even the maestro and other great Renaissance minds.  Our greatest artists and leaders overcame their fears through what inspired them and through their own integrity, often in the face of tremendous sacrifices.  These men and women continue to stand as inspirational figures for all of us.  Those who saw what was possible and asked “Why not?” and “What if…?”

What comes to mind regarding overcoming our own insecurities is the well-known Marianne Williamson poem quoted by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural address.  It speaks so poignantly to the fear that many have of standing out and the need for being true to our gifts in order to benefit others:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves,
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles

 That’s what truly inspirational leaders and innovators do: they do not shrink from standing out, from speaking their truths, or from daring to inspire with imagination.  We need a lot more of them; we need to be them.  As Ms. Williamson wrote in her more recent book, Age of Miracles, our world desperately needs our full range of skills which includes our creative imaginations, “All hands are needed on deck.”  

So now, I have some contemplating to do. If you care to join me in pondering these questions, please do.

  • What have you been most afraid of?  What has gotten in your way of following your heart’s desires? 
  • What inspires you?  When do you feel most alive?  
  • What helps you to overcome fear?

And best of all:

  • Where would you love your inner “drummer” to lead you in this year ahead?







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