From the Director: Native American Inventions :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Arthur Molella, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

The dazzle of modern information and communication technologies can blind us to the almost unfathomable roots of invention. If you want to see how deeply invention reaches into our common human past, just visit the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, or any comparable museum, for that matter. Their anthropology storerooms are typically bursting with stone tools, weaponry, baskets, canoes, dog sleds, and all manner of ingenious devices of indigenous peoples going back to the dawn of mankind--no surprise if you recognize that invention is a quintessential human trait.

The 19th-century Smithsonian ethnologist Otis Tufton Mason made just this point in a lifetime of collecting and writing on "primitive" technologies of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. While he accepted contemporary anthropological distinctions between "savage" and "civilized" cultures, he firmly believed in the continuity of technical developments. A specialist in Indian basket making, he was also the author of such studies as The Origins of Invention: A Study of Industry among Primitive Peoples (1895). 

At the centennial celebration of the U.S. patent system in 1891, Mason reminded inventors of their debt to anonymous prehistoric forebears: "There never was a time when man was not an inventor.… The ancestor of the steam plow is the digging stick of savagery, a branch of a tree sharpened at the end by fire. The first sewing machine was a needle or bodkin of bone, with dainty sinew thread from the leg of an antelope." He illustrated his theme with a variety of artifacts from the Smithsonian collections, tracing, for example, an evolutionary line of development from prehistoric timekeeping devices to modern watches.

Time inevitably robs these ancient tools of their breath of human life. However, a visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian across the National Mall documents the living legacy of Native American invention. First, begin with the building itself, designed by Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal, a Native American featured in one of our early Lemelson Center programs. The building's flowing lines showcase his love of nature and the aesthetic influence of his Blackfoot heritage. But they also illustrate his affinity for the latest technologies. To overcome complex technical problems associated with these wave-like forms, Cardinal pioneered the application of advanced computer programs to architecture.

Inside the Indian Museum, one finds a number of exhibitions bearing directly or indirectly on the culture of innovation. I was especially fascinated by Ramp It Up, a recent small but forceful display on skateboarding, which turns out to be an indigenous sport originating in Hawaiian surfing. Ocean surfing evolved into "sidewalk surfing" in California, which gave us modern skateboards and skateboard competitions. But the most interesting part of the exhibit concerned the birth of Native American "skateboard culture," a seamless blend of workmanship, technological invention, and art. Highlighting this theme was a series of lavishly decorated skateboards that express the youthful vigor and social consciousness of their makers. Presentations such as this irrefutably demonstrate that, prehistoric or modern, invention has always been embedded in the lives and culture of Native Americans.

Best regards till next month,
Arthur Molella
Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

From Prototype, November 2009

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