Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Inventions of Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



In the language of the Patent Office, "an invention is something new and useful." The word applies to the apparatus of human activities and to the processes involved. The life of culture from the lowest savagery to the highest civilization is an increase in the artificialities of life. There were no tribes in America without culture, and the lowest of them had inventions. For instance, the Fuegians had learned to convert the fish-spear into a barbed harpoon by fastening the detachable head, which was set loosely in the socket, to the end of a shaft by means of a short piece of rawhide. They had also invented a canoe of bark made in three pieces. When they wished to move to a new bay or inlet between which and the last there was a dangerous headland, they could take the canoe apart, carry it over the intervening mountain, and unite the parts by lashing, covering the joints with pitch. The most ingenious savages on the continent, however, were the [Inuit], all of whose apparatus used in their various activities show innumerable additions and changes, which are inventions. They lived surrounded by the largest animals in the world, which they were able to capture by their ingenuity. Their snow domes, waterproof clothing, skin canoes, sinew-backed bows, snowshoes, traps and snares in myriad varieties, some of which they shared with neighbouring Indian tribes, amaze those who study them. Among other ingenious devices which would pass under the name of inventions are: the use of skids by the N. W. Coast natives for rolling logs into place in building their immense communal dwellings; the employment of the parbuckle to assist in the work of moving logs; the use of a separate fly of rawhide at the top of the tipi, which could be moved by means of a pole with one end resting on the ground, so that the wind would not drive the smoke back into the tipi; driving a peg of known length into the side of a canoe as a gauge for the adzeman in chipping out the inside; the boiling of food in baskets or utensils of wood, gourd, or rawhide, by means of hot stones; the attachment of inflated sealskins to the end of a harpoon line to impede the progress of game through the water after it was struck; the sinew-backed bow, which enabled the [Inuit] hunter to employ brittle wood for the rigid portion and sinew string for propulsion; the continuous motion spindle; the reciprocating drill; the sand saw for hard stone, and all sorts of signalling and sign language.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., p. 223..


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College