Native American Inventions

Native American woman in traditional dress

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Native Americans retain a strong influence on American living—and the majority of Native American inventions came long before European settlers arrived on North American land. Just as an example of Native Americans' impact, where would the world be without gum, chocolate, syringes, popcorn, and peanuts? Let's take a look at just a few of the many Native American inventions.

Totem Pole

West Coast First Peoples believe that the first totem pole was a gift from Raven. It was named Kalakuyuwish, "the pole that holds up the sky." The totem poles were often used as family crests denoting the tribe's descent from an animal such as the bear, raven, wolf, salmon, or killer whale. These poles were raised to celebrate important events such as births, marriages, and deaths, and might be accompanied by family or communal feasts. 

Poles were erected when a house changed hands, in which past and future owners were celebrated. They could be used as grave markers, and functioned as house supports or entryways to homes.


The word "toboggan" is a French mispronunciation of the Chippewa word nobugidaban, which is a combination of two words meaning “flat” and “drag.” The toboggan is an invention of the First Nations Peoples of northeastern Canada, and the sleds were critical tools of survival in the long, harsh, far-north winters. Indian hunters first built toboggans made of bark to carry game over the snow. The Inuit (once called Eskimos) used to make toboggans of whalebone; otherwise, a toboggan is made of strips of hickory, ash, or maple with the front ends curved back. The Cree word for toboggan is utabaan.

Tipi and Other Housing

Tipis, or tepees, are adaptations of portable housing invented by the Great Plains First Peoples, who were constantly migrating. These nomadic Native Americans needed sturdy dwellings that could stand up against the severe prairie winds and yet be dismantled at a moment's notice to follow the drifting herds of bison. The Plains Indians used buffalo hides to cover their tepees and as bedding.

Other types of houses that were invented by different groups to establish more permanent residences include longhouses, hogans, dugouts, and pueblos.


The word "kayak" means "hunter's boat." This transportation tool was invented by the Inuit Peoples for hunting seals and walruses in the frigid Arctic water and for general use. First used by Inuits, Aleuts, and Yupiks, whalebone or driftwood was used to frame the boat itself, and then seal bladders filled with air were stretched over the frame—and themselves. Whale fat was used to waterproof the boat and skins.

Birch Bark Canoe

The birch bark canoe was invented by Northeast Woodlands tribes and was their main mode of transportation, allowing them to travel long distances. The boats were made of whatever natural resources were available to the tribes, but mainly consisted of birch trees found in the forests and woodlands of their lands. The word "canoe" originates from the word kenu meaning "dugout." Some of the tribes that built and traveled in birch bark canoes include the Chippewa, Huron, Pennacook, and Abenaki.


Lacrosse was invented and spread by the Iroquois and Huron Peoples—Eastern Woodlands Native American tribes living around the St. Lawrence River in New York and Ontario. The Cherokees called the sport "the little brother of war" because it was considered excellent military training. The Six Tribes of the Iroquois, in what is now southern Ontario and upstate New York, called their version of the game baggataway or tewaraathon. The game had traditional purposes in addition to sport, such as combat, religion, bets, and to keep the Six Nations (or Tribes) of Iroquois together.


Moccasins—shoes made of deerskin or other soft leather—originated with the Eastern North American tribes. The word "moccasin" derives from the Algonquian language Powhatan word makasin; however, most Indian tribes have their own native words for them. Chiefly used for running and exploring outdoors, tribes could generally identify each other by the patterns of their moccasins, including the bead work, the quill work, and painted designs.

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Bellis, Mary. "Native American Inventions." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). Native American Inventions. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Native American Inventions." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).