Native American Inventions

Inventions, Ingenuity and Native Americans

Alert Bay, Carver creates new pole, British Columbia, Canada.
Chris Cheadle / Getty Images

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.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, there are several different types of totem poles, among them, for example, the "memorial, or heraldic, poles, erected when a house changes hands to commemorate the past owner and to identify the present one; grave markers, house posts, which support the roof; portal poles, which have a hole through which a person enters the house; and welcoming poles, placed at the edge of a body of water to identify the owner of the waterfront."


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 (sometimes 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 wigwams that were invented by the Great Plains First Peoples, who were constantly migrating. The seven main styles of housing that Native Americans invented include the wickiup, wigwam, longhouse, tipi, hogan, dugout and pueblo. 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. The Plains Indians used buffalo hides to cover their tepees and as bedding.


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 sources were mainly available to the tribes, but mainly 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.