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13 Facts About Native Americans You Didn’t Learn in History Class

Native Americans didn't all live in teepees and not all warriors were men.

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Little-known Native Americans history

Warrior women, brilliant inventions, hoaxes, and your favorite snack food. If you didn’t hear about these things when you studied Native American history in school, you missed out. Native American culture is not nearly as monolithic as your teacher might have had you believe. Read on to learn just a few of the things they might not have taught you about Native American history in school. Chances are, you didn’t learn these 15 other facts about America in school, either.

Native American woman, portrait of an Arapahoe woman, original title: 'Freckled Face (Arapahoe)', photograph by Frank A. Rinehart, 1899.Everett Historical/Shutterstock

There were female warriors

In the movies, male Native American warriors rode off to battle while their female counterparts remained behind to cook, sew, and take care of the camp. In real life, this wasn’t always the case. Many warrior Native American women fought alongside men. The most famous of these was probably Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe who fought in the Battle of the Rosebud and the Battle of Little Bighorn. In fact, according to the elders of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, it was she who dealt Custer his final deadly blow. Buffalo Calf Road Woman is just one of many incredible women you didn’t read about in history class.

Group of Native Americans in traditional garbEverett Collection/Shutterstock

Little Tree wasn’t who you think

Countless Americans grew up reading The Education Of Little Tree. Said to be a memoir of Forest Carter’s childhood living with his Cherokee grandmother and part-Cherokee grandfather, the book was praised for decades, taught in schools, and even recommended by Oprah. However, in 1991 historian Dan T Clark proved in the New York Times what many had long suspected, the book was a hoax written by Asa Carter, a white supremacist, and one-time Klu Klux Klan member. These 51 “facts” that everyone believes are also false.

native american tentsUniversal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

Native Americans had diverse housing

If the only thing you knew about Native Americans came from Hollywood, you would be forgiven for assuming every tribe lived in teepees, but this is far from the truth. Native Americans were encompassed by many tribes who spoke different languages and had different cultures and ways of life. Many of the Plains Indians tribes lived in teepees, but the nations of the Iroquois nation lived in longhouses, while the tribes of the Mesa Verde region dwelled in cliffs, while the tribes in Taos lived in pueblos, a site which makes the area one of the top 16 American cities for history buffs.

native americansAP/Shutterstock

Sometimes the truth is complicated

The phrase “Indian giver” has long been used as a derogatory term to describe a person who gives a gift, then takes it away. The implication is that gifts from Native Americans can’t be trusted because you might be asked to return them. The reality was, in fact, far more complicated, largely due to cultural barriers. White settlers came from a tradition of using money to make purchases, while Native American tribes largely relied on systems of bartering, which meant the objects they were offering weren’t actually gifts, but rather objects of value for which they understandably expected to receive something equivalent in return. You still wouldn’t want to call someone an “Indian giver,” but on the other hand, these 11 old insults have turned into compliments.

Bountiful Indian CornsCynthia Liang/Shutterstock

Guess who invented popcorn

Popcorn has long been associated with the movies, or in recent years, the microwave, but although many of us may have wondered why popcorn pops, few of us have asked where popcorn actually came from. The indigenous people of the Americas first domesticated the strain of maize which produces popcorn thousands of years ago. In fact, popcorn artifacts dating back to 6.700 years ago were discovered in Peru. So the next time you grab a handful of your favorite snack, remember it’s not just Orville Redenbacher you should be thanking.

maria tallchief ballerinaEverett Collection/Shutterstock

You need to hear about Maria Tallchief

If you managed to get through school without hearing about Maria Tallchief, you missed out on hearing about a pioneering woman who changed the world. Tallchief, whose father was a member of the Osage Nation, dreamed of being a ballet dancer from the time she was a little girl. At 17, she moved to New York City to pursue a career as a ballerina but racism stood in her way. She was advised many times to change her last name so her Native American heritage wouldn’t be readily apparent, but Tallchief refused. Her hard work, talent, and unwavering persistence paid off. Maria Tallchief eventually broke barriers as the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. She became the prima ballerina at the New York City Ballet and was regarded as one of the greatest dancers in the world.

a hockey stick and puck and ice skates on the icekml/Shutterstock

The origin of hockey

If you’re a hockey fan, you may be unaware you have the Saux, Foxes, and Assiniboine people to thank. They were among the Native American tribes who played a game called “shinny.” In shinny, a buckskin ball was hit down the field using a curved stick. In the winter months, the game was played over ice. White settlers took note and over time, shinny was developed into the modern sport we call hockey. Find out how every state got its name; many are rooted in Native American languages.

iroquois confederacyAP/Shutterstock

You can thank the Iroquois Nation for the constitution

Depending on how much you know about the constitution, you may be surprised to learn that Ben Franklin and the founding fathers modeled the United States constitution on the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy. However, Pamala Silas, associate director of outreach and engagement for the Center For Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern University, says, “Ben Franklin left out the most important part. The clan mothers were the ones who picked the leaders at the representative level because they knew them the best.”

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Native American artifacts are legally protected

It may be tempting to keep a cool artifact you find on federal or tribal land, but it might be against the law. The Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act recognizes that certain items belong to “lineal descendants, Indian tribes and Native Hawaiin organizations.” This protection applies to “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.” These Native American artifacts have found their way into a museum—where they belong.

jim thorpeEverett Collection/Shutterstock

Jim Thorpe was amazing

If you’re a sports fan, chances are you’ve heard of Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox nation and while you might know him for making Olympic history as the first Native American to win a gold medal (he actually won two, for the pentathlon and decathlon), you might be surprised to learn he also played professional football, baseball, and basketball. In college, he also played lacrosse and won a ballroom dancing championship. It’s no wonder many consider Jim Thorpe to be the greatest athlete of all time. These are 13 more Olympic moments that changed history.

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There’s more to Squanto’s story than you were taught

When your teacher taught you about the pilgrims of the Mayflower, you probably heard something about Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe who helped them survive. What many history books fail to say is that Squanto was equipped to help the pilgrims because he learned English after being kidnapped. Squanto was abducted by English explorer George Weymouth who took him to Britain as an exhibit for his financial backers. It was here he learned English. He was later returned to his homeland only to be abducted by Englishman Thomas Hunt, who sold him into slavery in Spain. He was eventually returned only to find his entire tribe had been killed by smallpox. It was only after this that he came into contact with the Mayflower passengers. Find out about 11 of the biggest lies that made history.

native american code talkersEverett Collection/Shutterstock

We can finally honor the code talkers

Until 2002, the heroic service many Native Americans Code Talkers performed in the United States military remained classified. After Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act, their story was told. In both World War I and World War II, Native American servicemen relayed messages behind enemy lines in their native languages and dialects. It was dangerous work, performed in a time when many Native Americans were fighting discrimination and discouraged from practicing their native culture back home. Their codes were never broken, giving the United States a huge advantage. Today, the Code Talkers are credited with changing the course of history. Discover 12 more untold stories of Native American heroes.

native americansUniversal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

Each tribe has a different culture

Most students only hear about a handful of Indian tribes with well-known names like Cherokee, Mohawk, and Sioux but there were countless different tribes. Even today the United States government officially recognizes almost 600 tribes. The National Park Service has a Tribal Preservation Program which assists these tribes in preserving their historic lands and important cultural heritage. Says Silas, it’s important to remember that, “each tribe has different religious practices, language, and origin stories.” Read on to learn about the meaning behind Native American beliefs and traditions.

Tamara Gane
Tamara Gane is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest covering travel, lifestyle, history, and culture. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, NPR, Al Jazeera, Wine Enthusiast, Lonely Planet, HuffPost Food, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @TamaraGane