A Grain Of Saul: A Daily Wire Video Suggested Native Americans Didn't Accomplish Much Until 1492. Hold Up!

Let's get some things straight.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

The first time I saw the Columbus Day video posted to conservative commentator Ben Shapiro's Facebook, I could only stare blankly at my computer, jaw agape. I had to rewatch it to make sure I wasn't missing something. 


I won't dignify the video by reposting it or linking to it here, but suffice it to say it was a poor attempt at some dark humor. Shapiro has since removed it, and did not respond to my initial request for comment. On Monday, he told CNN's Oliver Darcy that he was on vacation when it was produced by the publication he founded, The Daily Wire, that he didn't green light it, and that it was meant to be satire. He also told critics to "calm the hell down."

On Tuesday, he apologized and released a statement saying he had taken the video down. It was the right move, and I applaud Shapiro for reversing course.

While I understand that the video was meant as a joke — or a troll — by the Daily Wire staff, what it really succeeded in doing was perpetuating racism so dated, so ugly and so ignorant that even fans of Shapiro's "take no prisoners and crush the left" persona felt it went too far.

Fundamentally, though, the argument of the short video seemed to be this: Native Americans have contributed comparatively little to society, and thus Americans as a whole should celebrate Christopher Columbus' arrival, because he brought with him progress and technology. 

Of course, that's not true. And while it feels absurd to even have to write this, I am going to anyway — because even if Shapiro says that he didn't OK the video, that it was just satire, the video and its implications feel part of a larger trend backwards to tiki torches and plainly racist rhetoric.

Demonstrators in Philadelphia rally against white supremacy in August, 2017. Michael Candelori / Shutterstock.

First and most importantly, you should know that Native American contributions to society have almost certainly benefitted you. When I say Native Americans, I am referring to the men, women and children who occupied North America long before Columbus arrived, and the ones who are still here today. There are over 500 separate federally recognized Native American communities across the country. Each community has its own history and heritage, and this diversity, this uniqueness, should be respected and celebrated — and should not be painted with a broad brush.

It's also worth noting that these contributions are not exhaustive. The contributions of these groups, in sum, are simply too numerous. But let's take a moment and do a quick review of a few.

The Inupiaq used willow leaves and water on the body to treat swelling and pain. Inside willow leaves is salicin, a chemical compound scientists analyzed in the last 100 years to discover salicylic acid, which helped them formulate aspirin. Among others, the Aztec and the Inca pioneered anesthesiology, which you've benefitted from if you have ever had surgery. They used a concoction of peyote, coca leaves and datura as early as 1000 B.C.E., sometimes to perform medical procedures as complex as brain surgery.

Native Americans are also credited with building both the first bunk beds and the first hammocks, the latter an innovation that the Spanish subsequently stole from them to make long trips at sea more bearable. 

Oh, you can also thank Native Americans for some of the most popular snacks in America today: popcorn, chewing gum, jerky and chocolate all have their origins in Native American discovery and use. They also have you covered in the healthy foods aisle: groups living in Mesoamerica were the first to domesticate and farm avocados. Beans, squash, corn and cranberries were all originally farmed in Native American societies across what is now the southwestern United States.

A Tlingit canoe at the Alaska State Museum.

Their medical contributions went beyond some of the first recorded brain surgeries. The first syringes were made of hollow bird bones and used exactly how they are used today: to inject medicine into a patient or to remove substances from the body. While mathematics was a global phenomenon, it was the Mayans who independently developed the concept of zero (as it was being developed in India). The Olmec discovered and used rubber for sport, and Spaniards observed their technique for removing it from trees and then introduced rubber playing balls in Europe. 

Dams, canoes, parkas, lacrosse and even the origins of hockey can all be traced back to Native Americans. Petroleum was part of Native American fire ceremonies. Whoopee cushions were made of animal bladders and used in practical jokes that were documented in some of the world's earliest writing systems.  

Long before Columbus arrived, Native American groups made agricultural advancements, had advanced hunting systems that divided kills amongst the community, and built matriarchal societies that elevated women in ways the Western world wouldn't see again until the 21st century. 

Of course, these contributions are just a sliver of what was accomplished before Columbus arrived in 1492. And I haven't even touched on what many incredible, influential Native Americans communities and individuals have accomplished since. 

My only hope is that the staff members at The Daily Wire who posted the video will take the time to educate themselves.

Cover image via Shutterstock / Kenneth Sponsler.


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