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American Origins
American Origins

Polaris, the North Star, is found by imagining a line from Merak (β) to Dubhe (α) and then extending it for five times the distance after Dubhe (α) to Polaris (α Ursae Minoris).[2]

Follow the Drinking Gourd, ca. 1865

Escaping slaves understood then that, like the folk song quoted above, the jockey statue would guide them to the Underground Railroad and to freedom. (In "Follow the Drinking Gourd," the lyrics surreptitiously suggested slaves follow the "drinking gourd," a nickname for the Big Dipper, which pointed to the North Star and the way to freedom. Among other things, it advised that travel was safest in the spring "when the sun comes back.")[1]

Image: Polaris, the North Star, is found by imagining a line from Merak (β) to Dubhe (α) and then extending it for five times the distance after Dubhe (α) to Polaris (α Ursae Minoris).[2]

A drinking gourd is a long-stemmed gourd cut and hollowed to look like a large spoon or ladle. Some ancient cultures, such as Africans and Native Americans, used gourds as utensils for scooping water.

Plains Indians Peyote Rattle: Peyote Rattle made by Nishkû´ntu (John Wilson or Moonhead, Caddo/Delaware ca. 1845–1901)

Peyote Rattle, ca. 1845–1901

Image: Plains Indians Peyote Rattle: Peyote Rattle made by Nishkû´ntu (John Wilson or Moonhead, Caddo/Delaware ca. 1845–1901)
ca. 1885; Oklahoma; Gourd, wood, hide, glass beads, brass bells, feathers; 80 x 10 x 9 cm
"While the rattle has always played significant roles in American Indian ceremonial life, it is particularly important in the Native American Church, used with the water drum to accompany the songs performed during the all-night peyote ceremony."[4]

This rattle represents Tirawahat, the universe and ancient supreme being of the Pawnees. The inscribed stars identify the four sectors of the universe and the deities that preside over each. The Black Star, thunder, rules the northeastern sky. The Red Star, lightening, rules the southeastern sky. The White Star, wind, rules the southwest. And, the Yellow Star, clouds, rules the northwest. Tirawahat created everything. The four stars then sang and struck the earth, separating the land from the water and providing a place to live for people, who were soon to be created.[5]

Skidi Pawnee rattle, ca. 1890; Oklahoma; Gourd, wood, hide, pigment; 27 x 10 cm

Early visitors to North America found the Choctow and Chickasaw Indians used gourd birdhouses to attract colonies of purple martins to their villages for insect control. Native American children, according to legend, were encouraged to make noise and run through planted areas, shaking gourd rattles to frighten off marauding birds. The gourd was probably one of the very first musical instruments, as it was picked up and shaken, and soon accompanied songs and ceremonies, Summit notes in Gourds in Your Garden (1998). [3]
The Native American Gourd Dance is a dance using a gourd as a rattle.
Image: Skidi Pawnee rattle, ca. 1890; Oklahoma; Gourd, wood, hide, pigment; 27 x 10 cm

Early American uses have indicated that foods and belongings were stored in gourds that were tied with ropes into trees, thus protecting them from animal predators. Native Americans boiled food by dropping hot rocks into gourds filled with liquids. Gourd ladles that are scorched on the bottom indicate that they were used to pour and spread batter on cooking stones. Beer was made by fermenting grains and plants in gourds. "Men and women on several continents chewed betel nut mixed with crushed lime and carried in special gourd containers. Rubbing oils, body dyes, medicine, seeds, bait and gunpowder were stored and carried in specially constructed gourd canteens."

Mariano Flores Kananga (Quechua, ca. 1850–1949), carved gourd; ca. 1925; Ayacucho, Peru; Gourd, pigment; 17 x 18 cm

Kananga carved gourd, ca. 1925

Image: Purepecha (Tarascan) gourd vessel, 1940–1950; Michoacán State, Mexico; Gourd, paint, wood; 29 x 35 cm
The Mexican state of Michoacán is home to some 100,000 Purepecha people, whose ancestors were never conquered by the Mexica Triple Alliance (Aztec Empire). Sometimes referred to as Tarascan, the Purepecha live in villages that specialize in particular arts, such as creating painted trays and gourds.[6]

Image: Mariano Flores Kananga (Quechua, ca. 1850–1949), carved gourd; ca. 1925; Ayacucho, Peru; Gourd, pigment; 17 x 18 cm
We are confident that this engraved gourd—an Ayacucho-style sugar bowl—was crafted by Mariano Flores Kananga, a Quechua-speaking peasant from the village of San Mateo, at the top of Mayocc in Tayacaja Province, Peru. Flores is recognized as the best narrator of Peruvian customs, stories, and important events working in the medium, a traditional art of his time. In pieces made by Flores, we see information in even the smallest detail, so much so that people recognized each figure he depicted. This scene—the final encounter between Peruvian and Chilean forces at Arica on June 7, 1880—represents one of the culminating moments of the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), which weakened Peru’s position as a continental power.[7]

Stone Squash, Aztec

Stone Squash, Aztec 10th century

Cē Ācatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl is a mythologised figure appearing in 16th-century accounts of Nahua historical traditions, where he is identified as a ruler in the 10th century of the Toltecs.[8]
Under his guidance a marvellous city was built: Tollan (TOW-lawn), whose people would be known as the Toltecs.
These Toltecs were rich: Squashes were six feet around, and corn cobs so tall and fat that you could barely wrap your arms around them. Any smaller than that and the Toltecs would simply toss the stunted cobs as kindling to stoke their steaming sweat baths. Chocolate flowed, and the popular amaranth stalks grew so tall that children played in their branches. Dyes were unknown and unneeded––cotton grew in every color of the rainbow. Beautiful birds flocked to the city and sang happily in their arbors. Because no one knew want, covetousness was unheard of.[9]

Image: Mexican squash (pumpkin) with its flower, c. 1440-1521, porphyry (igneous rock), length 30 cms., National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.
This representation of a squash is so true-to-life that in order to test his audience’s powers of observation a former director of Mexico’s National Anthropology Museum once displayed it in a case with a green pumpkin from a local market, and his visitors merely wondered why he had set up a botanical exhibition in an archaeological museum. It shows the Aztec convention of having a single work embrace both the fruit and the flower.
This object may have been an offering in a temple of agriculture, for the squash or pumpkin ranked with corn and beans as a staple. Also, the seeds were salted in ancient times for ‘pepitas’ (a roasted snack, like peanuts).
Carbon 14 analyses of the dried remains of this variety of squash found in a dry cave in Mexico have yield dates between 7000 and 5500 BCE, making it one of the oldest domesticated plants in the New World.[10]

Image: Stone Squash, Aztec. [11]



  • Celebration of Halloween was extremely limited in colonial New England because of the rigid Protestant belief systems there. Halloween was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies.
  • As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups as well as the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing.
  • In the second half of the nineteenth century (late 1800s), America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the Irish Potato Famine, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.
  • Borrowing from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.
  • In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes.
  • By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, community-centered holiday
  • Some of the earliest guitars and violins in the United States were made from Calabash by African slaves.[7]
    Gourds were used as bird feeders as well as houses and that American settlers felt that eggs lasted longer and were safer from pests if they were kept in a special bushel gourd.


  • Gourd Skeleton

    [10] (Adapted from Before Cortés: Sculpture of Middle America, Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970, p. 307.)
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