In this alternate "Wild-West" setting, one Indian tribe is known for its inventions, from music boxes to steam-powered mobile homes. I'm looking for a backstory to explain how this came about.

I'm inspired by the story of Sequoia:

As a silversmith, Sequoyah dealt regularly with whites who had settled in the area. He was impressed by their writing, referring to their correspondence as "talking leaves". He knew that they represented a way to transmit information to other people in distant places.

He became the first man to single-handedly create an alphabet, in his case for the Cherokee language.

A) Were there any real-life Native American inventors, scientists, or other figures who could have done the same for mechanical inventions? (Even if he was born in the 20th Century? I'll just set his birthday backwards a hundred years or so.)

B) My first thought was that this individual would be exposed to such invention by contact with the Europeans and American settlers; possibly by being educated at Harvard College or Oxford or something. But I'd like to avoid the "insensitive and offensive tropes" mentioned below. How might a culture of invention have arisen independently among the Native Americans?

  • $\begingroup$ I don't know of any , but why not an alternate history with Sequoia where that happened? He was apparently an intelligent guy. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Jul 4 '16 at 4:15
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    $\begingroup$ Can you explain what is precisely your question? I mean it seems to me that you somehow answer yourself. One clever Native American got educated in the west, and brings back steam engineering back to its tribe. What do you want to know apart from that? $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Jul 4 '16 at 6:06

They would need some kind of fuel source, wood burning steam engines are not very impressive, charcoal is better but making it is a time/labour intensive process.

So unless your tribe has access to some other worthwhile energy source they're going to be mining coal, which precludes being nomadic, and a lot of men will be dying of coalworker's pneumoconiosis, aka black lung disease. As much as we romanticise the steam engine they're filthy inefficient machines and coal mining was a horrible business, the era of steam was a bleak time.

Nobody wanted to mine coal, but it was a time of great disparity and coal mining was a relatively well paying job. A lot of people risked an early death to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, while orphans and criminals weren't given a choice. With wealth disparity comes class division, crime, substance abuse, prostitution, disease, destitution and death, it's basically the British all over again.

  • $\begingroup$ Thorium is a fairly common naturally occurring fuel source in Canada. $\endgroup$ – liljoshu Jul 5 '16 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ What if you have coal that occurs at the surface and is mined there? Or what if you just burn some sort of nearby and fast growing plant that is easy to dry and burn $\endgroup$ – BlueWizard Jul 6 '16 at 12:53
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    $\begingroup$ Even if there's lots of surface deposits of coal just laying around all over the country (which is terrifying) moving industrial machinery around is no easy feat. A hammer and tongs will only get you so far, if you want to shape large pieces of metal you need a hammering machine, if you want to make precise shapes (like nuts and bolts) you'll need a lathe, furthermore how are you going to process ore without a foundry? Once you have all this infrastructure in one place why travel around gathering coal when you could mine far greater quantities from the underground coal seams nearby? $\endgroup$ – Cognisant Jul 8 '16 at 1:44

The idea that a First Nations individual was taught by White Europeans and then boot-strapped their tribe up to more advanced technology puts you in danger of falling into a number of insensitive and offensive tropes.

Keep in mind that, before European contact and deliberate infection with plagues, many tribes were far larger, most had permanent settlements, and had developed a lot more agriculture and metallurgy that we were/are taught in history class.

Disease, particularly small-pox, wiped out conservatively 90% of the population. Maybe more. The classic image of the nomadic bands of hunter gatherers are largely the result of them living in a literal post disease apocalypse society.

So, to veer back towards answering your question. The first, most basic steam engine was made in North Africa around 60AD. Trade along the silk road brought items from that area all the way to the east coast of China. Persistent rumors and theories with at least tenuous evidence show Chinese ships may have landed on the North American west coast around 1410-1430.

So, it is possible for an Aeolipile (toy steam engine) to have made its way to coastal China as a curio, and thence be carried on ship by a sailor (probably the captain) as a family heirloom. So, this steam engine comes into the hands of a west coast tribe, and some young kid latches onto it. From there, they develop things purely by experimentation and innate talent.

  • $\begingroup$ Reference for the 90% - 99.9999999% wipeout stats? $\endgroup$ – Malady Jul 4 '16 at 1:57
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… second paragraph. $\endgroup$ – Tiwaz Tyrsfist Jul 4 '16 at 2:13
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    $\begingroup$ "The classic image of the nomadic bands of hunter gatherers are largely the result of them living in a literal post disease apocalypse society." This seems something of an exaggeration. The main reason for the classic image of nomadic bands of hunter/gatherers is that there was a long period where Europeans were expanding into the area dominated by hunter/gatherer tribes (mostly the plain states). Those tribes were always hunter/gatherer. The more agricultural tribes in the East were still agricultural when they died out (disease and war). $\endgroup$ – Brythan Jul 4 '16 at 2:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Brythan - Tagging you in, 'cause it seems like you know stuff or got sources. From the paragraph : "possibly in excess of 90% of the population in the hardest hit areas" - So average pop. loss is less than 90%, and that's not a conservative measurement, else it'd say probably? I think? $\endgroup$ – Malady Jul 4 '16 at 11:23

Before Columbus came to the Americas, the Americas were ravaged by a very intense plague (and yes, this is before the smallpox brought by colonists). The entire two continents were ravaged and recovering as it set them back hundreds of years, technologically speaking (before that point, they had more complex and functional societies. For example, smoke signal networks before the collapse meant you could literally get a message coast to coast in minutes, and there were North-America-wide treaties and agreements. With the plague, the network was spotty and only remained in pieces.) At its height, the smoke Signal network would be unparalleled in speed in transmitting messages for literally hundreds of years until the invention of the telegraph. At the time, the natives had the world's most advanced communications. This was already a start at controlling gas for their purposes. If reading/writing took off (like it did in Britain thanks to Queen E.) for any reason, massive learning would have happened very quickly.

Some people like to view that the natives were either just "Indians" and just one large group of barbarians, or that they were a bunch of unconnected tribes. Both of these are pretty much untrue. The Native tribes had the tribal council, which was basically the Native American version of the EU or UN. Existing wars were more symbolic (warriors even often avoided killing enemy combatants, and generally KOs were enough with a losing tribe admitting defeat and the war ending.) As far as socially goes, the natives were actually more advanced than the Europeans in a lot of ways.

However, plague hit, and their entire society was ravaged. Then, when they've finally hitting early stages of re-building and recovery after their fairly short dark age (compared to Europe's), the white man shows up and destroys it all again.

If that plague never happened, they would have been much more advanced. There's a chance the Native Americans could have been the ones colonizing Europe. At the very least, the "Pale faced invaders" would have faced a unified resistance after the Pilgrams murdered a group of the natives, and have had a harder time conquering than they did in Africa.

So all you need to do is have the plague not happen, and get a chief to be a "reading/writing is for everyone" advocate earlier in the history.

  • $\begingroup$ Thinking about adapting tech from smoke signals, and a renaissance-like native culture, hot air balloons would have been an early invention. Learning hot air rising provides lift, steam power wouldn't be far behind (although it may end up being "smoke power" instead of steam initially). I could see such an alternate history where Christopher Columbus lands and is met by an armada of native airships, and a nervous Chris is asked, "So, WHERE is this tribe you're from?" $\endgroup$ – liljoshu Jul 5 '16 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ There was a system of smoke signals to send messages from coast to coast in minutes? That sounds...highly unlikely. If you have any source for that, I'd love to see it. $\endgroup$ – Joe Jul 5 '16 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ I spent 3 years working at the Global Indigenous nations department at my college. The tribal scholars showed me maps of the major regions of tribes pre-Columbus, and that those who knew smoke signals and were bound by treaties connected from coast to coast (avoided southwest though), the stats of expected population density of the time, major tribal smoke signal sites on the maps, and how a message could easily transverse the whole continent. Tribal scholars don't publish much publicly though, keeping research in-tribe. Too much bad blood from research being stolen -eg. pharma companies. $\endgroup$ – liljoshu Jul 6 '16 at 16:42

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