Native American inventor proud of past, focused on future

Published 7:10 pm Friday, October 14, 2011

David Petite has a very simple view on the immigration issue raging in the United States.

“You are all immigrants,” he says with a smile. “We didn’t invite any of you here.”

He should know. Petite is a Native American, a member of the Chippewa tribe, where his father was a tribal chief in Wisconsin. His people were around long before we came to these shores and long before John Wayne was shambling around wearing a bad hairpiece and shooting “redskins.”

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In the many years I have been churning out columns and talking to a myriad of folks on an innumerable list of subjects, Thomas David Petite ranks high on the list as one of the most fascinating of them all. Raised in Atlanta, he is a renowned inventor in the area of energy conservation and communications and the holder of more than 35 patents in the United States. He was recently invited to the White House when President Obama signed legislation to overhaul the U.S. patent system and Gov. Nathan Deal has appointed him to the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns.

Petite is best known for his work in developing wireless mesh technology, which has led to the Smart Grid. At the risk of giving you eye-glaze, this technology will allow the operation of remotely monitored and controlled systems within a home or business and let us see how much energy we are consuming and adjust our consumption habits accordingly. Smart grids will allow utilities to better manage demand and home owners to cut their monthly energy bills by having real-time information on how much energy they have used. Petite says the day is coming when two-way connected smart meters will be installed in every home and that in the not-to-distant future that we will drive home, plug our electric car in and pay for our energy through a smart grid in lieu of waiting in line for gas.

Petite is also founder of the Native American Inventors Association. One of Petite’s passions is to enable more young Native Americans to use their creative abilities as he has done. He is also a founder of the Independent Native American Intellectual Property Council, a non-profit organization whose sole purpose is to provide assistance for getting the ideas of Native American inventors through the patent process and into full commercialization, creating new markets and new jobs.

While a number of tribes operate casinos around the country, Petite says, “Native Americans shouldn’t rely on gambling as a long-term resource.” He is convinced that there is a great deal of inherent talent to be tapped among the young people. When he isn’t busy with his latest inventions, he visits schools — usually third to sixth graders in low income areas of the Southwest — and gives them a box, tacks, rubber bands and a pencil and tells them to create something with the materials. “It is amazing what these kids can create out of these very simple materials,” Petite says, “It gets their creative juices flowing and then they realize that they have the potential to do great things.”

He knows first-hand about creating something from nothing. His first invention was a leaf blower that he fashioned out of a hair dryer as a kid and sold to Wal-Mart.

“They loved it,” he says.

Petite says Native American innovations didn’t start with him. The contributions of these indigenous people date back through millennia and he can recite them proudly. We eat potatoes — white and sweet — maple syrup, beans, corn, peanuts, popcorn, pumpkins, tomatoes, squash and nuts that were first grown by Native Americans, who then helped European settlers survive in the New World by sharing their farming methods with them. Nobody had ever heard of broccoli. Those were the good old days.

Before we immigrants ever arrived, Native Americans had perfected the log cabin, scalpels and syringes, created diapers, toboggans, canoes, played hockey and lacrosse, perfected camouflage and constructed decoys to catch geese without the benefit of a 10-guage semi-automatic shotgun.

These are not the Indians of your Saturday afternoon double feature at the local Bijou wearing war paint and getting shot off their horses by Gabby Hayes.

David Petite’s genius has blown up any and all stereotypes we may have of Native Americans. Plus, his inventions may change the way we consume, measure and manage our energy needs for generations to come. John Wayne had better be glad he didn’t run across this dude. It would have been no contest.

You can reach Dick Yarbrough at or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139.