Category Archives: Ancient Humans

Indigenous People of the Plains


On the northern plains of North America populations were sparse, as they are relatively today as well. According to Dickason and Newbigging “the population averaged less than 1 person per 10 sq. miles (26 sq. kilometres). Of course some places had much greater density than others. There were also significant seasonal influxes of population. Sort of like Arizona and Southern California today. In the north however it was not the great weather that attracted people, but the seasonal hunt. The bison hunt was the basis of the plains culture.

Everything depended on the food provided by bison. The calories provided by bison were astonishing. Some have considered it the miracle food. It was one of the greatest food resources on the planet, and the Indigenous people were the beneficiaries. Its ultimate loss was one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters ever!

As James Daschuk described it, in his remarkable book Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, which everyone should read who believes Canada is a fair country,  “Studies of skeletons have shown that, in the mid-nineteenth century, peoples on the plains were perhaps the tallest and best-nourished population in the world. As a result of the bison, the Plains were lands of great civilization.

There was another factor that pointed to a great civilization on the Plains. Bison Hunters used both drives and jumps depending on how the land was configured. According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging, in their book  A Concise History of Canada’s First Nationsthe earliest site was 5,000 years old!  Many jump sites are found near the Rocky Mountains the most famous of which is Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump in Alberta. I was very surprised when I visited it a number of years ago with our family. It was a very large site. It was so large tribes had to co-operate to use it. A group had to hunt cooperatively.  Archaeologists have discovered 30 mazeways along which bison (not really buffalo) were driven with up to 20,000 cairns that guided the bison to their doom.  When Europeans arrived the use of jumps was actually increasing.  Buffalo pounds were more common on the plains because, of course, the land was flatter.

The real significance of these sites however in my view was pointed out in a comment by Dickason and Newbigging: “These forms of hunting called for co-operation and organization within bands but also between bands and tribes. Impounding, or corralling, was the more complex method, a form of food production rather than hunting.”

And this required civilization.

Anishinabe/Ojibwa Spirituality


My daughter-in-law Debbi is part Anishinabe. I have learned a lot from her and her sister Kelsey. Kelsey is a teacher of Ojibwa culture and history. I have learned a lot from them , though not nearly enough.

Kelsey taught me that like so many Indigenous Peoples, Anishinabe (Ojibwa) people pay particular attention to directions.  This reminded me a lot of the Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest and Central America. Paying attention to the 4 directions helps orient them to the world around them and ground them in a place—a sacred place. This too is a recurring theme among many Indigenous nations. They often believe that their beliefs and spirituality arise naturally from their home place. I really like that idea. Wallace Stegner, a fantastic writer believed the same thing.

Kelsey taught me that the number 4 is sacred in their culture.  I also learned from my friend Carl Smith of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation that the Ojibway people have 4 fundamental interrelated concepts—Respect, purpose, balance and interconnection.

Kelsey also explained to me the importance of the Sweat Lodge. As the Canadian Encyclopedia explains it, “Sweat lodges are heated, dome-shaped structures used by Indigenous peoples during certain purification rites and as a way to promote healthy living.”

Inside the structures intense heat is generated usually from pouring water onto heated rock. That is done specifically to promote sweating because Anishinabe believe this will help to expel toxins and negative energy that creates imbalance and disorder in life. They believe it can help to cleanse the soul, mind, and body. This process may take several hours, but there is no set procedure that must be followed.

The Sweat Lodge is considered a sacred place compared often to a Mother’s womb. In fact that is what it is shaped like. The entrance to the Sweat Lodge usually faces east to symbolize a new day. In order to enter one must bend low to encourage humility. More religious people should practice humility. No let me correct that. More people should practice humility, including, me. Then one can exit the Sweat Lodge  reborn. Many people can gain deep spiritual experiences from the engagement with the lodge. It is hoped that one exits reborn. A new person. this is sort of like the Christian concept of being born again.

The person who operates the sweat lodge is often called the keeper. Often that person is an elder or healer. Usually no charges are incurred for the experience, though people are encouraged, but not required, to offer a gift of something like cloth or tobacco. Gift giving itself is often an important spiritual experience for people. This too is a recurring theme among Indigenous people. Sometimes tobacco is exchanged for advice.

The purpose of the sweat lodge is not to generate revenue, but to heal and cleanse body and soul. Non-trained operators are discouraged because it can be dangerous. In 2009 three  sweat lodge participants in a New Age “Spiritual Warrior” retreat near Sedona, Arizona died.

Sweat Lodges were strongly discouraged by European settlers of Canada as part of their efforts to suppress Indigenous spirituality in favor of their own Christian belief system. It was part of that wholly unjustified sense of superiority again.

One of the things I liked best about the Sweat Lodge ceremony was that anyone could participate. No particular beliefs are required. No particular beliefs about whom or what one is worshipping is a pre-requisite either. Anyone who is respectful can participate.  I believe that is how all religions should operate.

I hope to learn much more about Anishinabe culture from my new family.


Anishinabe (Ojibwa or Ojibway) are the Indigenous People with whom I have had the most contact.

To begin with, my son Nicholas married Debbi a woman who is the daughter of an Anishinabe woman and one of the most wonderful women I have ever met. Her daughter is cut from the same cloth and we are very proud to have her part of our life. Not only that they have produced 2 wonderful children who are now our grand children.

I also have a significant connection with the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation because I was part of a group that partnered with them to establish an ecological reserve near their reserve and we would never have got it established if it were not for their co-operation.

I have also got to know Anishinabe people at Buffalo Point where we have a cottage on land leased from them in their reserve. As a result I have got to know a number of Anishinabe people personally.

All of this is to show that I am not entirely unbiased when it comes to the Anishinabe people.

According to John L. Steckley and Bryan Cummins in their book, Full Circle Canada’s First Nations, “Anishinabe” is the name that the people of all groups of Ojibwa (or Ojibway) usually use to call themselves. “Ojibwa” is the name given to them by Europeans, though some groups have adopted the European names. For example, the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation in Manitoba uses the name “Ojibway”. As far as I am concerned each group can use whatever name they choose, and the rest of us should usually respect that choice. In the United States they are often called Chippewa.

Like so many other First Nations or Indigenous People, the name of Anishinabe for themselves is the word for “human beings” or “people.” Scholars believe that the original Anishinabe came south from the Eastern Subarctic. They may have moved to the Atlantic coast and then to the north shores of Georgian Bay and Lake Superior. Later many moved to the prairies when European traders arrived there.

Three of the bands survived: Mississauga, Saulteaux, and Ojibwa. Did you know that the following words are all based on Ojibwe words: “chipmunk” (referring to squirrels), “totem” (referring to clan), and “pecan” (meaning nut.)

In the area of the Great Lakes the Anishinabe/Ojibwa people occupied the region of the boreal forest north of the lakes . I love that country.   We drove through it last year and I  had to stop many times to take photographs. There they hunted moose beaver, and other animals and collected berries, tubers, and birch bark. As far as I know, there they were mainly hunter/gatherers.

These people were traders long before Europeans arrived to teach them how. Groups farther north were generally not as active traders because trading partners were spread out more. It is difficult to trade with someone 1,000 kilometers away. The Ojibwa traded beaver pelts of the area they occupied to the Odawa and Huron peoples farther to south and east in exchange for horticultural products like corn and tobacco.

Like the Cree farther west, the Ojibwa lived mainly in small family hunting groups and were constantly in search of game and fish. It was a pretty good life.

Gradually the Anishinabe moved further west into the territory of the Cree for reasons that are not entirely clear, but probably to trade with the Europeans who had arrived there by then. In the prairies in particular, they also farmed, particularly wild rice.  I will have more to say about this later. Anthony Hall, in his wonderful book, The American Empire and the Fourth World,  called there manner of farming “Among the most vital living expressions of Aboriginal agriculture in North America.” I will discuss this in greater detail later.

Ancient People of Canada


The more we learn about Indigenous People of the Americas the more we are forced to realize we did not know very much. Recent discoveries are leading scientists to believe that people have lived in what we now call Canada for much longer than people have previously believed.

Recently, scientists have discovered an ancient village on the west coast of Canada. The arrival of Europeans on the west coast of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are more well known.

The recent discovery is  of a 14,000-year-old ancient village and this might change our perception of early civilization in North America. Researches have said these remains are much older than the the Giza pyramids of Egypt. They have found artefacts that reach right back to the Ice Age. Interestingly this aligns with oral traditional history of some First Nations which history was previously discounted. Scholars may have to rethink their customary disparagement of traditional knowledge.

According to J. V. Wright, Curator Emeritus of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and author of A History of the Native People of Canada: Volume I (10,000 -1,000 B.C.) the earlier and orthodox archaeological view of native history the first period which occurred from 12,000 to 10,000 B.P the material cultures that were called the Palaeo-Indian and Northwest Palaeo-Arctic stretched across sites in what we now call the Yukon, the Prairies, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. These cultures have similarities with the Dyuktai culture in Siberia dating back as far as 18,000 B.P. This is understandable since it is generally now believed that the first Indigenous People arrived in the western hemisphere after travelling from Asia across the land bridge that was exposed at that time on account of lower sea levels.

The shared features include wedge-shaped tools made out of rock, not flakes that are broken off, microblades (which are flakes from a core sample of rock), bifacial knives (knives with a blade on both sides), and burins (stone tools for working with antler and bone).

The second period was set by Wright as the period from 10,000 to 6000 B.P. During this time, weapons technology developed substantially. For example, the atlatl or spear thrower was so effective that megafauna (Huge animals found in North America) started to disappear as a result of hunting from Indigenous people. We have to remember that Indigenous people were responsible for some extinctions too. They were not environmental saints.

It is difficult for scientists today to agree with certainty how these ancient people were related to current Indigenous peoples for as they often say, “the stone tools don’t talk.” They have to proceed on the basis of inferences, rather than firm science. This job is made more difficult by the fact that these people migrated widely.  For example, according to their own traditions, the Anishinabe people moved from the Atlantic coast to Quebec and Ontario. Later they even moved into Manitoba, where many of their descendants now reside.

The third period occurred from 6000 to 3000 B.P. The people of this period are the likely ancestors of the Algonquin nation and perhaps Hodenosaunee (Iroquois).

I think what is most important about his history is the necessary recognition if you want to know the history of Canada, the history since the contact of Indigenous people with Europeans is a very brief period of time. This is not a Christian country, or a country founded by the English and the French. This country was founded by the Indigenous Peoples. For example, the first Europeans came to Manitoba less than 400 years ago. That means that more than 95% of the history of the people of this province is not European. As John L. Steckley and Bryan Cummins said in their book, Full Circle Canada’s First Nations, “If you want to learn your history, you need to learn about Natives first.”

Hodenosaunee (People of the Longhouse)



The Five Nations (Iroquois) that straddled what eventually became the border between Canada and United States liked to call themselves the Hodenosaunee or People of the Longhouse. Iroquois is the name the French gave to them. Their territory was much larger than that of the Huron, but their population was much smaller. They made up for their smaller numbers with political savvy and a reputation for fierceness. That and their location gave them a critical advantage that came strongly into play when the Indigenous Nations started to form alliances with European powers, for that location gave them control of the major trading routes from the east coast to the interior of North America.

As a result of their larger territory the Iroquois villages were much more spread out than those of their rivals, the Huron. As a result their languages became more distinct as well. Interestingly, while the men cleared the fields for agriculture the women did the farming. Each village had its own cornfield surrounding it. The Hodenosaunee and the tribes of the west coast had the most substantial agricultural systems. Some had some farming however. For example, the Ojibwa or Anishinabe relied on an uncultivated crop—wild rice. They were not as dependent on farming however as ordinary crop farmers. According to Dickason and Newbigging, in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, “Iroquoians grew 80% of their food requirements.”

Each village had its own fledgling democracy as a result of establishing their own councils. These democracies were very influential later on the Founding Fathers of the United States who borrowed from ideas of the Hodenosaunee.  Each nation also had its won council and nation’s council would meet in one of the villages.

I was startled to learn that the leaders were chosen by women! Isn’t that heresy? It was heresy to the Europeans, but not to the Hodenosaunee. Women chose and disbarred the leaders.

Hodenosaunee (Iroquois) society was divided into clans or families similar to nations n the west coast. I wonder how that happened.

The Iroquois formed a Confederacy known as “The Great League of Peace.” A Council of 50 chiefs representing participating tribes governed the League. The League also managed the problem of giving authority to the various tribes. As a result centralization was not perfect. Member tribes often had a significant amount of autonomy. Their aim was to maintain peace and one of the main ways of doing this was through the exchange of condolences and gifts. I am constantly amazed at how often in Indigenous cultures gift giving was important.  The one who gave the most often had the most prestige. Very different from European culture where prestige went to the person who acquired the most. Again this was similar to civilization on the west coast of Canada. I use that word “civilization” advisedly.

Once more this leads me to ask who was more civilized The European invaders or Indigenous People? My point is not that Indigenous people were always better. It simply that it is far from obvious as Europeans believed, that Indigenous People were always inferior.


The Huron Confederacy was mainly found in Ontario, as it is now called, between Lake Simcoe and the southeastern corner of Georgian Bay. This was about as far north as agriculture could succeed with Stone Age technology, but the Hurons managed it.  According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, “The Huron had about 2,800 hectares (7,000 acres) under cultivation.”

It was also said, by Gabriel Sagard,  “In Huronia, it was easier to get lost in a cornfield than in a forest.”  This was not a civilizational backwater, The Huron traded with Indigenous Nations to the north by supplying them with corn, beans, squash, and good old tobacco, in return for furs and hides. Both sides benefited from the trades as it is supposed to work. According to Dickason and Newbigging, “The beauty and bounty of the land were such that when the French first came to their country, the Huron assumed it was because France was poor by comparison.” That might actually have been true. Unfortunately for the Huron, their trading system ultimately disintegrated before the onslaught of European traders. That was not uncommon after contact, but before then trade was very successful. That does not mean there were no conflicts between the Indigenous Nations.

Europeans destroyed much in their haste to impose their own system. They were guests in the country, but that did not stop them from taking over. That was a pity because they had a pretty good system up to then.

Egalitarian Societies


Just like everything else, social development varied widely throughout the Americas. Diversity was the key to everything. That meant that some hunter-gatherer societies continued in the traditional ways. At the same time others picked up and adopted traits from farming communities. As an example, through trade in many areas bothtrading partners gained from the trade and promoted richer societies. As Dickason and Newbigging explained in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, “The way of life of each was richer for their interchange, yet each retained its specific character. Similarly, there were farming peoples who retained the hunting-gathering mode even as some of their neighbours developed into –city-states, and, in one or two cases, empires. And while most Amerindian societies operated on an egalitarian basis, some societies, especially those that were more sedentary and had rich resource base, such as on the west coast, developed complex hierarchies based on kinship.”

Some societies eschewed hierarchies. As Dickason and Newbigging reported, “Egalitarian societies did not separate authority from the group as a whole…In those societies, available resources were open to all, and their leaders used influence rather than force. Free sharing ensured that the superior skills of, say, a hunter benefited the group rather than just the individual hunter.

The power of chiefs depended on their ability to provide for their followers. The leader’s role was to represent the common will. They did not use force and they would have quickly lost their position if they had tried. This lent extreme importance to eloquence, the power to persuade. A chief’s authority was ‘in his tongue’s end;’ for he was powerful in so far as he is eloquent. Failure in this regard meant loss of position. Among the Mi’kmaq, a chief could attract followers, but they were not subordinated to their leader’s will, except perhaps in time of war. Even in warfare however, among many groups the individual was essentially his own leader. Perhaps most important of all, chiefs were expected to set an example for their people, in particular by being generous. Instead of gaining wealth through their positions, they could end up the poorest of the group because of the continual demands made upon their resources. ”

Donald Trump would not have stood a chance of becoming a leader. Now who is civilized again?  I wish someone would explain to me again why I should think Europeans were less savage, more civilized, or more superior than indigenous people.

In addition to having established leaders, some individuals were selected because of their particular skills or spiritual powers. They were chosen by consensus. For example, leaders of a buffalo hunt might be chosen that way. Or for a raid. Or for gathering food.

Some groups like the Anishinabek (Anishinabe or Ojibwa) of the Great Lakes region maintained both hereditary chiefs as well as chiefs chosen by consensus. This system often worked surprisingly well. Certainly the European system was no clear improvement.

As Dickason and Newbigging said, “The general lack of quarreling or interpersonal conflicts in Amerindian communities impressed Europeans, who wondered how peaceful relations could prevail without the threat of force in the background.” That does not mean things were perfect. They had problems of leadership just like Europeans did.

According to Dickason and Newbigging chiefdoms only developed in the Northwest Coast of Canada (as it is now called) did.  Only there did the Indigenous people have “clearly marked class divisions between chiefs, nobles, and commoners based on wealth and heredity.”

In some respect the Indigenous people of the Americas had superior political systems than the Europeans to whom they were presumed inferior.  That does not mean they were perfect or better in all respects. But Europeans could have learned things from them if they had been inclined to listen and check their prejudice.  Sometimes it really is difficult to find much superiority in the invaders of the New World.

Pueblo Bonito in the Chaco


Time was important to the people at Chaco. Again, this is not that different from the Maya who were obsessed with time. It is was extremely useful to the people of Chaco to determine when they should gather seeds and plant crops. They also used it to decide when certain ceremonies should happen.  As Robbie Robertson, the narrator of Native America said, “At the very center of Chaco, builders built a sacred space to unify time and place. Pueblo Bonito. It is the largest of the city’s 12 great houses with over 800 rooms and 30 ceremonial kivas.”

G.B. Cornucopia, a Park Ranger at the Chaco Culture National Park, said the structure could be interpreted as a large storage facility or a ceremonial center or as a clock! “To GB Cornucopia Pueblo Bonito and the sky are intricately linked The Great House is aligned to the 6 directions. One wall runs east-west and another north-south. Each day as the sun gets higher in the sky its shadow creeps closer to the north-south wall.” As Cornucopia pointed out, at solar noon when the sun is at its highest point in the sky is directly on the wall.

Pueblo Bonito is a clock that tracks the sun during the day. It’s also a calendar that tracks it during the year. Every day the sun sets on a different place on the horizon. The solar year starts out on the winter solstice when it sets in the south. On the summer solstice it sets in the north the two days half way in between are called equinoxes. And today on the fall equinox the suns lines up with the east-west wall. The north wall tracks the day; the west wall tracks the year. Built to the 6 directions Pueblo Bonito unites place and time.”

People naturally tell time by their relationship with the sky. Most of us have forgotten this because we have innumerable devices that tell us what the time. Devices such as watches, computers, and smart phones. Before the ages of these devices people would look at markers on the horizon and the place of the sun in relationship to those markers and they could tell the time and the season.

Native American people like those who lived at Chaco, looked at the sky to tell them when to plant and when to harvest. They also looked at the sky to determine when their various ceremonies ought to take place. This gave it spiritual significance. “Their city is the physical embodiment of their world view. It is a way of living that is both scientific understanding of the cycles of the earth, sun, and the stars and a spiritual quest to find their place within it.” In my view that is what religion is all about. It is a means of healing the alienation we feel towards the world, and replacing that feeling with a feeling of connection to the world. That is what finding our place within that world means. It tells us how we are connected and that we are not alienated or severed from that world.

It is of great interest to me that this belief is found in so many different spiritual belief systems. So many belief systems fundamentally seem to have the same beliefs. I think that shows how we are all one.


Native America


I thought I should let people know where I am headed with series of blog posts about Native Americans. I probably should have done that sooner. I hope some of you are interested in the subject. I think it is important. In fact it is one of the most important issues and is complicated by the great variety of Indigenous groups and the long a complicated history between colonizers and colonized.

The more I learn about Native Americans the more I am surprised by them. By Native Americans I mean the people of North, Central, and South America that lived in what we call the Western Hemisphere and they call Turtle Island when the Europeans officially arrived in 1492. Like Europeans, there were an astonishing variety of peoples in the Americas. They did not think and act alike anymore than humans from Europe, Asia or Africa did. Diversity is the most important key to understanding Indigenous people. And that diversity is their greatest asset.

We can learn a lot from them. But to do that we have to ditch our inbred sense of superiority. We  have to look at them without bias and with empathy. If we can to that we will be blessed.

I want to look at some specific Indigenous groups, both Canadian and American from a historical perspective before contact with Europeans and then look at the effects of European colonization and finally some modern issues. Of courses, as always I will be meandering and even switch to other topics as I see fit.

I hope some of you accompany on these meanderings.


Pueblo Traditions

I am still exploring what the Americas are like before Europeans arrived. Until fairly recently we did not know much about those societies. Partly that was because by and large the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas (North and South) often did not keep written records.  And partly that was because the Europeans and their descendants believed they had nothing useful to learn from Indigenous People. This is part of what I have called the original sin. This attitude had a profound effect on subsequent relations between the Europeans and their descendants and the Indigenous people. Attitudes of superiority stood in the way of learning of Indigenous people and as I am trying to show, there was much of value to be learned from the Indigenous people. They had lived in the Americas for thousands of years and had gain vast important knowledge about how to live there. had Europeans not been so blinded by feelings of superiority things could have been very different.

There are about 20 tribes of Pueblo people in the American southwest. They include, among others, the Zuni and Hopi in Arizona . Pueblo people share many (but not all) religious beliefs but have different languages. Most modern Pueblo tribes trace their ancestry to the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the American Southwest.

Pueblo traditions are different from some Christian traditions. Their traditions tell the Pueblo people that they must honor Mother Earth by taking care of her. Would you not take care of your ultimate reference? In the film series Native Americaa a Hopi woman who was not shown, recounted in Hopi the following myth (and I use this word carefully not to reference something that is not true, but rather something that is important, very important):


“Massaw told us this world is a gift to us

And we must care for this place

He said, ‘To find your home you must find the center place,’

So we made a covenant to walk to the world’s farthest corners

To learn the earth with our feet

And to become one with this new world

And to find our center place”


In the origin story of the Pueblo people they were given a sacred quest after they emerged from the earth. They were told to find the center place. Some went clockwise and some counter clockwise. They built an image in the rock to show where they were. It was a spiral around a center spot. “Finding the right place–the center place–lies at the heart of Pueblo belief. It is more than a physical location. It is about living in balance with the natural world.”

For example, as Robbie Robertson said in the television series,  “The search for the center place is built right in to the kivas.  Every kiva is aligned to the 4 compass directions.” Of course there are 2 more sacred directions, namely up and down. When the people climb out of a ladder in a kiva it is symbolic of their journey where they emerged from the earth. The Hopi believe the 6 directions give the Kivas great power.

I believe that this belief played an important role in life of ancient people in the America southwest (and elsewhere). At the same time, the fact that it was largely ignored by Europeans when they arrived was also important. Things could have been different.