Category Archives: Indigenous Issues

Squamish/Lil’wat Cultural Centre

Josh our interpretative guide

Chris and I visited  the  Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC)  on our visit to Whistler, British Columbia. It was built by two cooperating First Nations and is ranked by some as the number one Indigenous Cultural Centre in Canada. We knew nothing about it before we got there. One of the most impressive things about SLCC was that it was built by 2 competing (but cooperating)  First Nations. Coming from a small city where religious groups often have trouble agreeing on what day it is, we found this delightfully surprising.

The Skwxú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish) Nation and Liĺwat7úl) (Lil’Wat Nation)  say that they have coexisted respectfully as neighbours since time immemorial. Both nations have benefitted greatly from the land in which they were located on the west coast of Canada where the climate is relatively mild and food abundant. In particular they have thrived on the bounty of the ocean, the rivers, and the land — living in close relationship with the world around them.

Together these 2 proud nations have built the SLCC  to share their cultural knowledge in order to inspire understanding and respect amongst all people, and they hope that by visiting their Cultural Centre, all visitors will embrace this vision and live by it.

Both nations have treated the site with respect, building on one side of the property — leaving the forested area mostly untouched. The building is designed to evoke the longhouses of the Squamish people and the Istken (traditional earthen pit house) of the Lil’wat people with a modern architectural interpretation.

Our guide, Josh, welcomed us with a song and then led us to a theatre where we were shown the film Where Rivers, Skies, and People Meet. With the film and guided walk we learned a lot about these First Nations.

Ethnobotanists have learned much about the usage of various plants by indigenous people, even ancient people. None of these plants was more important to the Indigenous people of the coast, than cedar.

British Columbia has 2 native species of cedar tree growing in its temperate rainforest. First there is Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)the larger of the two. The second is Yellow Cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis) is not a true cedar either.

According to Nancy Turner, Red Cedar is the most versatile and most widely-used plant among coastal First Nations. Because yellow cedar bark is softer and more pliable than Red Cedar, it is used often for making clothing and other fibrous materials. Red Cedar is used more often to make canoes.  As a result it is the plant with a thousand uses.

They call the cedar “the Tree of Life.” They use the cedar tree for many purposes. For example they use it to make cedar pit houses. One was located on the grounds.

 

They build the pithouse in the earth so that it becomes one with the earth. They also use the cedar bark to make clothing. They use the roots for mats and room dividers so there would be some privacy in their homes.

As Alice Huang said, The astounding variety of objects that can be created from a single tree is a testament to a profound cultural interrelationship between humans and plants.” That is what is important. The people were the land. They were the environment. That connection is absolutely essential to their identity. It is not merely ancillary. Sometimes non-indigenous people fail to grasp the importance of this. That is why they ask why indigenous groups can’t live eleswhere.

Indigenous people also  used cedar in the tools they made and everyday objects they created out of the wood with those tools. As Josh explained, starting with the base of the tree they used the roots of the cedar to form cordage for hats and baskets. They created unique baskets, some of which were on display in the Cultural Centre. They could make their baskets waterproof and heatproof. As a result they were even able to use their baskets as pots and pans for cooking and boiling water! They used hot rocks to the heat the water in the baskets. Once the water was boiling they added food to it. Not a bad system. Roots were also used to make room dividers. As many as 40-60 people might be living in a pithouse, so privacy would be important.

The Indigenous people loved to use the cedar withes. These are the small sub-branches of the main branches. Some grow directly from the main trunk. Once the withes were harvest they could be used as cordage without any changes needing to be made. Some have called them the “bungee cord” of the temperate rain forest.

The withes are strong and lightweight and grow in very long strands, which then perfect for ropes and lashing. Coastal Indigenous people did not traditionally use metal nails or bolts. Instead they used withes to lash together planks on roofs or baseboards. They were therefore very important for house construction.

Josh explained that although the stripping of bark can damage a tree, the Indigenous people used great care to avoid causing damage. First they said a prayer and expressed their gratitude to the tree for all that it provided them. They respected the tree. They did not mow them down like Europeans did when they arrived on the west coast with their clear cutting practices that so appalled Indigenous people.

The men usually did the cutting down of the trees. The harvesting of the bark however was usually done by women. That required great skill. The women would not take more than 2 hands width of bark from a tree so that it would not be permanently harmed. That kept the tree alive and enabled it to be used again.Thanks to their efforts literally thousands of harvested trees that are still intact can be found throughout the region and all showing their characteristic scar marks.

The most versatile part of the cedar is the bark. Bark could be dyed and processed into different types of thread for mats, clothing, blankets, and hats. Like roots and withes, bark was also used to make ropes, baskets, and fishing nets. They used smashed brains from animals to rub into the materials to make them soft and pliable.

They really liked the inner bark of the Yellow Cedar because it was both soft and absorbent. Perfect for diapers for their children. There was no need for Pampers. Expectant mothers gave birth to their children in pits  lined with the inner bark. They also used them for bedding, towels, and even sanitary napkins. Bark also made good kindling for fires and even tinder for matches and torches. Expecting mothers gave birth in a pit lined with Yellow Cedar bark to receive the infant. Furthermore, dried bark burned slowly, providing excellent tinder for matches and torches.

Because cedar wood is so strong yet lightweight, it could be easily split and made into totems, masks, and longhouses. One vitally important use for cedar was in canoe construction. Josh showed us two important types of canoes in the SLCC. The SLCC had a fine example of two different types of canoes.  One was very large, the other small. The large one held a number of canoeists and a captain who guided the paddlers. They would usually sing songs as they worked. Josh gave us a cedar paddle to hold and I was struck by how light it was.  They were light yet sturdy enough for heavy paddling. West Coast indigenous people had a unique design for paddles with a sharp point that enabled them to cut through kelp.

Longhouses formed the central dwelling unit of each village, with large extended families living together under the same roof.  There could be up to 60 people living in one longhouse. Naturally, cedar poles formed the foundations of the house, and they were followed by a framework of fluted beams overlaid with cedar roof planks. Sometimes carved house frontal poles would be positioned at the entrance. This was very common among the Haida and Tlingit.

No Turbans: Racism in Canada

As we meander through western Canada we see many interesting things. Some of them are in biffies. In a road-side rest area in Alberta near Ross Creek I saw a hand painted sign on a towel dispenser. It was a rough outline of Alberta with two words written inside–“No turbans.” That is my photograph of it. (I felt weird carrying a camera into a buffie)  It revealed an ugly side to Canada, far removed from the liberal tolerant people we like to think we are. Sadly, racism and hate seem to be on a sharp upswing in the countries of the west and Canada is not immune.

Canadians are often smug when they compare themselves to Americans. Canadians assumethey are better. Sadly, the evidence is not always so clearly in favor of Canada.

I think the most telling case was the case of Brian Sinclair in Winnipeg. He was a 45-year old indigenous man who died from an entirely treatable infection after being ignored for 34 hours in a city ER. It was a clear case of staff in the hospital obviously thinking (what a poor choice of words!) that Sinclair was just another drunken Indian waiting for help.

Then there was the case of the wife of a Winnipeg lawyer and city councilman Gord Steeves. His wife was discovered making a racist rant online. At the time he was the front runner in the race to be mayor of Winnipeg. This is what she posted: “I’m really tired of getting harassed by the drunken native guys downtown”, she wrote on Facebook.  Then she went on, “We all donate enough money to keep their sorry asses on welfare, so shut the f–k up and don’t ask me for another handout!” The former city councillor and long-serving, centrist politician didn’t bother apologizing. What was the point?

This is what Terry Glavin wrote in the Ottawa Citizen: “By almost every measurable indicator, the Aboriginal population in Canada is treated worse and lives with more hardship than the African-American population. All these facts tell us one thing: Canada has a race problem, too.”

Here are some shocking statistics and comparisons from Terry Glavin made a few years ago which are still pertinent:

“The median income of African-American men is about $31,000. Among white American men it’s $42,000. In Canada, the median annual income for Aboriginal people living off-reserve is $22,500 (among those living on Indian reserves it’s $14,000); the average annual income for Canadian wage workers in general is about $48,000.

The unemployment rate among working-age Aboriginal people in Canada is 13 per cent – more than twice the general jobless rate among working-age Canadians. This is every bit as wide a gap as between African-American men and white American men.

Comparing welfare rates makes Canada look far worse. Slightly more than 10 per cent of African-Americans are on welfare, but in Canada, roughly a third of Aboriginal people are on welfare or some other form of income assistance.

Canada looks worse again when we look inside the prisons. African-Americans make up only about 12 per cent of the U.S. population, but 40 per cent of the U.S. prison population is African-American. A mere four per cent of Canadians are Aboriginal, but more than 23 per cent of the inmate population in federal institutions are Aboriginal people – an incarceration r         ate 10 times higher than among non-Aboriginal people.

Things are going downhill, too. Over the past decade, the Aboriginal population in federal prisons has grown by more than 50 per cent. In Western Canada, two-thirds of the inmates in federal and provincial institutions are Aboriginal people.

About 28 per cent of African-Americans are stuck with something less than a high school education – half again higher than the rate among white people. In Canada, about 29 per cent of Aboriginal people have less than a high-school education, compared to 12 per cent of non-Aboriginal people.

While a third of African-American children entering high school will drop out – twice the rate of white kids – current drop-out rates indicate that more than half of Canada’s Aboriginal kids probably won’t finish high school. That’s a drop-out rate roughly six times higher than among non-Aboriginal kids.

On reserves, 74 per cent of schools are so dilapidated they lack such basic amenities as drinking water. More than half the schools function without a library, a gymnasium, a science laboratory, or a kitchen. Of Canada’s nearly 1.5 million Aboriginal people, about half are under 15 years of age.

“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King proclaimed all those years ago.

African-Americans might be forgiven for every once in a while losing patience with how long it’s taking that arc to fully bend towards them. For Canada’s young Aboriginal people, it’s not clear that the arc of the moral universe is even bending in their direction at all.”

Obviously we still have a l long way to go.

Cooperation and Competition: Clovis Hunters and Gatherers

 

The Clovis people were the first that have been identified to come to the western hemisphere across the land bridge from Asia. There may have been others that preceded them, but they have not been identified.

Clovis hunters passed on their hunting skills and knowledge to the generations that followed. The Clovis men required intimate knowledge of their homeland so that their descendants could also survive the harsh conditions there during the tail end of the last Ice Age. As David Hurst Thomas explained, “This is why men wanted to stay put, insisting that the wife must leave her family and immediate homeland. The way Clovis men saw it, their familiarity with the land spelled the difference between life and death.” This attitude became part of the lasting heritage of Indigenous people in the Americas. A close connection to their environment—the land—is a vital part of their culture and identity. This attitude has been passed down for generations by all kinds of Indigenous peoples.

In Clovis society labor was usually divided along lines of gender. It was likely in part determined by physiological differences and also age.

As David Hurst Thomas described it life of Clovis people was closely bound to their roles in hunting and gathering:

“For physiological reasons , adult women are mostly responsible for nourishing and socializing infants and small children. These physical constraints led foraging women to do things that did not interfere with childcare and that could be performed near home. Yet even in male-dominated Clovis society, women provided critically important every everyday sustenance by cooking and collecting stationary resources such as plants and firewood. Women probably also took care of the meat after the hunt. Many times, their daily caloric contribution must have spelled the difference between survival and catastrophe.’

Not only that, as Yuval Harari showed, the gathering part of such societies was actually often more significant than the hunting as it provided for more sustenance. Yet Clovis society revolved around what men did. No surprise there. Men always seem to have a strong desire to be at the centre of most civilizations, whether justified or not. But really both genders played crucial roles in Clovis societies. As Thomas reports,

“Other biological factors must have charged adult men with the primary responsibility for safeguarding the home. The Clovis life style centered on the male hunter.  Those stalwarts felling six-ton mammoths must have been richly rewarded in ritual and folklore, in tribute and in station. But in truth, it was the primary male-female symbiotic bond that enabled Clovis society to survive.’

There is another factor that contributed greatly to the success of the First Americans and that is one that many moderns discount. Many people in the west, shaped by the economic forces of capitalism and its imposition of an ideology of competition have ignored the important role of co-operation. Humans are social animals.

The world famous Harvard scientist E.O. Wilson has called these the eusocial creatures. These are creatures that have learned that by containing multiple generations, these organisms are prone to employ altruistic acts as part of their division of labor. They are what he called “technically comparable to ants, termites, and other eusocial insects.” Wilson emphasized of course that that there are fundamental differences between humans and insects, such that most humans compete with each other in the force of reproduction.

Many people have noticed that in places of difficult living conditions such as the far north of Canada, the ability to co-operate is essential to survival. Rugged individualism does not work well in such places. To some extent the Clovis world in North America during the last Ice Age was also such a place. As David Hurst Thomas said,

“Another survival secret was their absolute dedication to reciprocity. Regardless of who killed an animal, or who harvested a plant, everyone was entitled to a share. Even the most esteemed hunter failed sometimes, and this prudent practice of sharing yielded all from short-term setbacks. Great honor was accorded to those who provided best and to those who share most willingly. Food hoarding was a public and criminal transgression.”

These attitudes were passed on to subsequent descendants of the First Americans. Later such attitudes evolved into what others have called the World with One Spoon, gift giving and the potlatch and most recently egalitarianism.

As far as researchers can tell, the Clovis people continued to grow and prosper but eventually they died out. Many of the later Indigenous peoples were however descended from these earlier humans—the First Americans. And many of those early traditions were carried forward.

Clovis People

 

The first people known and identified people to occupy the western  Hemisphere have been called Clovis. It is believed they crossed into the western hemisphere from Asia by travelling through Beringia the land bridge. After that they spread south and east and evidence of their existence has been found in many places.  It is believed that it took less than 2,000 years for them to reach the southern tip of South America. That is why many call them the first Americans, even though there is tantalizing but uncertain evidence of prior human occupation. The people were called Clovis after an archaeological site in New Mexico. I have driven near to Clovis but have not yet been there. Another pity.

Scientists have learned a lot about Clovis people from archaeological sites, particularly mammoth kills dating from about 9,500 B.C. (or 11,500 B.P.) to about 9,000 B.C. (11,000 B.P.). Scientists have discovered thousands of artifacts from those sites. In particular they found “Clovis” fluted spear points that were used for scraping cutting. These were tools of stone and some of ivory. Although elephant ivory is the most important source of ivory, it also comes from mammoths, walrus, hippopotamus, sperm whale, orca, and wart hog.

Most Clovis sites that have been discovered were near water. These people lived lives on the endangered species list, or at least would have if such a list had been created 11,000 years ago. As David Hurst Thomas said, “Clovis men and women faced extinction every day.”

North America at that time was a tough neighbourhood. If a Clovis hunter made one mistake and suffered serious injury he would die and his family would likely starve. They often “competed one-on-one for food with fierce predators and scavengers.” At the time North American still contained ferocious giant bears and sabre-toothed cats. People that survived in that  environment were extraordinary.

Hunting during this time required enormous skill and knowledge, but they also had important attitudes. As David Hurst Thomas explained,

“As boys grew up, they discovered the nature and needs of their homeland—how to stalk, where to hide, how the wind worked, how animals behaved when startled. They accepted that mammoths and long-horned bison willingly made themselves available to humans, but only in exchange for a measure of deference. Disrespect was an affront that not only sabotaged the hunt, but also threatened the success of other hunters. Religious specialists were sometimes required to ensure appropriate etiquette toward the supernatural.”

Although Clovis people disappeared these respectful attitudes toward  nature and animals did not. They resurfaced in many other Indigenous people of the Americas. For example similar rites were later found among the Naskapi indigenous people of Labrador! When the Clovis people hunted the huge mammoth’s spirit by entranced drumming and singing. It is speculated that before the kill the Clovis hunter would address this enormous beast that stood 14 feet tall at the shoulders by calling out the prey and its kinship names. Perhaps the hunter apologized for what came next and asked the animal for understanding  and promised to treat it with respect. As David Hurst Thomas said, “The carcass was butchered in a special way, with some parts placed on display or disposed of ritually. It was important that the animal’s life force return home, regenerate its flesh, and come back another time.” Such respectful attitudes to prey were in stark contrast to the attitude of European migrants that came centuries later.

Humans: An Endangered Species

It took incredible courage, tenacity and skill for people to get from Asia to North America and then South America. When I first heard about how they got here I thought it was impossible. These first migrants to this hemisphere were amazing people. They deserve all of our admiration. That does not mean they were perfect. Perfection is rarely found outside of my household.

They arrived in extremely difficult conditions. The Ice Age was in progress, though receding. Much of North America was still covered in ice. The rest was occupied by dangerous critters. It is difficult to imagine a more inhospitable or dangerous place. Yet they came.

Scott Momaday in America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbusedited by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.described them this way, “When man set foot on the continent of North America he was surely an endangered species.” Those people came with few weapons of survival and few resources. At least from our modern perspective they had few resources, but they were not without resources.”

These explorers had tenacity, strength of will, endurance, resourcefulness, a willingness to learn, and perhaps most importantly a cooperative spirit. They knew how to hunt. They could make fires. They  probably came with dogs and perhaps even sleds. They could speak and most certainly they could think. Perhaps most importantly they were able to work in groups and learn from each other. They were able to cooperate. As Momaday said, of the first explorer, “He had some sense of society, of community, of cooperation. And, alone, among the creatures of the earth, he could think and speak. He had a human sense of morality, an irresistible craving for order, beauty, appropriate behavior. He was intensely spiritual.” My only quarrel with this description is the word “alone.” For too long now humans have seen themselves as having a monopoly on thought and speech. Modern science and traditional knowledge are discrediting those notions for the modern descendants of those people certainly have prejudice and bias.

I want to emphasize the cooperation of the First to cross into the western hemisphere. In difficult environments people have to learn to cooperate. Rugged individualism is rarely the solution. Humans became powerful because they could work in groups. That requires a lot of social skill. We should not forget those important lessons from our ancestors.

First People of Americas

 

Ancestors of Native Americans have been in the new world since the last Ice Age.  Those people migrated too. Our species is a traveling species, both on land and sea.

Where did the North Americans come from?  That has been controversial too.      Many scientists believe that a small human population of at most a few thousand people arrived in Beringia from Eastern Siberia during the Last Glacial Maximum. These people used Beringia as a platform to explore and settle North America. After that they expanded their settlement of the Americas sometime after 16,500 years ago when the massive continental glaciers started to recede and the ocean levels started to rise. After about 11,000 years before the present the bridge was covered again. It was no longer possible to walk back over land.

These theories, at one time controversial, have now been bolstered by genetic evidence. That genetic evidence suggests that the ancestors of ancient native North Americans came from somewhere in Asia. Admittedly no one is sure exactly where these people came from.  No traces of humans have been found in Beringia leading some to cast doubt on the theory. So the question of where the ancient homeland of the first peoples of the Americas is still a live question.

According to Niobe Thompson, in the limited television seriesThe Human Odyssey“research has confirmed what we have long suspected, that the ancient home of the First North Americans was in Siberia.”

These people from Asia were astonishing explorers. They even migrated into Europe. All of this makes it very clear that humans, even ancient humans, were capable of more things than we ever thought possible. We have no choice but to respect our ancient ancestors. They were amazing people.

There is yet one more amazing human migration, As Thompson said, “for a species born in Africa, the human adaptation to the Arctic was an impressive achievement and that adaptation was the key to the second half of the planet—the Americas…it was an Ice Age journey we once thought was impossible. Now we know humans found a way.”

The Bering Strait was once the Beringia land bridge. In the Strait there are massive nesting colonies of birds. Far from humans, yet the Inuit that live in there today, go there to supplement their dietary needs. They harvest the eggs of Thick-billed-murres and that is no mean accomplishment. Each spring the murres lay millions of eggs on craggy cliffs beside the ocean. And the Inuit have found out about it. What is even more amazing is that the Inuit travel there during the spring thaw when the Bering Strait is clogged with dangerous and unpredictable ice flows.

Sea travel there at that time of the year is all but impossible, except by using traditional methods. The Inuit use a traditional craft—a skin Umiak. It is light and very maneuverable. It is so light that men can carry it over the ice when necessary. Current Inuit use a boat that is very similar to that their ancestors would have used for millennia. The frame of the boat is covered with a single walrus skin so thin that it is almost transparent. A metal boat would be too heavy to drag over the ice when needed.  Without such a boat, travel in the ice-choked strait would be all but impossible. Once again the ancients were wise and the moderns are wise to follow them.

The television series showed how the modern Inuit crossed 22 km. of an ice-choked strait just to get those murre eggs.  What lengths did the ancients go? Have we underestimated them?  As Thompson said, “The Inuit have inherited the ancient world of the Beringians, like the Polynesians on the opposite side of the world, the Inuit know the sea is their home. Through them we can see back into our past, when we mastered the oceans and came to the end of the Great Human Odyssey.”

As Wulf Schiefenhövelsaid, in the television series, “We have also had the idea that men back in time were primitive, what you really find out is they were capable of amazing things. They were adventurous just as we are today.” They were more amazing than ever we considered remotely possible.

Nigel Thompson put it this way, “Our species has made a spectacular journey. From our humble origins in Africa to a global species, clever, and curious.”  Now that species is basically in charge of the planet. At least so it thinks. This development imposes an awful obligation on us as to how we relate to the globe and to each other. That is my conclusion from this film.

Thompson summed it up this way, “ a volatile world made us who we are: an animal of fantastic adaptability, but also the last of our kind, the only walking ape left. Yet I wonder, what lies ahead?  Our powerful mind got us this far. Are we clever enough for the changes to come?  Or will the hominid line die out with us?” Or will we learn from our wondrous science and our wondrous ancestors?

In the series, Lisa Mattisoo-Smith understood our predicament well. As she said,   “We are not indispensable. These are evolutionary dead ends. There are some species that don’t survive.” In fact most of the species that ever existed have died out. Will we be one of them? There is still some hope. We are the first species on earth that has ever been aware of the possibility of our own extinction, at least as far as we know.

We have learned at least one very important thing. As Wulf Schiefenhövel pointed out, “if you are not resourceful, you die.” So we can continue in our old ways, the ways that are destroying our planet. We can continue with business as usual. Or we can adapt and shine again. Which will it be?

Donald C. Johanson said, “We are the single most adaptable species. We can sit on a rocket; shoot ourselves into space. We are incredibly adaptable. That is hopefully our salvation.” Given all that we have done to the planet we will need all of that resourcefulness soon. This could be our salvation. We don’t know if it will be or not. That depends on us. It does not depend on anyone else.

Thompson said, “Our salvation could be in our very name: Homo sapiens. The thinking ape.” If we think we can adapt. If we don’t think we can perish. The choice is ours. Will we think? Are we smart enough? Or are we like lemmings jumping into the sea.  When I see that the richest and most powerful country in the world can elect someone like Donald Trump I don’t believe we are going to think this one through.  We will follow the lemming in front of us. I hope my fears are misplaced. Only time will tell.

Remarkable Migrations/Explorations of Homo sapiens

 

We have to remember how remarkably successful Homo sapiens have been.  Homo sapiens are now on every continent and in the harshest environments.  It seems like they can live anywhere. They can live on land, on ice, and even, to some extent, in the sea.

In an interesting television series called The Great Human Odyssey, Niobe Thompson said that he wanted to learn how the ancient world shaped humans and how humans managed to overcome the extreme obstacles in their path. From Africa, humans migrated around the globe to settle in all of the earth’s diverse ecosystems. To do that, humans had to be extraordinarily flexible in order not just to survive, but also ultimately to thrive, in an unpredictable and hostile world.

As Thompson said, “The more we learn about prehistoric migrations, the more impressive early humans become – they too were masters of exploration, they adapted as they went, and they were brave enough to look over the next hill, or beyond the ocean horizon.”

Our ancestors engaged in a series of remarkable migrations. Certainly one of the most incredible was the arrival of humans in the Western Hemisphere during the last Ice Age.  That was an unbelievable journey from Arctic Asia to North America when glaciers still covered half of North America. This was Thompson’s conclusion:

 

“Each of these journeys into our past reinforced the same lesson: our ancestors were extraordinary people, capable of far more than we give them credit. They were curious and adventurous risk-takers, they were masters of technology, they thought like scientists, and they were fun loving, artistically sensitive, and emotionally complex.”

Because of this astonishing flexibility, intelligence, and ability to work in co-operative groups, Homo sapiens accomplished so much that they could learn to live, and live well, in every environment on earth.

Yet as Niobe Thompson said, “the more we learn about prehistoric migrations, the more impressive early humans become – they too were masters of exploration, they adapted as they went, and they were brave enough to look over the next hill, or beyond the ocean horizon.”

Thompson wanted to learn how this was possible. He claimed, “the reason humans were so resourceful was that humans evolved during the most volatile era the planet has experienced since the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. In my opinion, It was a classic case of ‘what did not kill us made us stronger.”  Not only that, but they were able to pass on that new strength to their offspring in a classic case of Darwinian evolution.

Thompson, in the television series latched on to modern scientific research which   showed that our amazing ancestors emerged in Africa just as global conditions went completely weird. Thompson claims that “these extraordinary challenges were in fact what made Homo sapiens so special that they could survive what destroyed their cousins, other hominins:

Humans were forged by calamity. We became tenacious, virtually impossible to wipe out, incredibly good at dealing with change. We became fast-breeding settlers, a relentless colonizer. As soon as the modern brain evolved, our species became unstoppable. The very mind that today believes it needs a new smart phone every 12 months is the same one that invented and adapted its way from the parched Kalahari Desert to the shores of the Arctic Ocean within 1,500 generations. To put that into perspective, before that point in time – over the previous 100,000 generations (2 million years) – earlier humans invented only a single primitive tool, the stone hand-axe.”

There is not doubt about it. Our ancestors were remarkable people.

Migrants Across the Land Bridge

Ever since Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere they wondered about the origins of these people native to the Americans. It is now generally accepted that Homo sapiensoriginated in Africa. I know that may be disturbing to certain white supremacists in the United States. I remember when I was in Africa a few years ago, at a cave in the place they specifically call the “Cradle of Humanity,” indicating that this is believed to be the origin of the human race, I mentioned to one of our group exploring the cave that I guess this means are original ancestors were black. The idea shocked and disturbed him.

Eventually those Africans spread out around the world to Europe, Australia, Asia, and from there, the western hemisphere. It is an incredible story.

Amazingly there was a 16thcentury Jesuit missionary who reached some conclusions about these indigenous people of North America that really astounds. More than 400 years ago, in 1589,        Joséde Acosta suggested that American Indigenous people shared a Siberian homeland. He believed that small groups of hunters driven by near starvation might have followed now extinct animals across Asia into the Americas millennia before the Spaniards arrived in the Caribbean in 1492. He even suggested that such a journey would require “only short stretches of navigation.” This is an incredible insight when you remember that in 1589 it would actually take Europeans another 136 years to “discover” the Bering Strait. From time to time in this blog I have suggested that Europeans were not as smart as they thought they were. This was not one of those times! This guy was smart. As David Hurst Thomas said, “Contemporary science supports Acosta’s theory more or less.”

It does now seem clear to most scientists that the first Americans came to North America from Asia during the last Ice Age. Because no fossils have been found in North America of archaic human ancestors such as Neanderthals this suggests that anatomically modern humans first populated the western hemisphere.

There are some substantial doubts about when exactly the first humans got here, but it seems likely that it was about 35,000 years ago, though some say much less such as 13,000 years ago. The jury is still out.

No matter which dates one accepts, it is clear that humans came here during very difficult times. During the last Ice Age one-third of the earth and almost all of what we now call Canada was buried under massive continental ice sheets. In places the ice was 2 miles thick.  Ever time I think of that I am amazed. It is difficult to think that where I now live in Manitoba 2 mile thick ice covered all of the land. So much ice was locked up in these ice sheets that the world’s ocean levels dropped dramatically.

What the retreating waters revealed is what scientists now call Beringia—an enormous unglaciated piece of land known as the Bering Land Bridge.This connected Siberia to Alaska.

There is no certainty about how and when humans arrived in North America.  According to Olive Patricia Dickson and William Newbigging, in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations:

“From physical and linguistic evidence, we know that humans were present in the Americas at least by 17,000 BP (before present) and perhaps by 50,000 BP or even earlier… Today it is widely accepted that at several periods during the late Pleistocene geological age, a land bridge connected Asia and North America and that some Amerindians crossed from the Old World to the New on foot during these times.  The first identifiable bridge dates back to about 75,000 years ago.  The last one ended about 14,000 years ago. Beringia, as this land bridge is called by scientists, at one point was more than 2,000 kilometres wide, more like a continent than a bridge.Once believed to have been a grassy and often boggy plain, recent studies have revealed that it was covered with birch, heath, and shrub willow, food for such animals as mammoth, mastodon, giant bison, and saiga antelope—and the predators that preyed on them. That human hunters followed the herds is a reasonable assumption.  These newcomers travelled mainly from north to south, either along the coast or further inland.  Some looped south of the glaciers, then headed north again as the ice retreated.”

They did not explore the north first because it was covered in ice!

Others suggest that Beringia was not quite that large. They suggest it was basically up to 1,000 km. (620mi.) wide at its greatest extent. The area was roughly as large as British Columbia and Alberta put together, some 1,600,000 sq. km. (620,000 sq. mi.).  Today there are only a few islands visible. No matter which figures are right, this area was huge.

Beringia like most of Siberia and all of North and North East China was not glaciated because snowfall was very light. It was a grassland steppe. The land bridge extended for hundred of kms into the continents on either side. Others have suggested what seems impossible that they travelled over the ice sheets. Either theory is incredible.

Many scientists believe that a small human population of at most a few thousand people first arrived in Beringia from Eastern Siberia during the Last Glacial Maximum. Others followed later. These people used Beringia as a platform to explore and settle North America. After that they expanded their settlement of the Americas sometime after 16,500 years ago when the massive continental glaciers started to recede and the ocean levels started to rise. After about 11,000 years before the present the bridge was covered again. It was no longer possible to walk back over land. Those who came to the western hemisphere were stuck here. Some scientists believe that before European colonization Yupik peoples lived on both sides of Beringia.

These theories, at once controversial, have now been bolstered by genetic evidence. That genetic evidence suggests that the ancestors of ancient native North Americans came from somewhere in Asia. Admittedly no one is sure exactly where these people came from.  No traces of humans have been found in Beringia leading some to cast doubt on the theory. So the question of where the ancient homeland of the first peoples of the Americas is still a live question.

For a century, Russians have been finding ancient skulls across Siberia. With those bones scientists have constructed genomes from both sides of Beringia. According to Niobe Thompson, speaking in a fascinating television series The Great Human Odyssey, “research has confirmed what we have long suspected, that the ancient home of the First North Americans was in Siberia.”

What is absolutely certain however is that these people from Asia were astonishing explorers. They even migrated into Europe.  All of this makes it very clear that humans, even ancient humans, were capable of more things than we ever thought possible. We have no choice but to respect our ancient ancestors. They were amazing people.

There is yet one more amazing human migration,  namely a migration into the Arctic. How could they do that? As Thompson said, “for a species born in Africa, the human adaptation to the Arctic was an impressive achievement and that adaptation was the key to the second half of the planet—the Americas…it was an Ice Age journey we once thought was impossible. Now we know humans found a way.” These were amazing people! And these were the original migrants to the Americas. All the others came much later and have much less legitimate claim to this hemisphere.

First People of the Americas

The more we learn about Indigenous People of the Americas the more astounded we are likely to be. Their story is incredible. It is also incredible that the Europeans who first contacted them did not realize this.

As David Hurst Thomas explained,

“For a thousand generations, the American continents have been home to Indian people.  For forager to farmer, tribe to nation, the native American civilization waxed and waned. They developed sophisticated forms of art, elaborate political and social structures, intricate intellectual patterns, mathematics, handicrafts, agriculture, writing, complex religious and belief systems, imaginative architecture—indeed a whole panoply of human endeavor that rivaled the cultures developing in the Middle East, Europe, and China. These early native American achievements still astonish the world of today.”

The more we learn about these varied groups of peoples who populated  America (and by that I mean North, South, and Central America) and the more we learn about them the more astounded we are likely to be. Their story is incredible. But it is also incredible that the Europeans who first contacted them did not realize this.

As David Hurst Thomas explained,

“For a thousand generations, the American continents have been home to Indian people.  From forager to farmer, tribe to nation, the native American civilization waxed and waned. They developed sophisticated forms of art, elaborate political and social structures, intricate intellectual patterns, mathematics, handicrafts, agriculture, writing, complex religious and belief systems, imaginative architecture—indeed a whole panoply of human endeavor that rivaled the cultures developing in the Middle East, Europe, and China. These early native American achievements still astonish the world of today.”

Scientists are not in complete agreement about how these first Americans arrived in the western hemisphere. They do agree on how or exactly when they came from the “Old World,” but the most common theory, for which there is significant evidence, is that they crossed from Asia on foot when the sea levels were much lower than they are today because so much water was captured by the incredibly massive continental ice sheets that covered North America. Some have speculated that they came by boats from Asia. Both theories are incredibly interesting.

As Thomas said, “We do not know when they left their ancient homelands, what conditions they experienced along the way, or even why they first came to America.”

Yet we do know that these people were not savages. Only ignorant prejudice would make anyone think that. As Thomas said,

“Without doubt, the first Americans arrived as fully developed human beings. They were definitely not “primordial” or “primitive,” not stooped and shambling, had no heavily ridged brows. They walked upright and looked much the way American Indians look today. They brought with them an Ice Age patrimony, including many basic human skills: fire making, flintknapping, and effective ways to feed, shelter and clothe themselves. As early immigrants, they lived in close-knit kin groups, enjoyed social interactions, and shared beliefs about magic and the supernatural. They spoke a fully human language. As they dispersed throughout the Western Hemisphere they lived in diverse and sometimes unstable environments. But they continued, to feed their families and to safeguard their new homeland. Over the generations, the first American ancestors confronted and solved colossal challenges.”

In time they developed advanced cultures. After a long while on the continent they spoke more than 2,000 languages. Later migrants who came after the first Americans, brought with them new languages, new cultures, that were well adapted to the environments in which they were inhabiting. It will be a consistent theme of this blog that the philosophies of these people were intimately connected to the environment in which they arose. That close connection has formed their ideas and made them so resilient.

Though these people inhabited the Western Hemisphere for a 1,000 generations before Christopher Columbus “discovered” them, a mere 25 generations have succeeded them since that time. The time in which this hemisphere has been occupied by Native Americans  was the time in which the hemisphere has been shared with the European invaders. I don’t call them discoverers.

During this time, As Thomas said,  “native Americans domesticated dozens of kinds of plant foods. They charted their farming cycles through complicated cosmologies  involving solar calendars, astronomical observations, prayerful rites, and celebrations. Indian people learned to use wild plants for healing, strengthening, and restoring health. Native American architecture matched anything Columbus had seen in his travels.”

Since their first arrival the Native American population increased dramatically. As Thomas said, “The native Americans modified their traditions and ideas to suit changing conditions. They crafted efficient, down-to-earth solutions to the unforeseeable. Their struggle for survival—the countless individual agreements and compromises, solutions and inventions—gave rise to the thousands of American Indian traditions and beliefs that so amazed the European explorers.”

The story of these peoples is, I submit, deeply interesting and worth some attention.  I hope some people stay along with me for the ride as we exploring these incredible people and their incredible history.

Chumash Indigenous People of the West Coast

 

As Robbie Robertson said in the television series Native America, which he narrated, “Sky watching, the 6 directions, and a search for people’s place in the world. These ideas are found throughout the Americas. They are part of a foundational belief system shared between distant and diverse cultures. Where does this common belief come from? The Chumash, an Indigenous nation of the southern west coast of the United States, may have an answer. Their ancestors were the first coastal settlers of what is now Southern California.”

First of all, they were great paddlers of the Pacific Ocean, the largest ecosystem on the planet. Alan Salazar a member of the Chumash/Tataviam First Nation knows that his ancestors were much better paddlers and navigators than he will ever be. Their ancestors travelled the ocean in a flat-bottomed canoe. Reginald Pagaling, another member of that nation, understands this too.  “Water is life. It is such a great teacher of respect. It’s a great teacher of power. It’s a great teacher of calmness.” Similar beliefs were found in other Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.

“Long ago water taught the Chumash a lesson they still practice. The best time to paddle is at night.” That was a very important lesson, but it was not intuitive. The ocean is of course much calmer at night. Even though its dark and you can hardly see the paddler ahead of you, that is the best time to paddle a canoe on the ocean. They would feel the paddle hit the water and come out. As Robertson said, “Far at sea in dark of night the Chumash look to the stars to guide them. Just as their ancestors did.” They used the Milky Way as a means to chart their way across the islands of the South Pacific. To me that seems impossible. But they did it.

They built canoes that could travel great distances across the forbidding Pacific Ocean. “Their mastery of the stars and seafaring enabled the very first Americans to move quickly down the coast and across the continents. Can the way America was settled explain why Native Americans share so many core beliefs?

Beringia is defined today as the land and maritime area that is bounded on the west by the Lena River in Russia, on the east by the Mackenzie River in Canada, on the north  by 72 degree latitude in the Chukchi Sea and on the south by the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Chukchi Sea, Bering Sea and Bering Strait are all part of Beringia. Basically what separates Asia from North America.

Part of Beringia is international waters, part is in Russia, part in the Untied States and part in Canada. At one time it formed a land bridge between Asia (Russia) and the western hemisphere and it is believed that humans used it to walk from Asia to North America when the sea levels were much lower than they are now because of the immense amount of water taken up by the massive continental Ice sheets during the last Ice Age. Today a few parts of it are visible as islands.

As Robertson said, New DNA evidence suggests that all Native Americans are descended from one people. They lived together for 25,000 years stuck behind a wall of Ice in area called Beringia. Perhaps here for thousands of years people observed cycles of the earth, sun, and stars and plant the seeds for a world view that will be shared across the Americas. Can these ideas really have been developed so far back in time? If so they may be expressed in the earliest art found here that dates back 13,000 years to the very beginnings of Native America.”