Tuesday, July 18, 2017

As long as the rivers have run and the grass has grown, seriously.

Alan McEachern's recent Active History essay, on reconciling the priority of indigenous title to Turtle Island with the science of the Bering Land Bridge, has provoked a lot of comments. He shows that the indigenous people of North America were North Americans before the British were in British or the Scandinavians in Scandinavia and so on, tens of millennia before any of those people's descendants came in this direction. His demonstration of just how long is 14,500 years is delicious and persuasive, too.

But I think there is a simpler, more persuasive reason why indigenous people are in no sense "immigrants," to be compared to later (vastly later) immigrants.

One of the striking evidences from the paleo-archaeology of Canada, from northern British Columbia to central Ontario to the Maritime provinces and up on the tundra of the Territories, is that wherever excavations reveal an earliest human presence in what is now Canada, it is always at a spot very close to where the southern edge of the great ice sheets then stood, on territory very newly exposed by the steady retreat of those ice sheets. That is, as rivers began to flow in what is now Canada and fish species began to populate them, as plant life -- from shrubs to grasses to trees -- enrooted itself in newly established soil, as herbivores sorted out their grazing rounds and carnivores determined their hunting territories and strategies, people were present and participating. And those people(s) have been here ever since.

Paleo-zoologists have determined pretty conclusively, for instance, not just that indigenous people were present as the American bison adapted to the emerging great plains, but that human hunting behaviours helped transform the bison species from a solitary woodland browsing creature into the herding, grazing animal we are familar with. The whole reorientation of post-glacial Pleistocene ecology in the Americas took place in the presence and with the active participation of indigenous peoples.

The first peoples of Canada did not "come into" a Canadian environment any more than plants and animals did, that is. They actively participated in the creation of the first Canadian environments. One may assert as Alan McEachern does, that indigenous peoples have been "here" at least 14,500 years, and that is not just a very long time but a different order of magnitude.  But to recognize that indigenous Canadians were here as participants as everything we might recognize as constituting the Canadian environment first came into being, is much the same as understanding what "forever" means.

A good reference for all this is Tim Flannery's The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its People (2001), notably his chapter 17 on the making of the buffalo ("the bison is a human artifact, for it was shaped by Indians and its distribution determined by them," at 227). Peter Storck's Journey to the Ice Edge (2004), a memoir of practising paleo-archaeology in Ontario, is evocative too.
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