History of Aboriginal America 3.1 – Seven Miles a Year: A Sidebar on Cross-Cultural Understanding

You shouldn’t mistake the simplicity of your understanding for the simplicity of the subject itself.

One time an astronomer began a lecture with the statement, “The sun is really a very simple thing …”  Upon which someone immediately responded, “You’d look simple too if you were 150 million kilometres away.”

In respect of people who lived a long, long time ago, or in cultures far from our own experience, well, they’re a long distance away too.  And sometimes they look simple to us, easy to sum up, easy to describe, like a feather in a headband.  But are they really simple, or are we being simple for thinking so?

One time somebody said, concerning the original peopling of the Americas, that people entering the Americas via Alaska, and progressing only seven miles a year, could reach the southern tip of South America in only a thousand years.  To arrive at this figure, the scholar simply took the distance to travel, stem to stern, through the Americas – 7000 miles – and divided it by a thousand.  He didn’t publish a scientific paper on the subject.  It was not a breakthrough in scientific thought.  It was merely an illustration to show how quickly (in an archaeological timescale) the Americas could have been settled once the people began to arrive.

However not everybody understood the point being made.  My daughter brought home her social studies text one day from elementary school, and her textbook related the story of Americas first settlers patiently eking their way southward through the Americas, seven miles a year, until – voila! – they have finally reached the southern tip of South America.

Just in time.  A thousand years exactly.  Who says Aboriginal people aren’t punctual?

Now whoever wrote the textbook, presenting that essentially ludicrous image as sober fact, clearly didn’t understand the subject they were trying to teach.  And they also failed to understand the statement the scholar was making.

Nowhere did anyone say or imply that the journey had actually happened as in the example.  As for how long the journey took, (a question no one could answer at the time)  the thousand years was an arbitrary figure, used simply to make a point.  Nobody said that anybody anywhere and at any time was creeping over the land at the patient pace of seven miles a year, Patagonia bound.  Those assumptions popped out of the minds of the textbook writers themselves.

So how could it have happened?   To me, the error looks like failed understanding papered over with cultural propaganda.  I hear the echo of an ancient but far from dead colonial doctrine which said that the tribal peoples of the Americas didn’t really own the land, they merely wandered over it.  Like the deer and bears, you know.  It was a doctrine convenient for easing the conscience of a society intending to appropriate the territories which the tribal peoples claimed as their own.

The Norman English had used a similar doctrine in respect of the Irish, to justify moving into their territory, expropriating their property, and usurping their independence.  Part of that argument focused on the practice of Irish herders of shifting their livestock seasonally from mountains to valley pasture.  Transhumance, which is what the Irish practice is called, and hunting and gathering, well, civilized people don’t do that, you see.

I should be clear here.  I’m not saying that text writers had the land question in mind when they dredged up this hoary old example of colonial doctrine.  I’m fairly sure there was no intentional hostility toward Aboriginal people.  It was simply that – and here we come to Father Theo’s rule of cross-cultural understanding:

When knowledge is absent, prejudice moves in.

Prejudice is often no more than cultural propaganda, and propaganda of any sort has a long shelf life which may long outlive its original purpose.  For example, the story about carrots being good for your eyesight.  That particular bit of disinformation was put out by the Allies in the Second World War for a purpose, to hide from the Germans their new secret weapon – radar.  How else to explain why Allied pilots were able to see in the dark?  Carrots, of course.  And generations later, when even the Germans know about radar, the carrot story still needs to be explained and debunked.  Propaganda dies hard.

The trouble is, no one has really gotten around to debunking all the cultural propaganda produced over time, although almost everyone agrees that prejudice is bad.  We just say ‘play nice’ and try to avoid the politics.  But it is from the politics that the prejudice derives, and by avoiding the politics, by not confronting it, we allow the prejudice to stay alive.

Let us return to our first Americans, trekking southward seven miles a year.  One reason I see this image as so ludicrous is because the people are depicted as essentially mindless, water droplets poured into the container of the Americas, patiently dripping southward to the bottom of the vessel.  But people are not mindless, not now, not ever.  The people who entered this continent millennia ago are in all essential respects the same as us.  They are us.  If you want to understand the past, if you want to understand other people, that is where you have to start.  People may exist in different cultural circumstances, have different histories, have different value systems, but at the root we are fundamentally all merely human.  With all that means.  Brainy.  Wilful.  Enterprising.  Curious.  Inventive. Gregarious.  Loving.  Hating.  Laughing.  Caring.  Self-important. You can make a list that applies to practically everybody that ever lived by simply looking around your neighbourhood.

The second reason I find the image so ludicrous is what it says about hunter-gatherers.  Nobody ever, cultural propaganda notwithstanding, simply wandered over the land.  The Union of BC Indian Chiefs have a slogan which sums it up, “The land is the culture.”  The people who lived on the land knew it intimately, knew it like a Shakespearean scholar knows Shakespeare.  They read it every day, spoke about it, they sang it and breathed it.

All human beings live within culture.  Our present day urban culture is a technological culture, a complex one where each individual member possesses a special knowledge of particular things, but no one knows everything.  In hunting and gathering cultures, beyond the songs, the dances, the stories, and so on, the cultural knowledge was of the land, of its resources, of its topography, of all its moods and seasons.  And this cultural knowledge was, without exaggeration, encyclopaedic.  Knowledge of the land was the hunter-gatherer tool kit of survival.

The other thing you have to realize about hunter-gatherers is that they operated within specific pieces of the landscape, that part they knew, that part which had stories attached to it, that part which their ancestors used and learned and taught about for countless generations.  There was no random and mindless wandering about.  Hunter-gatherers knew where they were going and why they were going there.  Just like you and me most of the time.

And when they left their homes to go somewhere else, they did that deliberately, with reasons of their own, in conscious acts of seeking, searching and exploration.

Just like people.

~ by fathertheo on September 17, 2008.

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