Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Like the Land
Years ago now, I had the opportunity to listen to a talk by a fluent Dene speaker from what is currently called the northwest territories in canada. It was an incredible talk with so much to think over. For the purposes of this document though, I am going to focus on one snippet that particularly stuck with me. When I heard this, at that point having completed most of an archaeology major with its requisite anthropology courses, one claim repeated in many of the text books and articles among those I was responsible for reading, was that every linguistic group had a term for themselves. That seems quite uncontroversial, obvious even. Quite a few of these sources added that in the case of Indigenous nations of the americas, these terms all meant "real people" implying that each one perceived themselves as the only humans. This always bothered me, because it didn't make sense, and while the idea that others were not human in comparison to a given person's own group has certainly had too much play in many parts of the world including parts of the americas, it still made least sense as a generalization here. Not because somehow Indigenous peoples in the americas are mythical noble savages, but because most Indigenous systems of thought count plants and animals as other than human beings, other but not lesser or to be dominated by humans by any means. Since derogating humans often depends for its power and effectiveness on equating the humans selected for this treatment to animals or even plants, it's tough for this to take off if animals and plants aren't considered lesser for not being human. So a great many things clicked when the Dene speaker pointed out that while "Dene" could be translated as people, maybe, really, it was more accurate to render it "those who are like the land." According to mainstream lights, this is a romantic sort of idea, being like the land. But is it?
Archaeology buffs who keep a close eye on popular magazines on the subject will already be familiar with bone isotope studies. Radio-isotope dating is probably even more broadly familiar because different isotope combinations are used to date different crystals and fossils in the ongoing efforts to map geological time and the changes in animals, plants, and the Earth beyond human memory. But the isotope studies I am referring to here are those first used to determine which plants and meat or fish predominated in the diet of different people and animals. For people this is usually tied to arguments about agriculture and changes in local climate conditions. For animals it may be about those questions, or trying to understand how the animals survived in places they weren't expected to be or that other evidence suggested they had recently moved to. Dogs are a special target, because once domesticated their bones may serve as a proxy for the diets of the humans they lived with. So is it really so implausible that people could refer to themselves as "we who are like this place" when most of their food, clothing, and shelter is drawn from that very place? Well, I have colleagues who would refer to that question as handwaving. Okay. So let's take another, more recent, and to the scientists involved, a more startling example.
In this case, the scientists in question are trying to understand specific ecosystems in what is currently referred to as british columbia, usually hard to access coastal rain forest areas. The lens they are using is DNA analysis of local grizzly bear populations. Rather than using a high interference, high impact, high expense method of collecting DNA samples like tranquilizing them from helicopters or trapping them, the scientists came up with something far more sensible. They set up piles of smelly stuff the bears would be interested in looking at and smelling, and added a patch of barbed wire arranged to catch some of their fur. Analysis of the DNA from the samples revealed three genetically related groups of bears that the scientists avoided referring to as families, of course – whose ranges matched with the regions defined by the Indigenous language families in the same place. According to the science magazine article, a scientist at the university of guelph who was not part of the research team described the results as "mindblowing." The dedication at the head of the actual article reporting these results by the research team characterizes the matter with more nuance:
This work is dedicated to the late Nuaqawa (Evelyn Windsor), who taught us that people learned their language and way of life from the bears.
The bears had already adapted to the land, they are famously omnivorous, and they like a great many of the same things that humans do and find digestible. Learning from the bears makes a great deal of sense, and where they are among the local keystone species, even more so. Other First Nations refer to keystone species whom they learned how to live and speak from. Bears, wolves, bison, deer, salmon, sturgeon all play this role in one place or another.
Having written all this, it is important to make sure to explain what I am not arguing. I am not arguing that every Indigenous nation's term for themselves could or should be translated as "like the land." In fact, the point is that all these examples reiterate the point that First Nations make about their close relationships to the land. The relationships are not some kind of romantic caricature drawn from the curious annals of hippies and other frustrated non-Indigenous people trying quite reasonably to untangle themselves from colonialism. Certainly these are spiritual relationships, and they are also fiercely practical, they arise from living by eating and generally building needed clothes and shelters from the land. But this is still a very two dimensional way to describe it. Striving to get closer to at least three dimensions, let's consider the snippet of Old Swan's map that is reproduced here. It is an abstract Niitsitapi style representation of the part of their traditional lands Peter Fidler asked Old Swan to lay out for him. A scan of the full map is reproduced as part of the Mapping the Old North Trail Project. The rocky mountains are referred to as the backbone, and there are a number of key locations that Fidler noted the names to. I learned about this map in one of my anthropology classes, where the instructor explained how the rocky mountains are none other than Napi's backbone. Napi is a powerful spirit being who arranged the land for the Niitsitapi to live in, and he is still there. The major land forms there correspond to his body where he lays asleep. Hence the two rivers that so famously mark the present-day city of calgary's location, the bow (as in bow and arrow) and the elbow.