Excerpt: The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere

Paulette F. C. Steeves (Cree-Métis) is an associate professor of sociology and Canada Research Chair Tier II Indigenous History Healing and Reconciliation at Algoma University. She is also an adjunct faculty at Mount Allison University. Her new book, The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere (Nebraska, 2021), was published this month.

Introduction

Tansi (Hello)

My name is Paulette Steeves.

I am Cree and Metis; I have Indigenous ancestors from Canada and the United States and also ancestors from Europe.

My mother is Edna Atkinson-Steeves (Cree-Metis).

Her mother is Mary Jane Contois-Atkinson (Metis–First Nations). Her father is James Atkinson (Cree-Metis).

My father is Paul Steeves (Native American and European).

His mother is Reva Leona Bush-Steeves (Native American and European).

His father is Alfred Steeves (Native American and European).

I come from a long line of strong women, many named in historical documents as Mary Indian.

My grandmother a few generations back was Necushin. She was Cree from Eastmain, Quebec. There she was married at a very young age to a Hudson’s Bay man named George Atkinson. There are many stories about my ancestors in the oral traditions of the James Bay Cree and the books on the history of the Red River Metis.

I was born in Whitehorse, Yukon, and grew up along the Fraser River in Lillooet, British Columbia, Canada.

Colonization has torn many Indigenous communities from their traditional territories, yet we remain connected to our ancestral lands. I am currently a guest living in the heart of the traditional Anishinaabe and Metis territories in northern Ontario. However, I am from many places where my ancestors were rooted to the land: Red River, Manitoba; northern Ontario; Eastmain, Quebec; Machias, Maine; and distant lands in Europe.

Western educators in many academic institutions continue to ignore Indigenous knowledge, culture, and language, excluding everything Indigenous from the curriculum. Therefore, for many Indigenous scholars, writing is framed to privilege Indigenous knowledge. Introducing my ancestors serves cultural purposes and protocols, privileging Indigenous voices and acknowledging ancestors. “In the world today, there is a common-held belief that thousands of years ago, as the world counts time, Mongolian nomads crossed a land bridge to enter the Western Hemisphere, and became the people known as the American Indians. There is, it can be said, some scanty evidence to support the myth of the land bridge. But there is enormous wealth of proof that the other truths are all valid.”

There are many stories of the past; they are colored or not by the worldviews of those who tell them. In many ways, colonization in Western education has silenced Indigenous worldviews and stories of the past. There is a quote attributed to Louis Riel: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” After five hundred years of colonization, the artists, storytellers, and knowledge holders are awake, and other truths are being told. Stories have been held in Indigenous peoples’ hearts and minds and held within the land for thousands of years. They rise now, bringing an enormous wealth of proof that other truths are valid.

The story I share in this book challenges dogmatic Eurocentric discussions of the history of the first people of the Western Hemisphere, the area now known as the Americas. For over ninety years, American archaeologists have argued that the first people to enter the Western Hemisphere walked across the area we know today as the Beringia landmass from the Eastern Hemisphere around 12,000–14,000 years ago. This time frame is very recent on a global scale of early human migrations and is an anomaly, as hominins were present in the Eastern Hemisphere over 2 million years ago. From fossil evidence, we know that Homo erectus, Neanderthal, Denisovan, and H. sapiens were very competent travelers adapting to diverse ecosystems while crossing thousands of miles of land and open bodies of water. What is discussed regarding the evidence of early hominins in the Western Hemisphere has been severely constrained by academic erasure of the deep Indigenous past, an erasure of histories that cleaved Indigenous peoples’ link to ancient homelands, heritage, and identity. Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel argue: “Contemporary settlers follow the mandate provided for them by their imperial forefathers’ colonial legacy, not by attempting to eradicate the physical signs of Indigenous peoples as human bodies, but by trying to eradicate their existence as peoples through the erasure of the histories and geographies that provide the foundation for Indigenous cultural identities and sense of self.”

Erasure of the Indigenous past is carried out in part through discussions of Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere as being recent arrivals from Asia, Siberia, or France, countries and cultures that did not exist 11,000–12,000 years ago. Though archaeologists discuss Pleistocene archaeological sites as being in modern nation-states, contemporary borders had no bearing on human migration and settlement during the Pleistocene. Until recent times people were not Caucasoid or Asiatic. Cultural terminologies often used by archaeologists to describe ancient human fossils are much more recent.

What people have traditionally been taught about the deep Indigenous past is often framed more by what they are not taught rather than by what they are taught. Academic discussions of first people in the lands we know today as the Americas continue to be framed in agnotology, defined as “how knowledge has not come to be” and “how ignorance is produced through neglect, secrecy, suppression, destruction of documents, unquestioned tradition, and sociopolitical selectivity.” Educational materials framed in agnotology support colonization of the mind, teaching people to think in ways acceptable to the nation-state and not to question so-called scientific authorities.

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