Saturday, March 30, 2013

Land bridge? We don't need no stinkin' land bridge!

Students in my American Indian literature class are required to make a brief presentation on a tribe that I assign them.  Among the questions I have them answer is this one:

Where does the tribe live today? Where did they live at the time of contact with Europeans?  If there is a difference in locations, tell me why the people moved.

This gives the students an opportunity to discuss the  forced relocations that some tribes endured, or the loss of land for those tribes that remain in or near their homelands.

Yet each semester I get one or two presentations that include information about American Indians migrating across a land bridge from Asia.  This is despite my specific instructions to NOT tell us about some ancient road trip through Sarah Palin's front yard.

Also, there is no way discussing that migration answers the question.  I do not ask about entire migration histories of the tribes; I ask about their location at the time of contact, which means the farthest anyone has to go back in history is 1492, and that is only for the group that presents on the Taino, the first people Columbus encountered on this side of the Atlantic.

Some of the earliest European accounts of Indians claimed they were cannibals.  If only they had been.   If the Taino had been hungry for human flesh instead of such amiable hosts, perhaps history would have turned out differently.  If they had eaten Columbus and his men, this hemisphere would have enjoyed a few more years free from decimating diseases, commercialized slavery, and uncomfortable shoes.

Recently, a student presentation included information on the land bridge.  When it was finished, I reminded students to ignore the land bridge.  Yet the very next week, a student presentation brought us back to the land bridge.  Like a bad penny or America's Got Talent, it would not go away.

Why is that?  Why is discussing something that might have happened tens of thousands of years ago so tempting to talk about?  Why is it so tempting to the students when, for our purposes, it is irrelevant?

Knowing about that ancient migration does not help us understand any particular group of people better.    The land bridge will not help us better understand Hopi, Creek, or Mohawk societies.  If we visited the home of a Navajo family, we would not find a map of Mongolia on the wall with the caption of "Home Sweet Home."

Besides, I tell the students, that is not the story those cultures tell about themselves. You can learn more about those cultures by listening to the stories they tell about their origins.  Pueblo groups, such as the Hopi, will tell you they came out of the ground on what is now called Mount Taylor in western New Mexico.  That is their creation story, and knowing it can teach you something about them.

Whether the creation story is true in a literal sense is not important.  The cultural truths they contain are useful.

Look at the creation story for the United States.  It is filled with mythologizing and untruths.  Most of the folks on the Mayflower were not pilgrims.  Most people were not coming here to "escape religious persecution." The ship was supposed to go to Virginia, and those on board had signed contracts to do so.  No one set foot on Plymouth Rock as they got out of the boat. And so on.  However, the story's lack of literal truths does not take away from its power. Knowing it can be useful for knowing things about American culture, about how American society has imagined itself and how it can be expected to behave.

I do not blame the students for being tempted to report on the land bridge.  (OK.  I do blame them for not reading the assignment instructions carefully.)  Many sources of information discuss the land bridge as if it were relevant.  Even the Associated Press Style Book still states that "American Indian" is preferred over "Native American" because "the ancestors of American Indians migrated from Asia."

Lucy, australopithecus afarensis
But why stop in Asia?  If the American Indians came from somewhere around Mongolia, why stop
there?  Where did the Mongolians come from?  And where did those ancestors come from?  Eventually, we all wind up together back in Africa's Olduvai Gorge with Grandma Lucy.

I found a National Geographic source that says the first Europeans migrated from Asia, too.  I doubt any student presentations on France or Germany start with that information.  Doing that would probably seem ridiculous to a student.  So why does it seem reasonable to do the same thing with a presentation on American Indian nations?

The answer that makes sense to me is this: The migration story appeals to the American conscience.  The land bridge theory supports a narrative that is important in American history and culture: America as virgin territory.

Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth is a foundational book for American Studies.  Published in 1950 by Henry Nash Smith, the book explores the myth that the continent was relatively empty of people, and those people who were here had left little mark upon it -- it was waiting for the Europeans to arrive and start changing things.  The notion of the land as virgin helps alleviate any guilty conscience the Europeans and then Americans might have had, since the degree to which the land was unoccupied was the result of the direct and indirect efforts of the newcomers to evict its residents.

Despite all of the evidence of successful and widespread agriculture by American Indians (the first pilgrims would have starved if the local tribes had not possessed surplus corn to feed them), Europeans and Americans insisted on thinking of all Indians as nomadic, as wandering hunters who made no permanent claim on the land.

In other words, the Indians were just passing through, so they were not being truly dispossessed of their land; therefore, there was nothing really wrong with taking it.

The land bridge story supports that larger, national narrative.  After all, the Indians were immigrants, too, just like the Europeans.  They were not native, as the Associated Press reminds us.  So the land was up for grabs.

Here we see a demonstration of the difference between fact and myth.

Is the land bridge migration true?  Perhaps.  Is it useful for understanding American Indian cultures?  No.

Is the virgin land story true?  No.  It is useful for understanding American culture? Most definitely.

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