B.C. Indigenous people react to the resurfacing of 2 migration theories

The resurfacing of ideas about the origins and migrations of Indigenous people to North America has sparked debate and conversations in Indigenous communities in B.C.

'It discursively cleaves our links to our homeland and erases our identity,' says Indigenous archeologist

Robin Bicknell is the director of Ice Bridge and has Comanche Native American heritage. She feels it is plausible that many migrations happened and the ones we've been focused on could be limiting our discussions. (Robin Bicknell)

The resurfacing of ideas about the origins and migrations of Indigenous people to North America has sparked debate and conversations in Indigenous communities in B.C.

A recent New York Times article elevated claims that Indigenous people of North America descended from a single founding population that started in East Asia around 36,000 years ago — supporting the theory they crossed the Bering Strait.

Another hypothesis that was presented on a CBC Nature of Thingsdocumentary called Ice Bridge shows developments to the idea that people from Europe may have been among the earliest settlers of the Americas. It's known as the Solutrean hypothesis

Reactions to both developments are mixed, but some Indigenous people feel the evidence and timelines just don't line up.

Dr. Paulette Steeves, is a Cree and Metis archeologist with a focus on the Pleistocene history of the Americas. She grew up in Lillooet B.C. 

"You can't make a statement that, 'oh we have the founding population,' and 'we have the answer,' because you probably have less than five per cent [of the evidence] that will represent all of the people of the Americas," she said.  

Steeves added that artifacts and sacred sites prove people were in North America more than 130,000 years ago.

'It's a colonial way of thinking'

Steeves agrees that migration between Siberia and North America did most likely happen but says that was likely only one of many migrations.

The Bering Strait theory, she says, is often presented as the only way the Americas were peopled and says that can be damaging.

"What that does is it discursively cleaves our links to our homeland and erases our identity — so it's a colonial way of thinking that keeps us from being a distinct people," Steeves said. 

Paulette Steeves is an associate professor in Anthropology at Mount Allison University. She believes migration theories like the Bering Strait and the Solutrean hypotheses give rise to claims that Indigenous people are immigrants and erase Indigenous identity and connections to territory. (Dustin Steeves)

But not everyone is on the same page. 

Oscar Dennis is a Tahltan language conservationist who has researched the links between migration, language and origin stories.

He thinks the journey from Asia took place — but with watercraft rather than on foot. Dennis even asserts that origin stories are illustrations of the journey. 

"They are now matching these archeological sites with oral traditional," Dennis said.

"Beringia [the Bering Strait] is up in the Arctic circle, and there's six months of darkness and six months of daylight and when you take a look at the origin story of raven makes light, it's basically telling you the story when they are migrating out of that darkness into light," he said.

Dennis recently took a DNA test that traced parts of his bloodline to Siberia and says the Nadene language is also related to those in northern and eastern Asia.

'We get quite attached to versions of history'

Haida elder Woodrow Morrison believes migration was possible, but that people would have gone both ways through various corridors and land masses throughout the world. But some elders dispute that migration happened at all.

Nisga'a elder Willard Martin asserts that the Bering Strait theory goes against Nisga'a oral history and origin stories. 

Oscar Dennis is a Tahltan language conservationist who thinks the journey from Asia took place — but with watercraft rather than on foot. (Oscar Dennis)

"They are really grasping for scientific evidence that we are also immigrants to North America, and it sort of defends their arguments about the doctrine of discovery, and we don't agree that we came from another continent," Martin said.

He says it's hard to collect evidence like DNA samples that may prove otherwise because disrupting or even touching remains is against traditional Nisga'a law.

Robin Bicknell is the director of Ice Bridge and has Comanche Native American heritage. She feels it is plausible that many migrations happened, and the ones we've been focused on could be limiting our discussions. 

"There's this very, simple single entrance theory that's often put out in the universe, but maybe there were others," she said.

"We get quite attached to versions of history, and we have a hard time extracting ourselves, but we should be open to the idea of people doing incredible things we never thought possible."

Some Indigenous people from BC say their rights and title, and identity are on the table after two migration theories have resurfaced among scientitsts. Angela Sterritt takes us through Indigenous thoughts on Indigenous origin. 9:29

About the Author

Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitanmaax band of the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C.