Origins of Human Life
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Origins of Human Life

"In the beginning of the world, all was water." So begins the creation myth of the Yakima Indians as related in the nineteenth century by Coteeakun, the son of a chief. "Whee-me-me-ah, the Great Chief Above, lived in the sky, above the water, all alone. When he decided to make the world, he went down to the shallow places and began to throw up great handfuls of mud.
In a creation story from the West Coast, the Haida tell of a Raven that released them from a giant clamshell. (Scene from Canada: A People's History)
In a creation story from the West Coast, the Haida tell of a Raven that released them from a giant clamshell. (Scene from Canada: A People's History)

Thus he made the land. We do not know this by ourselves, we were told it by our fathers and grandfathers, who learned it from their fathers and grandfathers. We were told the Great Chief Above made many mountains... Some day the Great Chief Above will overturn those mountains and rocks. Then the spirits that once lived in the bones buried there will go back into them. Now, those spirits live in the tops of the mountains, watching their children on the earth and waiting for the great change which is to come... "

The various groups of first peoples have different tales of how they and their world came to be. Some believe they were created here and have inhabited North America for time immemorial.

For instance, the Blackfoot of the plains, like the Yakima Indians, say their creator molded them from mud in the middle of a world of water. There is an Iroquois belief that the first people fell through a hole in the sky onto the back of a giant turtle.

The Haida of the West Coast tell of a Raven that released them from a giant clamshell. The Athapaskan Beaver believed humans crawled through a hollow log to reach earth. The Micmacs believed that Kji-nap made the world and blew life into a stone that was shaped like a man.

And in the Cree version of the story, the creator made the animals and the people and they fought until the earth was red with blood. To wash it clean, he delivered a rain that lasted for weeks, covering the earth and drowning every living thing except an otter, a beaver and a muskrat.

The muskrat dived and retrieved a piece of the old earth, and from that an island grew and life began anew with a fresh moral foundation.

But other tribes believe they came to North America from somewhere else. The Salish people of the West Coast tell of a long, ancient trek across a great body of water.

"A long time ago the people were living in another country near a large lake where they were attacked by their enemies. Since they could not cross the water they were in danger of being destroyed." So the Salish story goes. "That night ice covered the lake and at daybreak the tribe crossed to the other side. Then the chief, whose guardian spirit was heat, caused a hot wind to blow and the ice disappeared, so that their enemies could not follow."

This myth and some of the others loosely mirror the archeological record. A hundred thousand years ago most of North America was locked in the grip of an ice age. The sea levels were lower, exposing a great land bridge between Asia and America. Clues in the archeological record tell us that the first Amerindians came from Asia, crossing the land bridge that occasionally spanned the Bering Strait during this time.

Called Beringia, the bridge was 2,000 kilometres wide and emerged and re-submerged several times during the Pleistocene age. The first migration may have been as early as 40,000 years ago and its most recent appearance was 14,000 years ago, the date usually given for the last migration to North America.

No one knows who arrived in North America first. No one is certain if the land bridge was the only way to get here. But these early Homo sapiens who lived on the land simply followed the food - great herds of bison, antelope and mammoth. As the Ice Age began to retreat, some tribes moved south along an unglaciated corridor on the west coast to the southern tip of South America.

As the glaciers began retreating north, melting into lakes and forming moraines, other small groups of hunters followed in their wake moving east and north. As the glaciers melted, the oceans rose again and the land bridge was submerged. For the next ten thousand years new life would continue to grow in a land scraped clean by the ice.

In that way, the western hemisphere was settled in a looped pattern, almost closing to a circle on the prairies with the arrival of the Plains Indians. Customs, rituals and traditions in the different cultures developed independently at different times, but always closely linked to the immediate environment.TEST

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Haida from Museum of Civilisation

Native Groups in Canada

The Land of Beringia from University of California

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