5. A Little History
Evan Simpson, age 3, near Triquet Island, 1992
Historians and archaeologists have long thought that the migration of early peoples from Asia to America must have happened when a land bridge connected the two continents. The idea that masses of people could have paddled across in skin or wood boats or even rafts was not given much credence.
Years ago I wondered about this. Didn’t these academics know that travel by boat is much easier than over land? You can even carry your stuff with you. I’m no historian, but I’ve hiked coastlines and paddled them and it sure is easier to paddle.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that there was already a pretty lively debate about this. Proponents of the Bering Land Bridge theory suggested that early migrants walked across the bridge and down an open corridor of ice-free North America, poking sticks at mastodons as they went. Recently, though, this theory has run into trouble. Studies have found that the open corridor was too barren to support much life before 12,600 BP and the date for the earliest arrivals keeps being pushed back.
In April, 2017 it was reported that an ancient village on Triquet Island, 150 miles north of Port Hardy, was found to be over 14,000 years old. This was particularly interesting to me, because I’ve visited that island a few times over the years, and camped on it. It is a small jewel, with two well-protected beaches and lush surrounding forest. There is an obvious shell midden there, but as usual, I was totally ignorant about how old it was. The Heiltsuk have long said that its people have lived on the island for ages. In their stories they tell us that the island remained ice-free during the last ice age. Since much of their land was covered in ice they huddled there. Geological and archeological studies support that.
Just before I first camped there in the fall of 1987, a kayaking acquaintance of mine built a tiny cabin on the beach. Later it was taken over by some fishermen who put in a rug that was soon moldy and left garbage around. Years later my friend said that he wished he had never built the cabin. Triquet Island is now managed under an agreement between the Hakai Luxvbalis Conservancy and the B.C. Provincial Government which allows the Heiltsuk Nation to use the resources on the island. On April 4, 2019 the island was closed to the public.
Early hunters really did poke spears at mastodons on the west coast. In 1977 a farmer named Emanuel Manis discovered a mastodon on his Olympic Peninsula property while digging a hole. He called in an archaeological team that found a spear point made from another mastodon embedded into a rib bone. There was marrow growth over the spear where it entered the bone, indicating that the spear was not the cause of death, nor had it been inserted after the animal died. This point has since been identified positively as being chiseled by human hands, and has been dated at 13,800 years ago. People lived along the coast even during some of the last ice age. Historians have long said that migrants started coming into North America after the ice sheets started melting. But some of the coastlines on the west coast, including the Brooks Peninsula on Vancouver Island and outer islands, including Triquet, were not glaciated. Maybe they were already there.
In 2004, Dr. Albert Goodyear, a highly respected archaeologist, published a report indicating he and his team had found human artifacts in sediments in South Carolina that are at least 50,000 years old. This was long before the last ice age, 20,000 years ago. The finding jibes well with the known date of early habitation of Australia by boat 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, but it upends the theory that humans came to America only about 14,000 years ago. 50,000 years ago there were still Denisovans, an early hominin, as well as our own species, Homo sapiens, wandering Siberia and Tibet. We still have some of their genes. These were early humans. If indigenous people did live along the North American coast during the last ice age their coastal settlements would have been far off present day shores. As the great ice sheets melted the rising waters would have flooded their homes, erasing all signs of their lives. They would have migrated and washed up on the shores of islands such as Triquet. Perhaps their situation was similar to Greenland today, which is melting very rapidly. They would have been boxed in by the rising sea on one side and the ice sheet that weighed heavily on the land just inshore. Maybe they obtained their protein from turbot and seals, just like Greenlanders today. If there were coastal inhabitants living before the ice age perhaps one day archaeologists will find evidence of them at higher elevations, just as our grandchildren and future generations will be forced to move to by rising sea levels. The oral traditions of people native to the West Coast do not speak of migrations down the coast. They say that they have been there “since time immemorial”. Their records have often been verified to be accurate. Perhaps this is what the term means: “Since the beginning”.
The indigenous way of life was based on a marine economy first developed in Asia and since adapted to local environments over thousands of years. Indigenous people understood how to trap fish using the flow of the ocean tides and how to build clam gardens on an industrial scale to harvest shellfish. Remains of these structures have been found in many places along the west coast of North America. These early inhabitants exhibited a profound understanding of dozens of plants used as food and medicine. They never took too much from the sea, which was bountiful. Boats were made from the skins of sea animals and from great logs. They traded widely from Alaska to California.
Even 14,000 years is a long time. Starting from then it would be over 4,600 years before the Egyptians built their pyramids in Giza. The Greek and then the Roman empires rose and fell. Genghis Khan’s broad empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British, French and Russian Empires, Chinese dynasties all peaked and declined. In the “New World” (to the Europeans) the Mayan civilization, the Olmecas, Incas, and Aztecs thrived for a while and then disappeared. During all of this time the many nations on the North Pacific Coast lived and thrived. Surely this is an indicator of remarkable success.
The earliest European explorers depended on the indigenous people for survival in a new (to them) and often harsh climate. In their journals they paid respect to the intimate knowledge of the land that the local people had accumulated over millennia. Then came the fur traders, merchants, and land developers. Imagine what would have happened if this second wave of arrivals had thought “Yes, we’ve got bigger boats, better weapons, the wheel, but these people have prospered here for eons. What can we learn from them about how to live on this land and sea?”
Of course this never happened. If the Europeans had asked, they might have learned that one of the most important keys for long-term survival is preserving the relationship of the people to the land and its life. One term often used is ‘stewardship of the land’ versus the European concept of extraction and exploitation. But it is more than that. There is a spiritual dimension to belonging to the land and surrounding sea and all the life they support. Indigenous people, who have lost so much, are working at reclaiming that spiritual connection and teaching it to the rest of the world.
Back when I was about 16, I read Genesis and other Old Testament stories. I was startled to learn that, according to these stories, the world was created 6,000 years ago just for us. We are not a part of nature. We own it, and have dominion over all the land and animals. This view of nature and land ownership is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even recognize it. I had spent endless days tramping through the forest and dipping in the ocean. Like children everywhere I didn’t want to dominate. I wanted to belong. When we are children if we are lucky as I was, we get to play in parks and forests and form strong bonds with nature. Then during our working years these bonds become distant memories. I didn’t want this to happen to me and never could accept the story of Genesis. Recently, Pope Francis, in his Laudato Si, insisted that this was the “wrong interpretation”. Maybe nature is back as part of the whole human story, finally, and none too soon.
The Europeans brought this odd concept of land ownership to the “New World”. They divided it up into plots and bought and sold it. The earth is 4 1/2 billion years old, give or take. Humans live for about 80 years. But we claim that we “own” outright the land we stand on — to use or abuse. Can we really own land that is billions of years old and will continue to exist for billions more? Indigenous cultures have a more basic and ultimately more sophisticated approach to land use. It is held in common, as a source of life, both physical and spiritual, and when one generation passes, the next generation will seek nourishment from and sustain it.
The early Europeans were mainly interested in the fur trade. They formed “joint stock companies” in which a small number of grandees controlled companies such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company in North America and the East India Company in India. None of the high British Lords and proprietors who initially backed “a Speculative Voyage to North America”, including Sir George Carteret and the esteemed scientist, Robert Boyle, had interest in going to the “New World”. They financed the project, bought a boat (Nonesuch) and sent Pierre Radisson and his brother-in-law, Medard Chouart Sieur des Grosseilleres back to Canada in 1668. They returned in October, 1669 with valuable furs and were granted the Royal Charter the following year. These promoters were noblemen who were only interested in profit and the prestige that came with the project. Visits to the New World were optional. Over time these companies evolved into modern corporations that were given the same legal rights as individuals, but lacked any attachment to the land or local people. This is vastly different from the sustainable practices of First Nations developed over 14,000 years. Yes, materially we have made fantastic progress over the last two centuries. But many people, especially those belonging to First Nations have been left out.
While the power and influence of corporations has reached new heights inequality is growing even for the middle classes. Pollution is increasing, the planet is warming and oceans are acidifying. We and the planet are at a tipping point. We can’t go back to pre-industrial times. We must go forward. Perhaps there is a way of combining science and technology with the teachings of First Nations. Here in B.C., First Nation Guardians, including the Heiltsuk, Haida and Kitasoo/Xai’xais have become essential in preserving fisheries. As in other parts of the world the knowledge-keepers are mentoring youth about the land and surrounding seas and reporting on overfishing and pollution. They are re-establishing traditional fishing practices and providing useful knowledge to boaters and other visitors. The Guardians are using traditional knowledge combined with computers, GPS and modern science to make a major contribution to our coast. This is something that we all can benefit from.
In the Gulf Islands, on Russell Island and near Fulford Harbour on Saltspring Island, people from the Hul’q’umi’num’ and WSANEC First Nations, along with Parks Canada, are re-establishing clam gardens that have been lying idle for hundreds of years. It has been only recently that these structures, some quite large, have been re-discovered on diverse coasts from Alaska to California. In the Gulf Islands, Coast Salish elders are teaching younger people how to create these habitats for clams, crabs, urchins, kelp and fish. These habitats can produce up to four times more than the amount of edible marine species that would normally exist.