Scientific and Indigenous Perspectives of the "New World"

January 21, 2012

Bob Joseph
There has been much discussion in the scientific community about how and when Indigenous Peoples populated the Americas. One prevailing theory is that Indigenous Peoples arrived by crossing a land bridge sometime around the end of the last ice age, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. This theory holds that people from Asia migrated into the area that is now the Bering Strait to populate North and South America. More recent scientific research suggests that North and South America were populated by continuous waves of migration over a period of time that extends well beyond the last ice age. This more recent research also indicates that due to glacial ice the land bridge may have been impassable up until 12,000 years ago which doesn’t explain how North America became inhabited prior to this time. Exactly how the Americas were populated prior to European contact has not been definitively determined.

Most cultures, including Aboriginal cultures, hold creationism as an explanation of how people came to populate the world.If an Aboriginal person were asked their idea of how their ancestors came to live in the Americas the answer would probably include a creation story and not the story of migration across a land bridge.

Take the Gwawaenuk creationism story for example. The first ancestor of the Gwawaenuk (gwa wa ā nook) Tribe of the west coast of British Columbia is a Thunderbird. The Thunderbird is a super natural creature who could fly through the heavens. One day, at the beginning of time, the Thunderbird landed on top of Mt Stevens in the Broughton Archipelago at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Upon landing on Mt. Stevens, the Thunderbird transformed into human form, becoming the first ancestor of the Gwawaenuk people. This act signals the creation of the Gwawaenuk people as well as defining the territory which the Gwawaenuk people would use and protect.

Now, the Indigenous perspectives of a Thunderbird landing on a mountain and transforming into a human being may sound unusual and a little silly but to a Gwawaenuk person it doesn’t sound any more unusual or silly than a virgin birth, or a person walking on water, coming back from the dead, or parting the Red Sea.

Hint or Tip for Working Effectively with Aboriginal Peoples®:

Remember that Western Science challenges all kinds of religious and spiritual beliefs and it is important not to challenge, undermine, or belittle religious or spiritual beliefs of Indigenous Peoples or any peoples for that matter. Doing so will take away your effectiveness.

Aboriginal Peoples across Canada each have their own creation belief that is told in the form of a story of their ancestors. The Iroquois creation story often includes elements of the earth being formed on the turtle’s back with animals and all other living things providing further guidance when Sky Woman gives birth to First Woman.

The Inuit creation belief often includes a story of the world being made by Raven, a man with a raven's beak. Raven drew the ground up from the water and fixed it into place.

“The Great Land of the Inuit is the sea, the earth, the moon, the sun, the sky and stars. The land and the sea have no boundaries. It is not mine and it is not yours. The Supreme Being put it there and did not give it to us. We were put there to be part of it and share it with other beings, the birds, fish, animals and plants.”

Sam Metcalfe, personal communication with staff of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 2 February 1995, Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume 4, page 108, 1996. Reproduced with the permission of the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, 2007, and Courtesy of the Privy Council Office.

You might also enjoy Why We Need First Nations, Metis and Inuit Perspectives in Our Classrooms

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