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Essay 9: How and When Did the First People Get Here?

Recognizing that inaccurate history often subtly promotes continuing white supremacy, the National Education Association (NEA) commissioned these articles and has posted some of them in slightly different form at its website. I thank Harry Lawson and others at NEA for the commission, for editorial suggestions, and for other assistance.

Few K-12 teachers learned much in college about what archaeology and anthropology now say about how and when the first people got here. Partly this is because the answers keep changing. These fields study long-dead peoples, but they are alive with controversy. Most textbook authors have also not kept up with recent findings. Too often, they simply parrot what textbooks said decades ago.

Typical textbook map showing, as a certainty, walking across Beringia.
Authors' first mistake is failing to let on that a controversy exists. Instead, they seem compelled to provide answers that students are supposed to "learn." Most simply tell that during the last ice age, about 13,000 years ago, sea level was much lower, so people walked across a land bridge that is now the Bering Strait.

This hypothesis fits authors' storyline of unrelenting progress. These original settlers didn't have to invent anything, such as boats; they just walked. They weren't explorers; they just "followed herds of animals." Indeed, authors imply that they weren't much more intelligent than the animals: "they did not know that they were exploring a new continent." Ask a student to define "continent." She will say "a large land mass." Substitute that phrase for "continent" in the textbook's sentence and invite comment. Surely no one could be so dense as to miss that they were in a large land mass! This inferred stupidity stems from the notion in our culture that long-age Natives were "primitives," as the previous essay explains.

Little evidence supports this hypothesis. No fossil record shows humans in northwest Canada and Alaska along the narrow ice-free corridor that existed for a while during the ice age. Of course, teachers must point out that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so humans might have come that way. American Indians and people in northeast Siberia do share cultural and genetic similarities. But they may have come by boat. Homo erectus got to Lombok in Indonesia more than 500,000 years ago, and one can never walk to Lombok. So people have had boats for a long time. Of course, not being made of stone, no boats from the distant past have survived.

Moreover, archaeologists keep finding sites that predate 15,000 years ago, predating the ice-free corridor and even the ice age. Some have suggested additional possible routes, across both the Atlantic and Pacific. Yet another recent hypothesis proposes that a comet exploded over North America 13,000 years ago. If true, the resulting firestorm might have wiped out most people and caused the extinction of large mammals like horses and mastodons.

This state of uncertainty means that teachers can set students loose to discover answers for themselves, while helping them learn how to assess web sources. In the process, students will learn not just to memorize history and accept textbooks, but to read thoughtfully and think critically.

Teachers need to know that Native people came here in at least three waves. This essay has discussed the first and largest wave, which includes most Natives, from the Mikmaqs of northeastern Canada to the Yaghans at the tip of South America. These may all have stemmed from a boatload or two. The Dineh and Inuit peoples came much later.

Teachers also need to deal with religious objections to this material. I have found it helpful to teach students compartmentalization. This skill lets them keep their minds open to new information in history while respecting what they may have learned as Native Americans, Mormons, Baptists, or others.

Teaching What Really Happened
Essential Reading
  • Loewen, Chapter 5, "How and When Did People Get Here?" in Teaching What Really Happened (NY: Teachers College Press, 2010), provides detail on the three major waves of Native Americans, suggests ideas about where to find good information on recent discoveries, and expands on the concept of compartmentalization.

All essays in the Correct(ed) series:
Introducing the Series
Essay 2: How To Teach Slavery
Essay 3: How To Teach Secession
Essay 4: Teaching about the Confederacy and Race Relations
Essay 5: Confederate Public History
Essay 6: Reconstruction
Essay 7: Getting History Right Can Decrease Racism Toward Mexican Americans
Essay 8: Problematic Words about Native Americans
Essay 9: How and When Did the First People Get Here?
Essay 10: The Pantheon of Explorers
Essay 11: Columbus Day
Essay 12: How Thanksgiving Helps Keep Us Ethnocentric
Essay 13: American Indians as Mascots
Essay 14: How to Teach the Nadir of Race Relations
Essay 15: Teaching the Civil Rights Movement
Essay 16: Getting Students Thinking about the Future

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