By: Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith
When Worldviews Collide
The First Nations peoples of Canada have a particular understanding of the ways in which the world came into being, and the ways they have come into being as a people. This particular knowledge is often conveyed through story/myth and legend, and it is through these venues that we have come to understand how we as a people were created.
First Nations peoples are storytellers, and have been since the beginning of time. It is through legends (aatisoohkan (an) or aatisoohkan (ak)) and stories (tepachimowan) that they relate to the world around them. Therefore, I am going to discuss how stories, myths and legends play an important role in First Nations peoples’ lives, and how creation stories are very much guiding tools that have taught us how to be. I will also briefly touch upon the Bering Strait Theory and how it is a theory that is “not so much science as it is politics.”
Let me tell you something first. Creation stories vary from nation to nation, but they all play an important role in the lives of First Nations peoples. So, if a First Nations person were from the Plains area of Canada, their creation story and what they’ve learned would be different from someone who has grown up in the Great Lakes region and vice versa.
Though I am originally from western Canada, I have lived in Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) territory since I was a young child. As a means of respect to the land I live on, I must relay what I have learned about the Anishinaabe worldview because I reside on their lands.
Another important thing to know is that in the First Nations peoples’ worldview, story/myth and legend play a huge role in their creation stories. They reflect and characterize important relationships between the human and non-human, reflect who and where the story is being told, and also reflect vital features of the Anishinaabe worldview.
According to The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway, written by Edward Benton-Banai, the creation story goes like this:
When Ah-ki (the Earth) was young, it was said that the Earth had a family. Nee-ba-gee-sis (the Moon) is called Grandmother, and Gee-sis (the Sun) is called Grandfather. The Creator of this family is called Gi-tchie Man-ito (Great Mystery or Creator). 1
Benton-Benai goes onto relay that
…the Earth is said to be a woman. In this way, it is understood that woman preceded man on the Earth. She is called Mother Earth because from her come all living things. Water is her life blood. It flows through her, nourishes her and purifies her.
On the surface of the Earth, all is given Four Sacred Directions — North, South, East, and West. Each of these directions contributes a vital part of the wholeness of the Earth. Each has physical powers as well as spiritual powers, as do all things.
It is said when the Earth was young, she was filled with beauty, and the Creator sent his singers in the form of birds to the Earth to carry the seeds of life to all of the Four Directions. It was in this way, life was spread across the Earth. It was on the Earth that the Creator placed all beings — the swimming creatures of the water, he gave life to all crawling things and the four leggeds on the land. All of these parts of life lived in harmony with each other.
Gitchie Manito then took four parts of Mother Earth and blew into them using a Sacred Shell. From the union of the Four Sacred Elements and his breath, man was created.2
Gitchie Manito then lowered man to the Earth. “Thus, man was the last form of life to be placed on the Earth. From this Original Man came the A-nish-i-na-be people.”
From this creation story, First Nations peoples believe that all nations came from this Original Man, and although traditions may differ from nation to nation, there is a common thread that runs throughout every one. This common thread represents a string of lives that goes back all the way to Original Man.
The Creation story, along with other stories, myths and legends are seen as teaching and guiding tools. They teach us lessons of morality, law and governance and relay how everything is interrelated in one way or another. The Creation story also teaches us how we are to live the good life — piimaatsiwin. This is why stories/myth and legends are usually “…taught to children in their earliest years, because it not only helps them to view their place in the world but it also teaches life lessons.”3
The debate of how First Nations peoples came to be has been going on for years and years. Defining the worldview of First Nations people can be problematic, in the sense that often other cultures have different ways of understanding how they themselves came to be, and this creates a challenge between non-native people and First Nations people.
In the words of scholar and author of Rediscovering the First Nations of Canada, John W. Friesen, “No one really knows the exact origins of Canada’s First Nations; that may well have always been here — as some of them claimed. Many archaeologists believe the First Peoples of Canada (at least in the west), came to this continent from Asia via Alaska across the Bering Strait as many as 30,000 years ago. Those who adhere to this interpretation estimate that at that time the 80 kilometre wide strait was actually a land bridge that may have stretched to 1500 kilometres across.”4
It is further argued by Friesen that American Indian and scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. debunks this theory on the basis that an ocean water level drop of 60 meters would have been necessary to form the bridge so that they could cross, and that Siberia at the time was locked in huge glaciers and its population would have had to be minute. Also, Siberian temperatures at that time would have been such that “it would have been impossible for people to move without freezing to death or falling into glaciers.”5
In his book Red Earth, White Lies, Vine Deloria, Jr. makes a very valid point when he argues “When reading these ‘scientific’ explanations, we must always remember that in order to have land bridges at all, or even an occasional isthmus, we are basically committed to moving a great deal of water around to create an ice age, or we are making the continents rise and fall a significant distance or we are otherwise manipulating a monstrous amount of physical material just to make our theories and speculations seem reasonable.” Furthermore, if we were to “follow orthodox methodology, we should not invoke activities of nature that we do not see operative today.”6
So you see when there is one worldview — in this case the Western worldview — trying to understand a worldview other than their own — the First Nations worldview — reasoning or trying to explain something that they don’t understand can be seen as highly questionable.
To First Nations people, the Bering Strait Myth is not so much science as it is politics. I say this because within my research for this column I came across an Indigenous website “Native Circle – Issues: Mistakes, Lies & Misconceptions about American Indian People” that detailed “much objective modern science in the past several decades has even suggested that it is highly questionable if there ever was a so-called ‘land-bridge’ or ‘ice-bridge as some have defined it, because numbers suggest otherwise.”
First … Many Indigenous Nations have calendars which have been counting the years for a very long time. I am aware that the calendar of the Mohawk Indian Nation has been counting the winters for over 33,120 years. This pre-dates the so-called ‘land-bridge’ of the Bering Strait theory, unless, of course, the Bering Strait scientists decide to move their interestingly illusive time period for “early migration” of Indians back to 40,000 years! Many American Indian early histories tell of events that took place on this Turtle continent (North America) long before any so-called ice age. But, for political reasons, these histories have been mostly ignored. You see, the Bering Strait, in truth, is a theory that was born of the politics and propaganda of early America. In the midst of the American ‘Manifest Destiny’ social climate, the Bering Strait theory provided a ‘scientific’ means to justify the taking of ancestral Indian lands. In short, the mythical theory eased the conscience, as it was a way for land hungry immigrants to believe that, because Indian people were only ‘recent inhabitants’ of this land, it was not really their ‘homeland’. Therefore Indians were, in their minds, not any more the ‘original people’ of this land than they were. This was, and still is, the political power of the infamous ‘Bering Strait theory’. (Native Circle)
In conclusion, the First Nations peoples of Canada have a particular understanding of the ways in which the world came into being, and the ways they have come into being as a people. Their creation stories serve as a testament to how they came to be, and though I am in no way an expert on the Bering Strait Theory, I very clearly understand the ways of my people and the land that I live on.
I understand that the Aboriginal worldview is relayed via storytelling, and it is through story/myth and legend that we learn of creation, history and how we are supposed to live our lives. It is also within story, in the Aboriginal worldview, that we as First Nations become engaged without the linear chronology that we see in the Western paradigm of thinking, and that the Bering Strait Theory is something that goes against every teaching that has been handed down to us from our Elders and our ancestors.
1. Edward Benton-Benai, The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway, pg. 2
2. Ibid., pg. 3
3. Alex McKay, lecture, University of Toronto, 16/11/2010
4. John W. Friesen, Rediscovering The First Nations of Canada, pg. 21
5. Ibid., pp. 88-89
6. Vine Deloria, Jr., Red Earth, White Lies, pg. 89