Decolonizing the Past and Present of the Western Hemisphere

Peter d’Errico

I borrowed the title of this column from a 2015 article in “Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress,” by Paulette F. Steeves (Cree-Métis), presenting an overview of her research overthrowing the Bering Strait theory.

Most folks probably don’t think about archaeology when they look at U.S. federal Indian law—and vice versa. But the two fields interact as components of the ongoing domination of Indigenous Peoples.

The Bering Strait theory—Vine Deloria, Jr., called it the BS theory—has long dominated official viewpoints in archeology. It says that Turtle Island—which archeologists refer to as the American continent—was empty of people until about 13,000 years ago.

The theory asserts that human communities migrated to Turtle Island across a “land bridge” from Siberia, chasing game and carving spear points of a distinctive shape to kill the game for food. Archaeologists call the spear points “Clovis points,” named for the town in New Mexico where they first turned up in digs. Before that, the theory goes, no humans lived in the Americas.

Steeves says, “this academic battle [about the Bering Strait theory] is not just about archaeological sites or material remains. The argument reflects an ongoing colonial practice of erasure and denies Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere a place in ancient world history.” She adds, “To allow that Indigenous people have been present in the Western Hemisphere for a much greater time is to solidify their links to homelands and material remains.”

The BS theory plays an important role in maintaining colonizer domination over the Indigenous Peoples of the continent, by providing supposedly “scientific” evidence that the land was terra nullius—”belonged to no one,” or “no man’s land”—until relatively recently in earth history. The theory says the New World wasn’t as old as the Old World: its peoples had no ancient presence.

Terra nullius fits hand in glove with the doctrine of Christian Discovery. When the U.S. Supreme Court adopted Christian Discovery as the basis for the U.S. claim of ownership of Indian lands, the concept of “no man’s land” was lurking in the background. The court looked at Indians and decided they were not fully human, not capable of owning land. According to the court, the legal “owners” were the Christian discoverers.

Christian Discovery and terra nullius—supposedly legal and scientific concepts—are at work today in the United States and elsewhere. They are at the root of the land grab of Apache territory to benefit Rio Tinto Mining Corporation and the invasion of Standing Rock territory to benefit Energy Transfer Partners Corporation. In each of these locations, Indigenous Peoples are regarded as “in the way” of colonial extraction.

The doctrine of Christian Discovery prescribes that Indians cannot hold title, but can only “occupy” land with “permission” from the government. The fact that the original Peoples have been at Oak Flat and Standing Rock “since time immemorial” doesn’t count in the minds of the colonial extractors.

Steeves says, “Critiquing archaeological constructs of Indigenous people is central to discussing controversies related to human rights and sovereignty in the contemporary world.” She quotes Deloria: “Unless and until ‘Indians’ are in some way connected with world history as early peoples… we will never be accorded full humanity.”

Steeves says, “the past has power in the present.” She quotes David Meltzer, author of “First Peoples in a New World,” who wrote, “Archaeologists are acutely aware of the possible implications of the earlier peopling of the Americas, which reflects on contemporary issues of identity, ancestry, and ownership of the past and present.”

Steeves’ research adds to other critiques of the BS theory. All these researchers are fighting entrenched interests in the discipline of archaeology. A 2013 article in Smithsonian Magazine stated, “The Clovis theory, over time, acquired the force of dogma. … Any artifacts that scholars said came before Clovis, or competing theories that cast doubt on the Clovis-first idea, were ridiculed by the archaeological establishment, discredited as bad science or ignored.

The gatekeepers of the profession have attacked every archeologist who presented evidence of human existence in the Western Hemisphere prior to the so-called Clovis period. Despite this unrelenting hostility, individual researchers—like Steeves—have kept up their work and have begun to gain traction in the discipline.

In March 2011, the founder of the online Paleoindian Database of the Americas told Science Magazine, “many distinct and superbly documented lines of evidence … offer pretty unequivocal confirmation that people were in interior North America… before the Clovis….”

Steeves’ research will be published in a book from Nebraska Press. It will provide laypeople and experts alike access to the database she has constructed showing hundreds of sites of human habitation in North and South America dating well before the supposed Bering Strait migration.

Steeves does not reject possible migrations of peoples between Eastern and Western Hemispheres. She insists, however, that studies of such migration are only a piece of the larger history of human populations, and that real science cannot be limited by political-academic timelines and boundaries.

She says attacks on researchers who study population sites earlier than permitted by the Bering Strait theory show archeology as “a colonially entrenched academic field.” She quotes John Alsoszatai-Peteho, that “even the mere mention of the possibility of greater antiquity was tantamount to professional suicide.”

Long dominant anthropological and archaeological discourses buried Indigenous Peoples’ histories as they were being forced onto “reservations”—denying Indigenous ownership of lands, humanity, and sovereignty, in a colonial terra nullius.

Steeves’ persistence, courage, and commitment to real science in the face of brutal academic wars testifies to her status as a warrior—a defender of knowledge of the ancient past underlying Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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