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Sign at Kluane Lake, Yukon Territory

In 1898 Washington Matthews, the US Army physician who was one of the earliest and best recorders of ethnographic information on the Navajos, published an article in the Journal of American Folklore entitled “Ichthyophobia.” It’s an interesting piece of scholarship for a number of reasons, not least its florid Victorian prose style. Matthews begins thus:

By the term Ichthyophobia I mean, of course, fear of fish; but I do not mean that proper fear, based upon actual knowledge, which the native diver of certain tropic seas feels, who will not venture into deep water lest he be torn to pieces by sharks, nor that equally rational fear that leads us to discard tainted fish, which so often proves poisonous as an article of food. I refer to the fear which results from superstition, and which prohibits all fish as an article of food; in short, to the taboo of fish.

He soon goes on to explain the background to his interest in this issue:

In the year 1866, after I had spent about twelve months on the Upper Missouri among some of the most primitive tribes then within our borders, I came on to Chicago, and there made the acquaintance of a gentleman who had recently returned from New Mexico, having spent a year or more among the Navaho Indians. Oddly enough the gentleman’s name was Fish, although this fact, like the vernal blossoms, had nothing to do with the case, since the Indians did not fear him. In comparing notes of our experience among the Indians, he asked me, “Do the tribes of the Upper Missouri eat fish?” “Of course they do,” I said. “Is there any one in the world who will not eat a good fish if he can get it ?” “Yes,” he replied; “the Navahoes will not eat fish; they will not even touch a fish, and I have known them to refuse candies that were shaped like fish.” At the time, although I had every reason to believe that my friend was a truthful person, I was half inclined to believe that his was a “fish story” in more senses than one, or that he had made some error in observation. But that was in the days of my youthful ignorance. I knew not then the extent and nature of the customs of taboo. I did not realize that I was myself the victim of taboo practices just as unreasonable as that of the Navaho fish-haters.

Fourteen years later I found myself a neighbor of these same Navaho Indians, and one of the first subjects I proceeded to investigate was the fish taboo, of which I had learned years before. I found that my friend, Mr. Fish, had told me the truth,  but had not expressed his case as strongly as he might have done. I found that the Navahoes not only tabooed fish, but all things connected with the water, including aquatic birds. Speaking of the Navaho repugnance to fish with the landlady of the Cornucopia Hotel (a slab shanty) at Fort Wingate, she related the following as a good joke on the Indian. She employed  a young Navaho warrior to do chores around her kitchen. The Navaho warrior has no pride about the performance of menial labor. He will do almost anything at which he can earn money, and this one would do any work for her but clean fish. He would eat, too, almost anything in her kitchen except fish. Noticing his aversion to the finny tribe, she one day sportively emptied over his head a pan of water in which salt fish had been soaked. The Indian screamed in terror, and, running a short distance, tore in haste every shred of clothing from his body and threw it all away. She learned that he afterwards bathed and “made a lot of medicine” to purify himself of the pollution. He never returned to work for her, so this little trick cost her a good servant.

Anthropologists don’t write like this anymore, which seems like a pity to me. That aside, while Matthews certainly shows his fair share of nineteenth-century racism in what he writes here, he goes on to draw an interesting conclusion that is in some ways well ahead of his time:

Our philanthropists wonder at the reluctance of Indians to send their children to a distance to school, and think it is but foolish stubbornness. They cannot realize that, in addition to many practical and sentimental reasons, there are long-cherished religious scruples to be overcome—reasons which are the most potent of all—and, among these, not the least is that they know their children will be obliged to violate tribal taboos. The Navahoes have heard from returning pilgrims that the boy who goes to the Indian school in the East may be obliged to eat geese, ducks, and fish, or go hungry; or that, if  he eats not at first of these abominations, he may be ridiculed and chided till he changes his customs.

“What foolish scruples!” we say, and yet fail to realize that we all refuse certain edible and wholesome articles as food for no good reason that we can assign. What civilized father would send his child to a distant boarding-school where he might be obliged to eat stewed puppy? Yet I have been informed by those who have tasted it that it is a very palatable dish. But we can find a better illustration of our case than this: There are many among the most cultured of our Christian communities who, for religious reasons, refrain on certain days and at certain seasons from articles of food which at other  times are eaten. Such persons would not willingly send their children to places where they would be compelled to disregard these fasts. We may all understand and approve the sentiments which actuate them; yet we seem unable to extend an equal consideration to savages who are, perhaps, actuated by equally worthy motives. Often among the Navahoes children returning from eastern schools fall into feeble health. Their illness is almost always attributed to the violation of taboo while they were away from home, and costly healing ceremonies are performed in order to remove the evil effects of the transgression.

Matthews was unusual in his generation, even among anthropologists, in taking Indians seriously as people and trying to look at things from their perspective. He is best known for his extensive documentation of Navajo legends and ceremonial practices, including sandpainting designs. His success at eliciting this information was likely due in part to his status as a physician and a sense among the medicine men he talked to that he was in some sense engaged in the same trade as they were, that of healing. His respectful attitude toward his informants, evident in his discussion here of their concerns about the possible effects of boarding school on their children, likely also played a role.

Although Matthews clearly considered it important to emphasize to his audience that the Navajo taboo on eating fish is not some absurd result of “savages” being “irrational,” the main point of his article is to look into how this taboo may have arisen. He notes that the Apaches have a similar taboo, and quotes at length a then-recent article by one P. C. Bicknell, who had recently explored the mountains of east-central Arizona, inhabited by the Western Apaches, and had noticed the same taboo among them and inquired into the reasons for it.  Bicknell eventually got an explanation that the Apaches had long ago, when there was not enough food for everyone in the region, made an agreement with the Mohave and Yuma tribes who lived along the Colorado River to the west. Under this agreement, the Apaches would eat no fish, while the river tribes would eat no venison, and therefore everyone would have enough to eat. Neither Bicknell nor Matthews found this explanation convincing, and Matthews uses it as another example of the parallels between Indian and Anglo-American society:

The story here related, which is wisely discredited by Mr. Bicknell, may have been coined for the occasion; but it is more likely that it has been current for some time among the Indians. White men are not the only ones who are importunate to know the why and the wherefore. The inquisitive small boy whose business in life it is to ask questions exists among the savage as well as among the civilized; and there are boys of older growth who pester their seniors for explanations. To satisfy the mind of the inquirer with something in accord with his mode of thought, with the grade of philosophy which he has reached, is the aim of the man, in all ages of the world, who would gain and retain a reputation for wisdom. Milton’s Adam explains everything to Milton’s Eve according to the philosophy of Milton’s time. Modern science has its myth-makers, no less than the wild Apache.

Matthews does however find a possible clue to the actual origin of the taboo among both Navajos and Apaches in another of the explanations given to Bicknell. One of the Apaches he asked, who apparently had very limited proficiency in English, just said “all same water.” Bicknell interpreted this to mean that fish is just as insubstantial and tasteless as water, but Matthews considers this implausible, since if the Apaches have been avoiding fish for generations they presumably don’t actually know what it tastes like. He sees this instead as an indication that it is the association of the fish with water, which is so scarce and precious in a desert land, that accounts for its avoidance. He checks in with Frank Cushing, the preeminent expert at the time on the Zunis, to see if they have a similar taboo, and receives a reply which he quotes:

The Zuñis, like the Navahoes, will not, under any circumstances, eat fish or any other water animal. The reason is this: Abiding in a desert land, where water is scarce, they regard it as especially sacred; hence all things really or apparently belonging to it, and in particular all creatures living in it, are sacred or deified. But, in the case of the fishes, they eat water, chew it, and are therefore, since they also breathe water and the currents or breaths of water, especially tabooed. The Zuñi name for the Isletas is Kyas-i-ta(w)-kwe, Fish Cannibals, because they ate fish formerly.

Matthews considers this ample confirmation of his own conclusions regarding the Navajo avoidance of fish, which seems to be a common (but not universal) trait of Southwestern groups. Furthermore, he notes that the northern Athapaskans, who speak languages quite similar to those of the Navajos and Apaches but live far to the north, in generally well-watered areas of Canada and Alaska, do not have any sort of taboo on fish consumption. To ensure that he hasn’t missed something on this topic he checks with Franz Boas, the towering figure in American anthropology who had done extensive fieldwork among the Northern Athapaskans. Boas replies:

The northern Athapascan tribes have no taboo against fish; on the contrary, they almost subsist on fish for a considerable  part of the year.

Indeed, salmon in particular is hugely important to the diet of many of the Athapaskan groups in Alaska to this day. Matthews draws the reasonable conclusion from all this that the Navajos and Apaches likely acquired their fish taboos after reaching the Southwest, probably under the influence of the Pueblos, although the arid environment itself may have played a role directly as well.

Many years after Matthews’s paper, Herbert Landar presented further thoughts on the linguistic implications of all this. He notes that Navajo basically has only one word for “fish”: łóó’, a generic term referring to all fish.  This echoes the situation in Hopi and Zuni, both of which only have one general “fish” term, but is quite different from the extensive inventory of terms for various fish found in northern Athapaskan languages. These languages do tend to have terms cognate to the Navajo one, and these terms usually refer either to fish in general or to salmon or whitefish specifically. They also have a wide variety of terms for other specific fish and aquatic creatures, cognates for which are apparently totally missing in the southern languages. Landar concludes from this, in keeping with Matthews’s conclusion (though rather oddly he does not cite Matthews’s article) that “a prehistoric southwestern fish taboo led to the truncation of the Apachean fish vocabulary.”

At the time Landar was writing in 1960, the Alaska Athapaskan languages were still not very well documented compared to those in Canada and the Southwest. It was not until the establishment of the Alaska Native Language Center in 1972 that extensive, systematic documentation of all these languages began. The data collected by the ANLC has greatly increased both the ease and the reliability of the kind of comparative study done by Landar, which in his case given the material he had to work with was necessarily very tentative.  As far as I know no one has yet looked at this exact issue using that data, but it would be interesting to see exactly how many “fish” words each Athapaskan language has and how specific they are. Be that as it may, however, the conclusions reached by Matthews and Landar using much less information are likely to stand the test of time.
ResearchBlogging.org
Landar, H. (1960). The Loss of Athapaskan Words for Fish in the Southwest International Journal of American Linguistics, 26 (1) DOI: 10.1086/464559

Matthews, W. (1898). Ichthyophobia The Journal of American Folklore, 11 (41) DOI: 10.2307/533215

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Geronimo Birthplace Marker, Gila National Forest, New Mexico

The term “Apache” is one of the most widely known names for Native American groups, but it’s actually quite problematic.  There is, I think, a general perception that it refers to a specific “tribe,” but it doesn’t.  What it really is, at least as it’s used today, is a designation for all the Southern Athapaskan groups except the Navajos.  These groups include the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apaches in New Mexico and the Western Apaches (several closely related contiguous groups) in Arizona.  There are also some smaller groups that have largely merged with the others, most notably the Chiricahuas, who famously fought the US Army for many years under Geronimo and other famous chiefs but have since mostly merged with the Mescaleros.  These various Apaches, however, don’t form a single group linguistically.  Some of the languages, especially Western Apache, are closer to Navajo than they are to some other “Apache” languages.  This makes “Apache” polyphyletic in classificatory terms.  In other words, there is no group of “Apache” languages the members of which are more closely related to each other than to other Athapaskan languages.

This fact has been recognized for a long time.  Harry Hoijer published an initial attempt at classifying the Southern Athapaskan (or “Apachean”) languages in 1938.  In it he posited that all the Southern Athapaskan languages form a single genetic unit divided into Eastern and Western branches, with Navajo, Western Apache, Mescalero, and Chiricahua all belonging to the Western branch, with Jicarilla and the apparently closely related Lipan belonging to the Eastern branch.

Also belonging to the Eastern Apachean branch in this classification were the so-called “Kiowa Apaches,” although Hoijer recognized that their language diverged from all the other Apachean languages in important ways.  This group has long been a puzzle for ethnographers.  They have been called both “Kiowa Apaches” and “Plains Apaches,” but some anthropologists have preferred to call them “Na’isha” after their name for themselves, and I will follow their example for reasons that will soon become apparent.  Culturally and politically, they are very closely connected to the Kiowas, who speak a totally unrelated language (which has its own puzzles, but that’s a separate matter) and as of the nineteenth century lived way out on the Southern Plains, far removed from any other Athapaskans groups.  The Na’isha, however, do not speak Kiowa but their own language, which is clearly Athapaskan.  Despite the clear divergences between it and the other Southern Athapaskan languages, it does also show some similarities to the Eastern Apachean languages specifically, and Hoijer therefore classified it in 1938 as an Eastern Apachean language with some major divergences from the others, in the same way that he considered Navajo a Western Apachean language with some divergences.  Later in life, however, after fuller data became available on a wider variety of Athapaskan languages outside the Southwest, he seems to have changed his mind and reclassified Na’isha as an Athapaskan language closely related to the Apachean languages but not more closely related to them than to some other Athapaskan languages found further north.  In 1985 Martin Huld published an article pointing to some additional differences between Na’isha and the Apachean languages that further support the idea that Na’isha is not Apachean.

The picture emerging from this research is that both Na’isha and Proto-Apachean seem to have separated from other Athapaskan languages somewhere on the far northern Plains, perhaps in southern Alberta.  The Athapaskan language still spoken in the Calgary area, Sarcee, also shows some similarities to both Na’isha and Apachean.  The implication of these conclusions is that all of these languages were once spoken in the same area by groups in close contact with each other, resulting in many similarities in the languages.  Crucially for understanding the prehistory of the Plains, however, the Na’isha seem to have split off and headed south separately from the Apachean speakers.  This model is in strong contrast to other models which have the Na’isha splitting from the other Apacheans after the latter had moved to the Southwest, and it is more consistent with Na’isha and Kiowa oral tradition, which holds that they had been associated with each other for a very long time and came to the southern Plains from the north.

So, it seems that the “Kiowa Apaches” are neither Kiowa, despite close association with the Kiowas, nor Apache, despite their Athapaskan language.  Instead, they most likely represent an additional Athapaskan migration to the south, separate from the migration(s) that brought the Navajos and the various other Apaches to the Southwest.  This is why both “Kiowa Apache” and “Plains Apache” are very problematic as terms; the Na’isha are probably not “Apaches” in the linguistic sense, nor are they Kiowas, and they are not the only Athapaskans to occupy the Plains either.  The Eastern Apachean Jicarilla and Lipan Apaches also lived on the Plains, to the west of the Kiowas and Na’isha, closer to their Western Apachean brethren.  These groups are, indeed, often considered intermediate culturally between the Southwest and the Plains.  They were in contact with the Pueblos, and the Jicarillas even farmed to some extent, but they also hunted bison and had various Plains cultural traits, although to a lesser extent than the Na’isha, Kiowas, and Comanches, the preeminent bison-hunting cultures of the southern Plains.

The importance of this conclusion for archaeology is that the “Athapaskan migration” that has been so elusive in the archaeological record likely consisted not of a single large group but of multiple smaller groups which would be very hard to find evidence for, some of which later coalesced into the Apache groups known from the ethnohistoric record.  This is another example of the huge and largely untapped potential for linguistics to contribute to archaeological problems.
ResearchBlogging.org
Hoijer, H. (1938). The Southern Athapaskan Languages American Anthropologist, 40 (1), 75-87 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1938.40.1.02a00080

Huld, M. (1985). Regressive Apicalization in Na’isha International Journal of American Linguistics, 51 (4) DOI: 10.1086/465932

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Painted Wall, Santa Fe, New Mexico

There’s been quite a bit of research on relations between the Pueblo and Athapaskan peoples of the American Southwest, most of it falling within the broad domain of ethnography or sociocultural anthropology.  That is, there is quite a lot of evidence that some of the Athapaskan-speaking Apache groups, especially the Navajos, have been in close contact with the Pueblos and have adopted many Pueblo cultural practices.  It’s not clear when or how this happened, however; with regard to the Navajos specifically the Pueblo Revolt period (AD 1680 to 1692 or a bit later) has often been posited as a time when an influx of Pueblo refugees to the Navajo country led to the adoption of many Pueblo cultural practices by the Navajos, but recent archaeological research has cast doubt on this theory.  (More on that later.)  In general, there has been plenty of documentation of Pueblo influences on Apaches, but little progress on figuring when and how these influences occurred.

The issue of influences in the other direction, from Athapaskan-speaking groups to Pueblos, has received much less attention.  This is probably due mostly to the longstanding if mostly implicit idea among anthropologists that the Pueblos, as settled agriculturalists, were in some sense more developed culturally than the Athapaskans, who were certainly hunter-gatherers when they entered the Southwest although many of them adopted agriculture to varying degrees once they were there.  The idea seems to be that more “primitive” hunter-gatherers would of course have borrowed lots of cultural practices from the more “advanced” farmers they encountered (and, indeed, they did), but that the Pueblos wouldn’t have borrowed much, if anything, from the barbaric newcomers to the area they had inhabited for millennia.

Nevertheless, there is in fact some evidence for cultural influence flowing from Athapaskans to Pueblos in addition to vice versa.  Due to the abovementioned lack of research there aren’t very many specific instances of influence to point to, but I have found one clear-cut instance of linguistic influence in this direction.  This is explained in a short but very interesting article by Paul Kroskrity of UCLA published in 1985.  Kroskrity points out that Tewa, a Pueblo language spoken in northern New Mexico around Santa Fe as well as in one village in the Hopi area of Arizona (the latter resulting from a migration from the Galisteo Basin south of Santa Fe after the Spanish Reconquest of New Mexico in 1692), has a possessive construction very different from those found in the other languages of the Kiowa-Tanoan family to which it belongs.  The usual way of expressing possession in these languages is with a periphrastic construction roughly equivalent to “the x y has” in English.  Tewa, however, alone among Kiowa-Tanoan languages, has in addition to this construction another, simpler way to express possession with a single morpheme, a suffix -bí attached to the possessor.  This is equivalent to saying “y’s x” in English.  This suffix appears to be fixed in form, regardless of the number or gender of either the possessor or the possessed.

Since this suffix is found only in Tewa, and not in any other related languages, it is a good candidate for a borrowing from some other language.  And, as it happens, the Athapaskan languages have a very similar morpheme used to express a third-person possessor, a prefix bi- appended to the possessed.  Since both Tewa and Athapaskan have the usual word order “possessor-possessed” the fact that the morpheme is a prefix in Athapaskan but a suffix in Tewa is no problem; it seems Tewa just attached it to the previous word rather than the following one.

Linguistically the case is straightforward.  Culturally and historically, the implications are more complicated.  Generally linguistic borrowing goes from a language perceived to have more prestige to one perceived to have less, and while there are some exceptions this case can probably be best explained in that framework, which rather turns the idea of “advanced” Pueblos and “primitive” Apaches on its head.  At the very least it implies that the relationship was a two-way street.  This raises the interesting question of when and why Tewa-speakers would have perceived Athapaskans to have more status, to which I have no answer at this point.  An alternative explanation would be that some Athapaskan language was used at some point as a lingua franca for communication among the various Pueblos (which speak several languages, not all of them related), with the adoption of useful grammatical devices from this intercultural contact language being adopted into Tewa as more useful than the native constructions used for the same purpose.  This explanation however does not account for Tewa being the only one of the Kiowa-Tanoan languages to adopt this construction.  More extensive data on possible Athapaskan loanwords into Tewa and other Pueblo languages would be helpful in clarifying this.  Generally words are borrowed much more easily than grammatical structures like this, so any structural borrowing will usually only come after fairly extensive borrowing of words.

I think the most likely explanation for this borrowing is that there was some time in the past when Tewa-speakers were in close contact with speakers of one of the Apachean languages in a context where the Apachean-speakers had a relatively high level of perceived status.  This must have been before the early eighteenth century, when the Arizona Tewas migrated to the Hopi country from the Galisteo Basin, since Kroskrity’s data makes it quite clear that this construction is shared by both Tewa groups (which have not been in close contact since the migration).  The odd thing about this is that the Tewas are located near the center of the Rio Grande Pueblo culture area, which makes it look unlikely at first glance that they would have had more contact with outside groups than their linguistic relatives the Tiwa (to the north and south) and Towa (to the east and west).  While the Northern Tiwa and Eastern Towa are known to have had quite close connections to some of the Apache groups of the southern Plains (Jicarilla and Lipan, respectively), the Tewa were not in the same situation.

The only Athapaskan group that seems like a plausible candidate for loaning this construction to the Tewa is the Navajos, who in early historic times were located northwest of Tewa territory, not particularly close but without much in between.  Ethnographic and historic data tends to suggest that the Tewa and Navajos were generally adversaries in recent centuries, but this may not necessarily have always been the case.  They were certainly familiar with each other; indeed, the name “Navajo” comes from the Tewa word navahu, meaning “plowed fields” and borrowed in to Spanish as a way of distinguishing the Navajos, with their greater emphasis on agriculture, from other Apaches who were still primarily hunter-gatherers.  That very emphasis on agriculture, of course, may in and of itself indicate somewhat closer contact with the Pueblos.

This is a good example of the largely unrealized potential of linguistics to contribute data to the understanding of culture change and prehistory.  Linguists and archaeologist don’t tend to use each other’s data much (and when they do they all too often seize on the most superficial and/or tendentious interpretations available rather than the most reasonable), but there is an enormous amount of information available to contribute to a fuller picture of the past if people are willing to figure out how to use it judiciously.
ResearchBlogging.org
Kroskrity, P. (1985). Areal-Historical Influences on Tewa Possession International Journal of American Linguistics, 51 (4) DOI: 10.1086/465943

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Sign at the Entrance to Ahtna Property, Mentasta, Alaska

In discussing Dena’ina, the most divergent of the Athapaskan languages, I mentioned that its Upper Inlet dialect (spoken in the area that is now Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, i.e., the most populous part of Alaska today) shows extensive influence from Ahtna, the language spoken to the east.  This probably accounts for most of the many differences between this dialect and the more conservative Dena’ina dialects further west in the lower Cook Inlet area.  James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center, who did the research on Dena’ina dialects I discussed in the previous post, has also done a lot of research on this contact between Ahtna and Upper Inlet Dena’ina, and he published an article summarizing his findings in 1977.

Ahtna is also an Athapaskan language, and it may be more closely related to Dena’ina than either is to the rest of the family; Kari notes a few very deep-seated grammatical similarities between the two.  Be that as it may, however, Dena’ina has undergone unique changes that make it very different from every other Athapaskan language, including Ahtna, and the two are not mutually intelligible.  All the Dena’ina dialects show sufficient similarity to indicate that they arose relatively recently from a single protolanguage, as discussed by Kari in a more recent paper, and it seems that that language had been relatively isolated from most other languages in the family for a relatively long period of time before its recent expansion.  Kari favors a location in southwestern Alaska, probably northwest of what is now Lake Clark National Park, for the Dena’ina Urheimat, although he acknowledges that somewhere in the Upper Inlet is another possibility.  This seems implausible to me, however, since one of the major differences between Dena’ina and most other Athapaskan languages is its radically simplified vowel system, which seems to show evidence of influence from Yup’ik Eskimo, which is spoken along the west coast of Alaska and probably has been for a long time.  Kari notes that there are relatively few Eskimo loanwords in any Dena’ina dialect, however, which suggests to me that this vowel system may have spread to proto-Dena’ina from another Athapaskan language in western Alaska which had in turn gotten it from Yup’ik.  (Note that the Yup’ik are the Eskimos who are not Inuit; Inuit, which is spoken further north, has an even simpler vowel system.)

In any case, by the time the Dena’ina spread into the Cook Inlet basin and began to adopt, to varying degrees, a more maritime subsistence pattern they had been separated from the main mass of Athapaskan speakers, who were mostly concentrated along the Yukon and Tanana Rivers, for a very long time, and their language was very distinct.  This distinctiveness may in fact have been deliberate, at least in part; one of the most distinctive characteristics of Dena’ina is its use of words, often for very common concepts like “water” and “fire” that appear to be Athapaskan in origin but are not the standard Athapaskan roots used by most languages for those meanings.  Kari implies that this “tabooistic replacement” (a term I’m not crazy about) may have had something to do with maintaining cultural boundaries, probably an important consideration for a group expanding into new and relatively unfamiliar territory.

When the Dena’ina reached the upper end of Cook Inlet, they would have soon encountered the Ahtna.  While they were (and are) based primarily in the valley of the Copper River to the east, the Ahtna were a  large, powerful tribe that expanded as far west as the Denali area, and as Kari notes they appear to have had the superior position in their contacts with the Dena’ina.  There are many Ahtna loanwords into Upper Inlet Dena’ina, as well as a certain amount of phonological influence leading to simplifications in the consonant system that make Upper Inlet Dena’ina very hard for speakers of other Dena’ina dialects to understand.  There were some borrowings in the other direction too, but fewer.  Many of Kari’s informants even seem to have explicitly said that they considered the Ahtna culturally superior to themselves.  The historic and ethnographic records give plenty of supporting evidence of extensive contact, trade, and intermarriage between the Upper Inlet Dena’ina and the western Ahtna, which corroborates the very strong linguistic evidence Kari presents.

The upshot of all this for culture history is not totally clear, but it definitely seems that the Dena’ina most likely spread from west to east, and the Ahtna may have been spreading in the other direction at approximately the same time.  Archaeological evidence suggests that the Dena’ina spread into the Kenai peninsula (across the inlet from their apparent homeland) took place less than a thousand years ago.  Since it seems very clear that the Athapaskans had been in Alaska for a very long time before that, certainly long enough for Dena’ina in the southwest to diverge markedly from the various languages that form a large dialect continuum in the Tanana and Yukon valleys, this suggests that the story of Athapaskan prehistory is both very complicated and very long-term.  Specific inferences useful in understanding the migration of other Athapaskans to the American Southwest, a process which must have begun long before the Dena’ina entered the Kenai, are not apparent.  But then, this is the opposite end of the Athapaskan world, so that’s not all that surprising.

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Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center, Anchorage, Alaska

As I mentioned in the last post, it’s generally thought that the Athapaskan migrations which eventually led to the entrance of the Navajos and Apaches into the Southwest began in Alaska.  The northern Athapaskan languages are actually spoken over a very large area of northwestern Canada as well, but the linguistic evidence clearly points to Alaska as the original place where Proto-Athapaskan was spoken at the last point before it splintered into the various Athapaskan languages.  That is, the Urheimat of the Athapaskans seems to have been somewhere in Alaska.

There are two main pieces of evidence pointing to this conclusion.  One is the fact that it has been quite well established at this point that the Athapaskan language family as a whole is related to the recently-extinct language Eyak, which was spoken in south-central Alaska.  Eyak was clearly not an Athapaskan language itself, but it had sufficient similarities to reconstructed Proto-Athapaskan to establish a genetic relationship.  Since Eyak was spoken in Alaska, it therefore seems most probable that the most recent common ancestor of both Eyak and the Athapaskan languages (Proto-Athapaskan-Eyak) was also spoken in Alaska.  This is not very strong evidence on its own, however, since Eyak was only a single language spoken by a relatively small group of people, and there is some fairly strong evidence that they have not lived in their current location for a very long time (although they may well have moved there from elsewhere in Alaska).

A stronger piece of evidence is the internal diversity of the Athapaskan languages themselves.  A general principle in historical linguistics is that the Urheimat of a language family is likely to be found where there is maximal diversity among the languages in the family.  That is, since language families often spread through migration, areas with many languages from the family that are not particularly closely related to each other in relatively small area are more likely locations for the Urheimat than areas with fewer languages that are more closely related.  When it comes to Athapaskan, this condition obtains most strongly in Alaska.  The languages in Canada and the Lower 48 are all relatively closely related to each other within the family as compared to some of the languages in Alaska.  Although interior Alaska is overwhelmingly dominated by Athapaskan groups, the linguistic boundaries among these various groups, even those adjacent to each other, are often extremely sharp.

This is particularly the case when it comes to the most divergent of all the Athapaskan languages: Dena’ina.  (Note that in many publications this term is spelled “Tanaina,” and I have spelled it that way myself in the past.  “Dena’ina” is the generally preferred form these days, being closer to the original pronunciation and consistent with the principles of the currently used orthography.)  This is the language traditionally spoken around Cook Inlet in south-central Alaska, including the Anchorage area.  While it’s clearly Athapaskan, it’s very weird as Athapaskan languages go.  It is not mutually intelligible with any other Athapaskan language, although it borders several of them, and it is in turn divided into several internal dialects that are strikingly diverse.  James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, published an article on Dena’ina dialects in 1975 based on original fieldwork.  The basic conclusions were that there are two main dialects, Upper Inlet and Lower Inlet, and that Lower Inlet is further subdivided into two or three subdialects: Outer Inlet, Inland, and Iliamna (which lies between the two other dialects and shows similarities to both, although Kari seems to consider it likely that it is ultimately more closely related to the Outer Inlet dialect with the similarities to the Inland dialect due to later influence).  In general, the Lower Inlet dialect is more conservative than the Upper Inlet one, which shows extensive influence from the neighboring Ahtna language, which is also Athapaskan but not very similar to Dena’ina.  Within the Lower Inlet dialect, the Inland dialect is the most conservative, as well as the one with by far the most speakers of any of the dialects as of 1975.  Both these conditions are presumably due to the relative isolation of this dialect, which is spoken in the Lake Clark area and further north in Lime Village.  Kari considers this the most likely homeland of Dena’ina speakers, whom he sees as having moved from the interior to the coast relatively recently, although he acknowledges that this cannot be established based on linguistic evidence alone.

Despite the relative conservatism of the Lower Inlet dialect, however, all its subdialects do show a  certain amount of influence from Yup’ik Eskimo (particularly in the development of the Proto-Athapaskan vowel system).  This is unsurprising, as these dialects lie on the boundary of the Yup’ik area to the west and south, and the Dena’ina groups in these areas show extensive Eskimo influence in many aspects of their traditional culture.  This is particularly the case for the Outer Inlet groups, especially those at the southern end of Cook Inlet, who adopted a much more maritime-oriented culture than is typical of Athapaskans.  These cultural distinctions within the overall Dena’ina society were documented by Cornelius Osgood of Yale in the 1930s.  In an article published in 1933 he noted that the main distinctions among the Dena’ina groups were economic, having to do with their subsistence systems, while other social systems were pretty similar across the various groups.  The Lower Inlet groups, especially those in the Seldovia area on Kachemak Bay near the outlet of Cook Inlet, showed a much heavier dependence on hunting sea mammals and a correspondingly heavier influence from nearby Yup’ik Eskimo groups with a similar adaptation than their compatriots further north who had a more typically Athapaskan lifestyle based on salmon fishing and hunting of terrestrial animals.

The fact that Dena’ina, the most divergent of the Athapaskan languages and therefore the one that most likely split earliest from Proto-Athapaskan, is spoken in Alaska makes it very likely that Proto-Athapaskan was spoken in Alaska as well.  Indeed, if Kari is right that the Lake Clark area was the original homeland of the Dena’ina, this potentially places Proto-Athapaskan quite far west within Alaska and quite close to areas traditionally occupied by Eskimo-speakers.  It should be noted, however, that it’s still very unclear when the breakup of Proto-Athapaskan occurred and who occupied which parts of Alaska at that time.  Nevertheless, the evidence from Dena’ina, which is still one of the least-understood Athapaskan languages despite its obvious importance for Athapaskan studies, seems to pretty clearly show that whenever the important early events in the history of the language family occurred, they almost certainly occurred somewhere in Alaska.
ResearchBlogging.org
Osgood, C. (1933). Tanaina Culture American Anthropologist, 35 (4), 695-717 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1933.35.4.02a00070

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Junction of Alaska State Highways 1 and 2, Tok, Alaska

I’ve been reading about Alaska a lot mostly, trying to get a handle on this very complicated place where I now live.  Archaeologically, it’s fantastically complicated and not very well understood.  I’ve been meaning to do some blogging about Alaskan archaeology, but I feel like I still don’t have a very good grasp of it except at an extremely superficial level.  Unlike with the Southwest, however, that’s probably still more than virtually anyone else knows about it, so I’ll probably be doing some posts on it in the near future.  I still haven’t fully settled on whether to start a new blog or just use this one, but any near-term stuff I’ll probably just stick here.

One of the things I’m realizing is that there’s a major disconnect between the archaeological evidence known from Alaska and the role Alaska plays in a number of larger archaeological questions.  Alaska is the presumed starting point for (at least) three very important migrations that defined the cultural history of the entire Western Hemisphere, but so far the archaeological record within the state has shed virtually no light on two of them, and relatively little on the third.  Indeed, it has even been proposed that archaeological research in Alaska has been overly driven by these bigger questions, and that it would be better to try to understand it in its own terms first before trying to tackle them.

The first of these migration is, of course, the initial peopling of the Americas in the Late Pleistocene.  I’ve written before about my belief that this initial migration from Asia doesn’t matter when looking at much later developments such as those at Chaco Canyon, and I still believe that, but it is still an important issue in its own right.  Recent research in various places has increasingly indicated that the Clovis culture of around 13,000 years ago was not the direct result of the earliest migration into the Americas, but it is still the case that any migrations during the Pleistocene (and it’s increasingly looking like there were at least two) almost certainly would have had to go through Alaska.  Unfortunately, despite several decades of looking, no sites have yet been found in Alaska itself that can plausibly be taken to reflect the first immigrants into North America from Asia.  An increasing number of early sites have been identified in the past twenty years, but these are all still too late to represent a population ancestral to Clovis or any of the other early cultures found further south.  Part of the problem here is that preservation conditions for archaeological sites in most of Alaska are atrocious, and in many areas even finding early sites is extremely difficult.  The fact that the state is huge and sparsely populated also means that very little of it has even been surveyed for sites, although that is starting to change a bit with some recent efforts.  Still, we have a long way to go before archaeology within Alaska can shed much meaningful light on the issue of the peopling of the Americas.  I’ll definitely have some more in-depth discussion of this, probably fairly soon.

The second of the migrations I mentioned above is that of speakers of Athapaskan languages to the south, ultimately as far as the Southwestern US and the extreme north of Mexico.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s long been quite obvious that Navajo and the various Apache languages, as well as several languages of California and Oregon coasts, are closely related to a larger number of languages in Alaska and northwestern Canada.  The distribution of the languages, as well as some internal evidence in the southern branch, strongly suggests that the direction of the migration that led to this situation was north-to-south, and similar evidence similarly suggests that the start point was somewhere in what is now Alaska.  Despite the enormous distance over which Athapaskan languages are now spread, the greatest diversity of the languages grammatically is actually found within Alaska.  That is, some Alaskan languages are more closely related to Navajo than they are to other Athapaskan languages in Alaska.  While this is all clear linguistically, tracing the actual migration archaeologically has been enormously difficult at both ends.  Athapaskan archaeology in Alaska in particular is remarkably poorly understood compared to the archaeology of Eskimo groups, due in part to the fact that Athapaskans have mostly occupied the interior areas that are harder to investigate than the primarily Eskimo coastal areas.  I’ll definitely be writing more about this issue from both linguistic and archaeological perspectives, and given the obvious Southwestern connection a lot of that discussion will probably be on this blog even if I start another one.

The third migration, and by far the best understood, is that of so-called Thule peoples from northwestern Alaska eastward across the Arctic as far as Greenland.  The descendants of these migrants are the modern Inuit of Arctic Canada and Greenland, who have close linguistic and cultural connections to the Inupiat of northern Alaska.  While the exact time this migration took place is not totally clear, dates of around AD 1000 to 1200 are usually suggested, which makes it roughly contemporaneous with the major events at Chaco.  Unlike with the other two migrations, the starting point for this one has been fairly well established through extensive archaeological work along the Alaska coast that has defined a series of archaeological cultures leading up to the Thule culture.  Eskimo archaeology has been the main focus of most research in Alaska to date, and it shows in the level of knowledge about these cultures compared to the much more obscure Athapaskan and early cultures.  Still, however, many aspects of Alaskan Eskimo cultures are poorly understood.  (I am aware that the term “Eskimo” is generally avoided in Canada in favor of “Inuit.”  This is not the case in Alaska, where “Eskimo” is widely used and “Inuit” is not considered appropriate in most contexts.  The terms are not synonymous, and in the Alaskan context I think “Eskimo” is probably the best general term to use despite the very real problems with it.  I’ll definitely be discussing this issue further in the future.)

These are the big issues that make the archaeology of Alaska important to New World archaeology in general, and they have been the main impetus for much of the archaeological research done in Alaska to date.  The results have been stubbornly unhelpful in addressing most of them, however, while at the same time bringing to light the unexpectedly diverse and complex prehistory of Alaska itself.  It has long been much more than a corridor or starting point for people going elsewhere.  While the stories of the migrations from Alaska are definitely interesting and important, the ones that took place entirely within Alaska are interesting and important too.

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Chaco Preservation Crew Repairing Masonry at the Fort Site

Today’s Albuquerque Journal has an article, originally published in the Gallup Independent, about the Chaco preservation crew and their work maintaining the various sites in the park.  The article focuses specifically on recent work they’ve done at Pueblo Pintado.  I don’t have a whole lot to add, but it’s an interesting account that addresses some of the complications of doing this sort of work for traditional Navajos, who have a strong taboo against even visiting Anasazi sites.  The article says that the crew deals with this in part by conducting prophylactic ceremonies before starting work on the sites, which I hadn’t known.  These ceremonies are apparently led by Harold Suina, a member of the crew who is from Cochiti Pueblo and is not Navajo (although I believe his wife is, and they live near Chaco in an area inhabited almost entirely by Navajos).  The article doesn’t say this, but I suspect that Harold’s role is particularly important since Pueblos like Cochiti have different attitudes toward the sites at Chaco than Navajos do, so he may not feel as uncomfortable dealing with them as the other members of the crew, all of whom are Navajo, do.  Not all of the Navajo members of the crew are traditional, however; some are Christian, as are many Navajos in the Chaco area, and they may not have the same qualms about their work that their more traditional colleagues have.

Anyway, it’s an interesting article, and it’s nice to see the preservation crew getting some media attention.  They do crucial work for the park, but it rarely gets noticed by either visitors or the many people who have written books and articles about Chaco over the years.  When I was doing tours I would usually do a fairly detailed description of the preservation work early on in the tour, both because people often want to know how much of what they see at the sites is reconstructed (at Chaco, very little, unlike at many other parks) and because I wanted them to appreciate how much work it is to maintain the sites and why it is therefore important for them as visitors to treat them respectfully and minimize the amount of damage they cause.  Hopefully this article will serve a similar function for a wider audience.

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