Archive for the ‘Ethnohistory’ Category


Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center, Fairbanks, Alaska

Today is the summer solstice, which is an event I usually mark with a blog post about archaeoastronomy. Today I’m going to do something a little different, though. Since the coronavirus pandemic has been dominating and reshaping life around the world for months now, with no end in sight, I’ve been reading up on past epidemics and their impacts on the populations and societies of the Western Hemisphere, and today I’m launching a series of blog posts discussing these issues. I don’t have a clear sense yet of how long this series will go on or what the frequency of posting will be, but it will likely be pretty extensive. The literature on this subject is huge and fascinating, and I’m still working my way through it.

To keep some control over the scope of this series, I’m setting some basic guidelines in advance for what it will include. The main focus will be on the Western Hemisphere and the impacts of diseases introduced by Europeans on Native American societies, although this may branch out a bit into other geographical areas (e.g., Oceania and Africa) that offer interesting parallels and/or counterpoints to the American experience, and I will also look to some extent at the impact of epidemics on European settler societies as well, and in some cases also at possible epidemic diseases that were transmitted in the opposite direction, the most famous example of which is syphilis. The temporal scope will start with 1492, though with some attention to the epidemiological and demographic landscapes before that that shaped the progress of events afterward, and end before the worldwide flu pandemic of 1918. The literature on the 1918 flu is vast and interesting in its own right, but it’s just too much to incorporate into what is already a very ambitious project.

One of the major issues in this field, which has shaped a lot of the scholarly discussion especially over the past 50 or 60 years, is the question of the total Native American population of the Western Hemisphere before European contact in 1492. Estimates of population have varied immensely over time, with enormous implications for how scholars have understood the nature of Native societies, European colonization, and many other important issues. I’ll go into much more detail about the various estimates and the controversy over them in subsequent posts.


Norton Sound Regional Hospital, Nome, Alaska

I’m calling this series “Virgin Soil, Widowed Land.” Both of those phrases have come up in the scholarly debate over epidemics and demography, and I find it interesting that they both use the same (rather distasteful, to be honest) metaphor in very different ways. “Virgin soil” epidemics are those that impact populations with little or no preexisting immunity to the disease in question, so they cause intensive impacts well beyond those on populations with more immunity. The current COVID-19 epidemic is of this type, since the coronavirus in question is new and no one in the world had immunity to it when it emerged. Similarly, New World populations lacked immunity to most Old World diseases, which therefore had catastrophic impacts on them. (Just how catastrophic and what the exact impacts were is very controversial, of course.)

The “virgin soil” concept refers to the populations that an epidemic impacts, but it intersects with a separate use of the virginity metaphor with a longer history in the study of European colonialism: the “virgin land.” In this concept, the Native people of the Americas were few in number and made limited, superficial use of the land, so the land was essentially unused and available for the taking by European colonists. There is a lot of implicit racism and white-supremacist thinking in this concept, but that’s a lot of the historiography of European colonialism for you. Once some scholars started looking more closely at some of the evidence for pre-Columbian population and the impacts of epidemic disease in the wake of initial contact, the virgin land concept came to seem less and less plausible even descriptively, and in some circles it began to be replaced with the idea of a “widowed land,” in which the land may have been largely empty in many places when European colonists arrived, but this was in large part due to the earlier impacts of virgin soil epidemics spurred by initial European contact.

This makes European colonization look a lot worse in some ways, though it arguably still lets the colonists off the hook too much. One objection to the emphasis on epidemic disease as a factor in Native depopulation is that it seems to imply that depopulation was both inevitable after contact and in some sense not really the colonists’ fault since they didn’t know they were carrying deadly disease with them. As I’ll discuss in future posts, there may be something to this but many researchers have pointed to other more direct impacts from deliberate actions of the Europeans, who definitely attacked, enslaved, and violently displaced Native groups from many areas in ways that probably caused substantial mortality on their own in addition to amplifying the effects of disease.

Anyway, there’s much more to say about these issues both in general, big-picture terms and at the level of individual microhistorical case studies. This may seem a little far afield from my focus on Chaco Canyon, which long predates European contact and the impact of these epidemics, but I see it as all part of the same big story, and it certainly is topical and potentially of interest in our current pandemic-dominated world. I can’t necessarily say there are specific lessons we can take for the COVID-19 pandemic from studying previous ones, but I think it’s always better to understand the past better to inform decisionmaking in the present.


San Juan Regional Medical Center, Farmington, New Mexico


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Kodiak 011

Kodiak, Alaska

In 1805, while visiting the Russian settlement on Kodiak Island as part of the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe, the Russian naval commander Yuri Lisianski observed among the local Alutiiq Natives the presence of individuals known as “schoopans” who had male genitalia but were brought up from childhood as girls, performing women’s work and marrying men. This was a highly honored role in Alutiiq society, and an example of the widespread “berdache” or “Two Spirit” tradition of the Americas that I have discussed before. Lisianski noted that the schoopans “even assume the manners and dress of the [female] sex so nearly, that a stranger would naturally take them for what they are not,” and continues in a footnote:

As a proof of how easily this mistake may be made; it once happened, that a toyon [rich man or “chief”] brought one of these unnatural beings to church to be married to him, and the ceremony was nearly finished, when an interpreter, who came in by chance, put a stop to the proceedings, by making known to the priest, that the couple he was joining in wedlock were both males.

This anecdote caught my attention in part because it is strikingly relevant to modern political debates over the rights of trans people, especially the so-called “bathroom bills” that have cropped up in various places over the past few years. Here in Anchorage, we have one of these measures, Proposition 1, on the municipal ballot right now in our first vote-by-mail election. Election Day is on Tuesday, April 3, but ballots have already been mailed and voting is going on right now.

I’m strongly opposed to Prop 1, which is highly discriminatory against the trans community and serves no real public purpose. Beyond its discriminatory nature, the very premise of Prop 1 is fundamentally absurd in ways highlighted by Lisianski’s story that would render it totally unenforceable and perhaps even cause the sorts of “problems” it purports to solve.

Many of the arguments for Prop 1 and similar measures rely on the assumption that gender is not just an “immutable” biological characteristic on a deep level, but one that is impossible to affect even superficially. Prop 1 seems to take it as a given that a trans person using the “wrong” bathroom under the law will be easily identifiable because they will look to any bystander like their “biological” gender.

This is however not true at all. As with the population as a whole, there is a lot of physical variation among trans people, but many look well within the physical norms of their preferred gender and fit in much better in the bathrooms they prefer to use than in those they don’t. That is to say, trans women really are women, in many cases even physically, visually, to strangers who don’t know anything more about them than how they look. And similarly, trans men really are men.

Indeed, if we are judging gender the way most of us do in practice, by how people look rather than by careful inspection of their genitals or birth certificates, Prop 1 would likely lead to, if anything, a massive increase in the number of “men” in women’s restrooms, because trans men who look like and lead their lives as men would be forced by the terms of the law to use women’s restrooms. In other communities that have adopted laws like this trans men have posted pictures to social media showing what this looks like; it looks like a man in a women’s restroom. If seeing that is what people who support Prop 1 are concerned about, voting for it is certainly not going to help.

The greater visibility of trans issues in recent years may make the idea of gender diversity seem new and strange, but there is actually a long history of different concepts of gender in many societies around the world. The berdache or Two Spirit tradition, present in many indigenous societies of the Americas, including some in Alaska, is one of the most striking examples of a socially accepted, often high-status role for individuals who do not conform to a strict gender binary typical of European societies.

I’ve been digging into the ethnographic and ethnohistoric data on berdaches in Alaska Native societies specifically, which don’t seem to have gotten a whole lot of attention in the anthropological research on gender diversity. The data are spotty and difficult to interpret to an even greater degree than for many other societies, but there are a lot of fascinating nuggets in there like Lisianski’s anecdote about the wedding. I’m thinking of doing a research project to synthesize the existing data, maybe in blog posts here but maybe in a more formal venue. It’s a fascinating topic with a lot of relevance to issues today, which makes it of particular interest to me. Stay tuned.

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Famous Petroglyph Panel High on Cliff Wall

It’s only in the past few years that gender identity, and specifically the issue of the rights of trans (and otherwise gender-nonconforming) people, has become a prominent topic of public discourse and political debate in the US. It’s now firmly ensconced in the culture war pantheon, with “bathroom bills” being hot topics of political controversy in many parts of the country (including here in Anchorage, where an initiative to roll back current protections is on the upcoming municipal ballot). But it’s new enough as a prominent issue that it is still not well understood among wide swathes of the population, which is a large part of why it has become such a flashpoint now that earlier battles over issues like same-sex marriage are effectively settled. Culture-war political fights are always over things that seem new and scary to people who value traditional social norms and structures, and the turf is constantly changing as those norms and structures do.

Within anthropology, however, gender variation and how to understand it has long been a topic of interest and discussion. Anthropologists have long been aware that different societies have different interpretations of gender, and different ways of classifying it. In particular, many of the indigenous societies of North America had (and have) gender concepts and roles that do not fit neatly into the male/female binary traditionally prescribed by Ango-American culture, and American anthropologists have for decades been arguing over how best to interpret these social structures.

In particular, this debate has focused on a role common to many North American societies and recorded by both modern ethnographers and early European explorers: one in which an individual who appears to be morphologically male but has a social role more akin (but not necessarily identical) to that of women. Early French explorers referred to this role by the word berdache, from a term used at the time for the passive partner in male homosexual intercourse, and the word has stuck in the anthropological literature.

Which is not to say that modern anthropologists have necessarily emphasized the sexual role of the berdache! (Although the explorers were correct about what it typically was.) Especially in the mid-twentieth century, many anthropologists began to argue that it was actually the economic role of the berdache, providing “female”-type labor for crucial activities like farming and pottery-making, that was primary, and various theories came about to explain how this structure might have originated and why it was perpetuated and spread so widely. This “desexualization” of the berdache was perhaps an improvement over the lurid outrage of the explorers and the silence of scandalized Victorian ethnographers, but by the late twentieth century it became increasingly clear to a new generation of researchers that it was incomplete at best, and that the sexual role and identity of the berdache deserved a closer look.

One researcher who took a particularly close, and fascinating, look at the role of the berdache was Walter L. Williams in his book The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture, published in 1986. In addition to reviewing the ethnohistoric and ethnographic reports of berdachism, as previous researchers had done, Williams actually went out to reservations and did fieldwork with living Native communities where the berdache role was still practiced to varying degrees (often unbeknownst to anthropologists who assumed it had died out). He found that as of the 1970s when he was doing his fieldwork the berdache tradition was still active among many tribes, and even where it wasn’t there was often a living memory of it having been practiced recently. From this work he developed a theory of berdachism, and of cultural variation in gender and sexuality in general, which is spelled out in the book. From the way he presents it this theory seems to have been innovative and controversial at the time, but it feels eerily prescient today, as it echoes a lot of arguments and concepts commonly encountered today, at least in activist and politically engaged circles.

Before going into Williams’s theory, some things are worth noting about Williams himself: First, despite the heavily ethnographic nature of the fieldwork he did, his training was actually as an historian rather than an anthropologist. This may have given him a different perspective on the internal debates within anthropology about how to define and interpret berdachism. Second, he was an out gay man himself, which by his own account made it easier for him to gain rapport and trust with his informants, some of whom explicitly stated that they would not have been comfortable talking about the same kinds of things with a straight researcher. He also went quite far in participant observation, even undergoing initiation rituals to better understand the spiritual aspects of the berdache tradition. That last part is particularly important, since in his interpretation of berdachism the spiritual component is key.

Indeed, in Williams’s view the spiritual aspect of berdachism is the most important component. Drawing extensively on his informants’ own words about how they understand the tradition and the status, he argues that berdachism is seen as an inherent personal quality of an individual with strong spiritual associations. In tribes that do vision quests, berdache status is often bestowed by a spirit during the quest. In other tribes it is seen as more of an inborn quality, but still spiritually important. It is not a matter, in other words, of an economic need for more “women’s work” but of the observed qualities and felt experience of the individual person that led to berdache status.

Here I am generalizing across many different tribes and cultures, as Williams does as well in many place, though he is careful to document specific evidence as backup for his generalizations. As he emphasizes at various points, the berdache tradition is very widespread, and it doesn’t manifest itself in exactly the same way everywhere. There are many striking similarities across cultures in certain aspects of it, however, and the importance of the spiritual aspect is one of these.


Petroglyph Panel with Complex Imagery

Another is the sexual aspect, and here Williams adds a lot of data to rebut more economically focused theories. (There’s a reason for the book’s title, after all.) He goes into considerable detail about how the berdaches and other informants he spoke to behave sexually and interpret that behavior, and he concludes that the sexual aspect of berdachism is vitally important but not at all in conflict with the spiritual aspect, since traditional Native societies typically don’t see the same sort of disconnect between sexuality and spirituality that is typical of Christianity. (Many modern Natives are Christian, of course, and their attitudes toward people who might have become berdaches in a previous era reflect that; Williams discusses this phenomenon too, along with other changes to Native societies since European contact.)

Fundamentally, Williams presents berdachism as about individual identity rather than sexual behavior or economic activity. He notes several times that berdachism is not simply equivalent to the modern American concept of “homosexuality”; for one thing, while the berdache has sex with men, those men are not considered berdaches themselves, nor do they have any other specially designated status. Nor is it quite the same as “transsexual” identity, as it was understood at the time to be heavily focused on physically changing sex.

This is somewhat different from how trans identity is now widely understood, at least to my knowledge. One of the most interesting parts of the book to me, in fact, was where Williams does fieldwork among a (non-Native) segment of what would now be considered the trans community, namely people having male genitalia but living and presenting as women. From how he presents this work this community seems to have been largely unaddressed in the anthropological literature on gender and sexuality, but he finds it one of the closest counterparts to berdache status in mainstream American society.

Nevertheless, part of Williams’s point is that there isn’t an exact counterpart to berdachism in mainstream American society today, but that this doesn’t mean it has no relevance to that society. He discusses at length both the impact that study of berdachism has had on the modern gay liberation movement and the reciprocal impact that movement has had on young gay Native people. There is a sort of symbiosis that seems to have developed, in which understanding traditional attitudes to berdachism has helped non-Native gay activists develop a positive gay identity that can in turn transmit knowledge of berdachism to Native youths, especially those from non-traditionalist backgrounds who have not been exposed to berdachism as a positive aspect of their own cultural heritage.

Williams also addresses the less common counterpart to berdachism where morphologically female people take on male-like gender roles. Unlike some other researchers, he doesn’t accept the use of “berdache” for this role, preferring “amazon.” His analysis here is sketchier than with the berdache, due presumably to the much scantier and primarily ethnohistorical evidence he has to work with. It’s still very interesting, though.

Overall, one of the major and important messages Williams gives in this book is that gender and sexuality are separate concepts, and while they interact in complex ways they need to be understood and analyzed separately. Berdachism, in this view, is primarily a matter of gender identity rather than sexuality. Although the berdache has sex with men and this is an important component of berdache identity, homosexual behavior is not confined to the berdache role, nor is it definitive of it. Again, this is in contrast to the modern concept of homosexuality, which is a matter of sexuality rather than gender. It is more similar, though not identical, to the concept of trans identity, which seems to have been considerably elaborated in the thirty years since Williams wrote such that, as I noted above, it is now an important issue in public discourse and political activism.

All that said, readers of this blog may be wondering what all this has to do with Chaco Canyon. Well, the modern Pueblos are among the groups with a very highly developed berdache complex (along with the Navajos and many other Southwestern tribes), and many of the specific examples of both historic and modern berdaches Williams discusses are from the Pueblos. Gender roles are among the social concepts that are hard to project back from modern societies to prehistory, of course, but given the many continuities between the Chacoans and the modern Pueblos it is quite likely that something like a berdache complex existed at Chaco as well. It would in theory be possible to try to investigate this sort of thing archaeologically as well, through such approaches as comparison of skeletal morphology to presumed gender-identified grave goods, but as far as I know little research like that has been done in the Southwest. Even in archaeology generally, this sort of highly specific and detailed work on gender as a social variable independent of bodily morphology is in its infancy, although new techniques such as ancient DNA analysis should provide the opportunity for innovative approaches. In any case, while archaeology has so far not contributed as much to the study of cross-cultural diversity in concepts of gender and sexuality as other disciplines like history and anthropology, all these disciplines ultimately contribute to a fuller understanding of the human story. As society at large develops more nuanced and complete understandings of gender and sexuality today, we can expect researchers in many disciplines to extend the reach of those understandings much more broadly.


Petroglyph Panel Showing People

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New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico

New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico

This post about what European history would look like if it were told like Native American history typically is has been getting a lot of well-deserved attention on social media lately. It’s quite well-done, and worth a look. Here’s a sample:

Most pre-contact Europeans lived together in small villages. Because the continent was very crowded, their lives were ruled by strict hierarchies within the family and outside it to control resources. Europe was highly multi-ethnic, and most tribes were ruled by hereditary leaders who commanded the majority “commoners.” These groups were engaged in near constant warfare.

The whole blog is quite good. (And I’m not just saying that because it has me on the blogroll, although that is how I first discovered it.) The author, a college undergrad named Kai, seems to be very well-informed about Native American history and to have a perceptive and nuanced approach to the issues involved in it. I particularly like this post discussing the sources of information for indigenous history. I agree entirely with both the three main sources mentioned (archaeology, ethnohistory, and oral tradition) and the assessments of their strengths and weaknesses. My own approach with this blog is very similar in the types of information I draw on and how I evaluate them. The goal, however, seems to be slightly different from my own:

Personally, my ultimate goal is returning the power to indigenous people to tell our own histories. We are deprived of control of our own history on so many levels: through government and private ownership of ancestral remains and objects, through the lack of Native voices in popular history, through the poor education given to indigenous youth, through the delegitimization of indigenous ways of telling history. The only place we have kept sovereignty over our own history is amongst ourselves, in the stories our grandparents tell us and we tell each other. For that reason, I tend towards the view of using archaeology and written records to illuminate the oral and written traditions of Native people, rather than the other way around as many academics do it. Because at the heart of it, indigenous history belongs to indigenous people–people not only deserve but need to know their own history. So my priority is returning it to them where it has been forcibly severed from them.

This is a worthy goal, and I support it wholeheartedly. It’s not quite the same as what I’m doing with this blog, however. I am not Native myself, and the Native groups I discuss here are generally fairly satisfied with their knowledge of their own history (which is of course sometimes quite different from how white people see that same history) and often reluctant to share that knowledge with outsiders. My main focus is on illuminating the (pre)history of North America for all audiences who are unaware of it. This includes Natives themselves, of course, if they want to read what some white guy has to say about their past, but my expectation is that most of the people who read me will not be indigenous themselves. This difference in emphasis between me and Kai may stem in part from the different geographical areas we focus on; I focus on the West, where many Native groups have maintained major parts of their traditional culture quite robustly in the face of Euroamerican colonization, whereas Kai seems to focus on the East, where colonization has been a much more overwhelming force for Native communities and traditional culture has been maintained in more subtle ways. These are very different situations, and they lead to different issues that need to be addressed.

In any case, I highly recommend Kai’s blog to anyone who likes mine. It focuses mainly on a different part of the continent, but discusses it in a very similar way, and also addresses more general issues of interest to anyone concerned with Native America.

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Illinois Welcome Sign

The name “Cahokia” comes from one of the constituent tribes of the Illinois Confederacy, a group of several semi-autonomous “tribes” or “villages” that occupied much of what is now the state of Illinois and parts of some of the surrounding states in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Staunch allies of the French throughout most of the colonial period, the Illinois were among the hardest-hit by the various forces buffeting Native American groups in the wake of European contact, and they ended up suffering one of the most dramatic demographic collapses of the tribes we have substantial information on. Emily Blasingham, who did a detailed ethnohistoric study of Illinois population decline in the 1950s, concluded that the total population of the Confederacy at the time of French contact in the 1670s was around 10,000, which by 1800 had dwindled all the way to a mere 500 people. The descendants of the remaining Illinois ended up in northeastern Oklahoma, where they are now known as the Peoria (originally the name of one of the constituent tribes of the Confederacy along with the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, and others).

Most of the member tribes of the Confederacy, including the Cahokia and Peoria, spoke dialects of the Miami-Illinois language, part of the widespread Algonquian language family. One possible exception is the poorly known Michigamea, who joined the Confederacy in the early eighteenth century and had apparently lived before that somewhere further down the Mississippi River. While it has generally been assumed that the Michigamea also spoke Miami-Illinois, there is some evidence that they may actually have spoken a different language, possibly belonging to the Siouan family, before they joined the Confederacy. Be that as it may, the Illinois Confederacy as a whole was clearly primarily a group of tribes who lived near each other in the seventeenth century and spoke the same language.

Cahokia Courthouse, Cahokia, Illinois

The various Illinois groups moved around quite a lot during the colonial period in response to various threats and opportunities, but they had two main focuses of settlement: the upper Illinois River valley, especially around Starved Rock and Peoria Lake, and the American Bottom, along the Mississippi River between the mouths of the Illinois and Kaskaskia Rivers. The Cahokias consistently lived in the American Bottom for most of their recorded history, and gave their name to both the French settlement of Cahokia, which still exists as the town of Cahokia, Illinois, with its famous courthouse, and the nearby Cahokia Mounds.

The question of who built the Cahokia Mounds, and even if they were artificial at all, was hotly debated in the early history of American archaeology. Even after the early period of wild speculation in the nineteenth century had given way to a more systematic, realistic approach in the early twentieth, the answer remained unclear. In 1944 Donald Wray and Hale Smith, two archaeologists from the University of Chicago, proposed an answer with at least a surface degree of elegance and plausibility, namely, that Cahokia and other Mississippian sites in the region were the work of the Illinois Confederacy.

Southwest Corner of Monks Mound, Cahokia Mounds, Collinsville, Illinois

Wray and Smith had two main lines of evidence for this proposal: distributional and chronological. They noted, first, that the remains of what was then called the “Middle Mississippi Culture” corresponded pretty closely to the areas known to have been occupied by the Illinois in colonial times. Recall that the main areas of Illinois settlement were in the American Bottom and along the upper Illinois River, both areas that do indeed have substantial Mississippian remains. They also note that the general uniformity of Mississippian material culture suggests substantial social and political ties among the groups living in various parts of the region, such as would have been the case with a Confederacy such as that of the Illinois. Note that they don’t point to any specific material culture similarities between Mississippian sites and known Illinois sites, presumably because none of the latter were known at the time.

Their chronological argument takes a somewhat different tack. They note that other archaeologists had recently proposed that Mississippian societies dated to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, based on the lack of mention of some of the major mound sites by the early European explorers. Since the only occupants of the Mississippian parts of Illinois during this period are known to have been the Illinois groups, it follows that they must have been the Mississippians. They also go into some detail about certain sites showing contact between the Mississippians and the Oneota culture found primarily further north and tentatively identified with the speakers of Chiwere Siouan languages (i.e., Ioway, Oto, and Missouria). Since many Oneota sites have European trade goods and therefore clearly date to the contact period, Wray and Smith conclude that sites such as some in northern Illinois showing both Oneota and Mississippian traits support their chronological reconstruction. They also note the contacts between the American Bottom Mississippian sites and the southeast Missouri/northeast Arkansas area occupied historically by the Siouan-speaking Quapaw and connect this on somewhat shaky grounds to the Oneota as well.

Interpretive Sign at Southwest Corner of Monks Mound, Cahokia Mounds

We now know that this is all wrong, of course. Wray and Smith were working at a time when there was no way to get absolute dates for archaeological sites in the Midwest, and their chronological assumptions turned out to be totally unfounded when radiocarbon dating was invented a few years later and it turned out that the Mississippian sites were much older than the Illinois Confederacy and that in between there was a period when the American Bottom was part of the “Vacant Quarter” abandoned by the Mississippians. While it’s not impossible that some of the ancestors of the people who would later become the Illinois were involved in some Mississippian societies, there is no particular reason to connect them to the American Bottom specifically, and there is certainly lots of evidence indicating that the Illinois Confederacy itself came many centuries after the Mississippian phenomenon and had no direct connection to it.

While it’s easy to criticize ideas like this in hindsight, with the benefit of more and better information accumulated over several decades, it’s important to note that Wray and Smith’s ideas were actually challenged quite vigorously at the time by Waldo Wedel of the Smithsonian, who published a comment the following year aggressively pointing out the weakness of their assumptions and the dubiousness of their conclusions. Wedel points out that there are no known European trade goods associated with Mississippian sites in Illinois and that there is no evidence at all linking the Mississippian sites to the Illinois Confederacy despite their similar geographical distributions. He also challenges the idea that Mississippian societies in general are post-contact, and points out that while it was a possible interpretation of the evidence available at the time it was definitely not the only one and was lacking in actual supporting evidence. Further, he points out that while some Oneota sites are definitely post-contact, not all of the known sites had produced European trade goods, and it was not at all clear that all Oneota sites were historic rather than prehistoric. Also, he notes that the Quapaw stuff doesn’t make any sense and seems to be predicated on the assumption that since the Quapaw spoke a Siouan language and Oneota was thought to represent Siouan speakers the Quapaw could somehow be associated with Oneota despite the lack of any known Oneota sites in the Quapaw area. Wedel takes great pains to note that he is not criticizing the very idea of synthesizing archaeological data and organizing it into big historical narratives, as Wray and Smith have tried to do, just pointing out the flaws in the way they and some other archaeologists go about doing this. (This part is interesting because Wedel himself would go on to become one of the most important synthesizers of the archaeology of the Great Plains.)

Welcome Sign, Kaskaskia, Illinois

As it turns out, Wedel was more or less completely right on every point he criticized Wray and Smith about, and the much more complete and accurate picture we now have of Midwestern archaeology has vindicated him. The point is not that Wray and Smith were wrong so much as that they were sloppy; it’s always going to be the case that even many very reasonable interpretations based on the best data available at one time will turn out to be wrong when better data appears, but not all interpretations at any given point in time are necessarily based on the best data or the most reasonable assumptions. This little dispute provides a particularly clear example of this general point.
Blasingham, E. (1956). The Depopulation of the Illinois Indians, Part I Ethnohistory, 3 (3) DOI: 10.2307/480408

Blasingham, E. (1956). The Depopulation of the Illinois Indians. Part 2, Concluded Ethnohistory, 3 (4) DOI: 10.2307/480464

Wedel, W. (1945). On the Illinois Confederacy and Middle Mississippi Culture in Illinois American Antiquity, 10 (4) DOI: 10.2307/275581

Wray, D., & Smith, H. (1944). An Hypothesis for the Identification of the Illinois Confederacy with the Middle Mississippi Culture in Illinois American Antiquity, 10 (1) DOI: 10.2307/275179

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Welcome Sign Facing the Ohio River, Paducah, Kentucky

In 1827 William Clark, who had attained national fame as co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition more than 20 years earlier and had gone on to a successful career as an Indian Agent and governor of the Missouri Territory, obtained title to 37,000 acres in western Kentucky along the Ohio River that had been part of a grant to his late brother, George Rogers Clark, for service in the Revolutionary War. William Clark immediately went about evicting the handful of settlers on the site, which was then called Pekin, and surveying it as a new town which he named Paducah.

Paducah would go on to become one of the most important towns in the region, and over the years a local tradition grew up attributing the town’s name to a “Chief Paduke” of a local tribe. A letter Clark wrote to his son, however, appears to clearly show that this is not correct, and that Clark instead chose the name to honor a tribe he knew as the “Padoucas” (consistent spelling was not one of Clark’s strong points) that had once been large but had been much reduced since European contact. This condition applies to virtually all tribes in the Americas, of course, but the name is definitely not of any tribe in western Kentucky, which was occupied by the Chickasaw until 1819, when Andrew Jackson negotiated the cession of this area, known as the “Jackson Purchase,” opening it up for settlement and speculation by people like Clark.

Plaque Describing the Naming of Paducah, Kentucky

Who then were these Padoucas, and how did Clark know of them? Presumably he learned of them either during the Lewis and Clark expedition or later, when he was serving as a frontier official in Missouri, so the place to look is well to the west of Kentucky. And, indeed, a tribe known as the Padoucas (under various spellings) appears in records from French Louisiana starting with the early explorers of the late seventeenth century and continuing down to Clark’s day. These reports refer to the Padouca as living somewhere to the west of the Mississippi and Missouri valleys, which is to say, on the Great Plains.

The French were not very familiar with the Plains, and most of their information on them came from tribes in the Mississippi and Missouri valleys with whom they were in close contact as trading partners and military allies. They did mount a few expeditions further west in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that provided a bit more information, but these were too few and far between, and their permanent outposts too far away, for them to keep close tabs on developments on the Southern Plains during this period. This fact turns out to be quite important for understanding the identity of the people the French called “Padouca.”

Plaque Describing William Clark's Foundation of Paducah, Kentucky

The Spanish in New Mexico and Texas, on the other hand, were much closer to the Plains, and between their occasional forays onto them and their close diplomatic contacts with various Plains tribes they had much better information than the French about who was out there and what they were doing. As a result, we can track developments on the Southern Plains in the eighteenth century quite clearly through Spanish documents, and as it turns out there was a lot going on out there.

At the time the Spanish entered the Southwest in the sixteenth century, the Plains were occupied by various groups of hunter-gatherers whom the early Spanish explorers called “Querechos.” After the establishment of a permanent colony in New Mexico in 1598, the Spanish began consistently referring to these groups as “Apaches” (the term itself is of obscure origin, perhaps coming from one of the Pueblo languages), with specific politically autonomous subgroups indicated by modifiers such as “Lipan,” “Jicarilla,” and “Faraón.” There were Apaches to the west of New Mexico as well, including the Navajos. Relations among the Spanish, the Pueblos, and these Apaches varied, with the Apaches at times raiding both the Pueblos and the Spanish villages, and at other times allying with one or both of the more settled groups for various purposes. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, some Apache groups joined with the Pueblos to kick out the Spanish, but after the Spanish Reconquest in 1692 Apache raids on both the Pueblos and the Spanish continued intermittently. By the early eighteenth century, however, the Spanish had allied with some of the more distant Apaches on the Plains for mutual protection against the French and their allied Indians in the Missouri Valley.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, this picture had been totally changed by the movement of a new people onto the Southern Plains. These were the Comanches, who had broken off from the closely related Shoshones in the Rocky Mountains and headed out onto the Plains, where they acquired horses and became the most aggressive and successful military power that region had yet seen. They swiftly pushed the Apaches out of the way and became the main power on the Southern Plains, raiding New Mexico with a ferocity unprecedented in earlier times. The threat of Comanche raids kept New Mexico Hispanics from expanding significantly east of the Rio Grande Valley for over a century, and it likely also led the Pueblos to more completely accept Spanish rule in exchange for the level of protection provided by Spanish arms. At first the Spanish attempted to defend their Apache allies on the Plains by fighting the Comanches, but this approach met with limited success and only encouraged increased Comanche attacks on Hispanic and Pueblo settlements, so in the late eighteenth century Governor Juan Bautista de Anza decided to switch sides, sign a peace treaty with the Comanches, and agree to assist them in their wars on the Apaches. This general pattern, of the Spanish allied with the Comanches against the Apaches, endured until the Americans conquered New Mexico in the 1840s.

Sign Describing William Clark's Purchase of the Future Site of Paducah, Kentucky

So where do the Padouca enter into this picture? In the Spanish documents, not at all. The term “Padouca” was not used by the Spanish for any of the Plains tribes they encountered. Instead, they spoke exclusively of Apaches and Comanches. Given that the French documents referring to the Padouca place them in the same places as these tribes at the same time, that leaves three possibilities for who the French could have meant by the Padouca:

  1. The Apaches
  2. The Comanches
  3. Both, either by not distinguishing them at all or by referring to one group at some times and the other at other times

With the rise of American ethnography in the late nineteenth century, American anthropologists began to look back at these documents and try to connect them to the ethnographic data on contemporary tribes. They found that many of the tribes from the Plains and surrounding areas used terms similar to “Padouca” to refer to the Comanches, and many simply assumed from this that the French had always used the term to refer to the Comanches as well. This became something of the received wisdom by the early twentieth century, but in 1920 the anthropologist George Bird Grinnell published an article taking another look at the issue taking into account the Spanish and early French sources. From these Grinnell concluded that the term had instead referred to the Apaches, whom the Spanish sources clearly showed were the only tribe that the earliest French sources from the seventeenth century could plausibly have been referring to, since the Comanches didn’t enter the area in strength until well into the eighteenth century. Furthermore, there is one incident narrated by both Spanish and French sources that seems to clinch the case.

In 1720 a Spanish expedition led by Pedro de Villasur was sent out onto the Plains to combat French influence. The expedition included some Jicarilla Apaches as guides. Upon reaching what is now Nebraska, the expedition was attacked and soundly defeated by a group of Pawnees, possibly accompanied by French traders. The important thing about this incident for the Padouca question is that Villasur’s guides are consistently referred to as Apaches in Spanish accounts but as Padoucas in French accounts. Grinnell concludes, quite reasonably, that this shows that at least in the 1720s the “Padoucas” in French sources were Apache.

Mural Showing William Clark Surveying the New Town of Paducah, Kentucky

However, Grinnell’s article doesn’t address the evidence from more recent ethnography, and in a subsequent comment Truman Michelson points out that among the Fox (Mesquakie) tribe the term for “Comanche” is something closely approximating “Padouca.”  He declines to discuss Grinnell’s article further, but his tone clearly shows that he considers this information more dispositive than Grinnell’s historical sources. And, indeed, any full solution to the problem must account for the fact that the recent ethnographic data clearly shows that the term was used in the nineteenth century by many tribes for the Comanches.

A solution tying all this evidence together didn’t appear until thirty years later, when Frank Secoy published an article bringing in more evidence, especially from French maps, and considering both the documentary and ethnographic evidence. He concludes from this that both sides were both right and wrong in part. Specifically, Grinnell was right that in the earliest French sources “Padouca” must mean Apache, but Michelson and others were right that later on it meant Comanche for both the French and the tribes in the Mississippi and Missouri Valleys. The switch came in the middle of the eighteenth century when the Comanches took over those parts of the Plains that had formerly been Apache. Since the French only ventured out into that area occasionally, they were not very aware of this process as it was occurring, and later expeditions encountering the Comanches where their maps (put together by cartographers in France grappling with disparate information from French and Spanish sources) showed the “Padoucas” to be naturally assumed that the two groups were the same, not realizing that the expeditions from decades earlier had actually used the term to refer to a different people who had been there at the time but were now elsewhere.

Furthermore, Secoy notes that the etymology of the term itself gives a clue to how its meaning might have changed for the Indians who used it. It seems to come from a verb root common throughout the Siouan language family with the meaning “to pierce.” The rough meaning of “Padouca” in whichever Siouan language the French got it from would then be “piercer,” which Secoy, drawing on his own previous research on warfare on the Plains, links to the use by Plains groups in the early historic period of large piercing lances, which they had adopted during what he calls the “post-horse–pre-gun” period of Plains warfare. That is, since the Plains tribes acquired horses before they acquired guns, there was a period when the key advantage of having a horse was in allowing a warrior to get very close to his enemy very quickly, and a thrusting lance was a very useful weapon in this context that would have made a major impression (so to speak) on the horse-less groups that encountered these groups. Since the first groups like this that the Siouan tribes of the Missouri Valley encountered would have been Apaches, the name “Padouca” or “Piercers” would make sense for them to use and to pass on to the French. Since the Comanches entered the Plains during this same technological period and used the same sorts of lances, however, the name would have made equal sense for them and could have easily been transferred once they showed up in the eighteenth century. Indeed, the new horse-based Plains culture would have made both groups seem pretty alien to the Siouans, and they may even have used “Padouca” to refer to Plains groups in general rather than to specific cultural or political entities. Apaches and Comanches speak unrelated languages, but both are also unrelated to Siouan and represented the furthest east representatives of both their languages families as well, so it’s possible that the Siouans couldn’t easily tell them apart. Secoy notes that the French use of “Padouca,” based on outdated information, for the Comanches could also have influenced Siouan usage.

Downtown Paducah, Kentucky

But what about Clark? Where did he get the term, and what did he mean by it? Secoy discusses the appearances of the term “Padouca” in the records of the various American explorers, including Lewis and Clark, and finds that they are sort of all over the map.  He says:

As they traversed the country completely they came into contact with both the colonial French and the Spanish sources of information, which were, of course, still divergent. There were several possible conclusions which could be drawn from such a situation and the American explorers, collectively, arrived at all of them, the differences being caused by the varying specific conditions under which a given explorer obtained his information.

However, when it comes to Lewis and Clark specifically, there is some evidence that the people they identified as “Padoucas” were in fact Apaches, or at least Athapaskan-speakers, despite the fact that their information came mostly from French or Siouan sources. Secoy notes this without explanation, but Grinnell goes into a bit more detail. From a table of tribes that the expedition apparently compiled from information gained at the villages of the Mandans (Siouan-speakers), Grinnell summarizes several entries listing tribes said to speak the Padouca language. The “Padouca” entry is most informative:

Padoucas—English name, French nickname Padoo, Padoucies is their own tongue. Live in villages on heads of Platte and Arkansas, trade with New Mexico; many horses. Yet almost immediately Clark says he could get no definite information about this once powerful nation, and quotes French writers. Speaks of a fork of the Platte bearing the name of the tribe and conjectures that the nation had broken up and become individual small tribes.

It’s not clear how much, if any, of this is quoted rather than paraphrased by Grinnell. Nevertheless, the bit about the Padouca being a “once powerful nation” is presumably the source of the information on them in Clark’s later letter to his son. The fact that Clark couldn’t get much information on them from his current sources and had to rely on (highly outdated) French written sources is one possible reason to think that the group referred to here is Apache rather than Comanche, and other references in the Expedition’s journals to a Padouca-speaking group called the “Cataka” have often been thought to refer to the Na’isha or “Kiowa Apaches,” including by Secoy. Still, if the French by this time were using the term “Padouca” to refer to the Comanches, and Lewis and Clark were getting their information from French informants, why would they call the Apaches “Padoucas”?

Neither Grinnell nor Secoy addresses this question, but I think the answer lies in where Lewis and Clark where when they got this information. Remember, all that stuff about the Comanches pushing out the Apaches and the French inadvertently switching the meaning of the word “Padouca” is about the Southern Plains. Lewis and Clark, however, were traveling across the Northern Plains, following the Missouri River. The Mandan villages where they compiled the list of tribes including the Padoucas were in what is now North Dakota. The Comanches never came close to this part of the Plains, which had a rather different cultural sequence in the historic period. Part of the difference, I suspect, is that the French traders and their Siouan trading partners on the Upper Missouri continued to use the term “Padouca” to refer to Athapaskan groups to the south and southwest, including those who had, unbeknownst to them, recently been displaced by the Comanches from their homelands in what is now eastern Colorado and those that might have still been somewhere on the Northern or Central Plains at this point, north of the Comanches. The former are probably the ones that Clark refers to in the section quoted above, and the lack of information on them is probably due to the fact that any ties they had had to the north had been severed by the Comanche advance without the northern groups necessarily knowing what had happened. The latter would probably include the ancestors of the Na’isha, who may or may not already have been affiliated politically with the Kiowas at this point but probably were somewhere in the Northern Plains. Grinnell notes an account of a Na’isha man who claimed to have been born on the Missouri River northeast of the Black Hills around 1810.

Mural of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Passing the Future Site of Paducah, Kentucky

Thus, I think the most reasonable interpretation of the Padouca question is that the term, meaning “Piercers” in some Siouan language, was used for the Apaches of the Plains by various Siouan-speakers (and others?) living along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in the seventeenth century, and was taken over by French explorers at this time. Later French officials in Louisiana continued to use the term for Plains groups without realizing that the Southern Plains had been taken over by Comanches in the mid-eighteenth century, and subsequent French expeditions applied it to the Comanches rather than the Apaches. At the same time, the more southerly Siouan-speakers shifted the referent of the term as well, perhaps under French influence but not necessarily. Further north, where both the French and the Siouans were too far away from the Comanches to encounter them, the term continued to refer to Plains Athapaskans, both the nearby Na’isha and the more distant Apaches about whom the northerners knew little. Clark learned about the Padoucas from Upper Missouri groups who didn’t know much about them, and supplemented this information with French written sources which were also not very well informed. From this mix he came up with an idea of the Padoucas as a tribe that had once been numerous and powerful but had been decimated by European contact. Perhaps entranced by this romantic idea, when he acquired a bunch of land many years later and decided to build a town on it he decided to name it after this “lost” tribe. And that’s the story of Paducah.
Grinnell, G. (1920). Who Were the Padouca? American Anthropologist, 22 (3), 248-260 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1920.22.3.02a00050

Michelson, T. (1921). Who Were the Padouca? American Anthropologist, 23 (1), 101-101 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1921.23.1.02a00120

Secoy, F. (1951). The Identity of the “Paduca”; An Ethnohistorical Analysis American Anthropologist, 53 (4), 525-542 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1951.53.4.02a00060

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Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

In 1527 an expedition led by the Spanish nobleman Pánfilo de Narváez left Spain with the intention of conquering and colonizing Florida.  Accompanying the expedition as treasurer was Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who ended up being one of a handful of survivors of the disastrous expedition.  Cabeza de Vaca later wrote an account of the expedition and the years it took for him and the other survivors to make their way from Galveston Island, where they had been shipwrecked after a series of disasters in Florida itself, to Culiacán in what is now the state of Sinaloa in western Mexico, where in 1536 they finally encountered other Spaniards who were busy conquering that area.  This account has become a classic of the ethnohistoric literature, both because Cabeza de Vaca was an unusually perceptive observer of the various native peoples he encountered during his travels and because very little other information is available about those peoples, whose numbers and cultures were later devastated by permanent European settlement so quickly and thoroughly that few observations about them were published.

One of the interesting episodes described by Cabeza de Vaca occurred when the small group of Spaniards arrived at a village where the inhabitants gave one of his companions a large copper bell decorated with a face.  When the Spanish, who were always very interested in any metals they could find, asked where it had come from the people told them they had acquired it from a neighboring group and that it had come originally from the north, where there was abundant copper.  At the next village the group visited they showed the people the bell, and were told that there was indeed much more copper where it had come from, in the form of both bells and plates, and that there were permanent dwellings in that area.  Cabeza de Vaca apparently concluded that the copper had come from the Pacific coast, which was indeed a major area of copper production in Mesoamerica.  This particular bell, however, and the other copper objects mentioned by the people he spoke to in the villages he visited probably did not come from West Mexico.

Macaw Feathers and Copper Bell on Display at Chaco Visitor Center Museum

This episode has been of considerable interest to archaeologists, as copper bells were among the most important items of trade between Mesoamerica, especially West Mexico, and the Greater Southwest.  They have been found in considerable numbers at Chaco Canyon, as well as at Hohokam and Sinagua sites in Arizona and various other parts of the Southwest.  One archaeologist, Jeremiah Epstein of the University of Texas, published an article in 1991 looking carefully at Cabeza de Vaca’s account and correlating it with known archaeological evidence and other ethnohistorical sources from later Spanish expeditions.  He concluded that it the likely source of the bell mentioned by Cabeza de Vaca, as well as other copper objects mentioned by the Ibarra expedition in 1565 and the Rodríguez-Chamuscado expedition in 1581, was the well-known site of Casas Grandes in northern Chihuahua.

The exact route of Cabeza de Vaca’s travels has been a matter of considerable debate.  Epstein’s article relied on a reconstruction of the route that placed the copper bell episode near the modern city of Monclova, in the state of Coahuila in northeastern Mexico.  This is about 500 miles southeast of Casas Grandes, which fits well with the claim that the bell Cabeza de Vaca mentions came from the north.  In addition, the Ibarra expedition visited the immediate area of Casas Grandes and reported copper ornaments among the local population there, and the Rodríguez-Chamuscado expedition encountered copper objects among groups in the Rio Grande valley east of Casas Grandes who reported that they came from the west.  Epstein concluded from these reports that Casas Grandes is the most likely source for the copper objects of the archaeological sites in the Greater Southwest known to have had large numbers of copper bells.  Furthermore, Epstein noted that while many Southwestern archaeological sites had copper bells, very few had bells in decorated with human faces, which Cabeza de Vaca clearly stated to be a characteristic of the bell he described.  Casas Grandes did have this type of bell, and it also had a variety of flat copper artifacts that could be plausibly described as the “plates” mentioned by the second village Cabeza de Vaca described.  (Interestingly, such “plates” seem to be virtually restricted to Casas Grandes in the Southwest, although copper bells are pretty common.  The only possible example of a flat copper artifact like this at another site was found in Room 2 of Pueblo Bonito.)  I find his specific reasoning about each line of evidence a bit less solid than he did, but all together I think he was probably right to point to Casas Grandes as the most likely source for the copper artifacts described by the sixteenth-century Spanish sources.

Doorway into Room 2 from Room 36, Pueblo Bonito

The most interesting thing about this, as Epstein noted in his article, is that Casas Grandes had been abandoned for about a century when Cabeza de Vaca came through the area and saw the bell that apparently came from there.  When it was occupied, Casas Grandes was one of the largest and most important sites in the whole region, and excavations there have shown that it was a major center for a variety of Mesoamerican-derived activities, including macaw breeding and copper working.  The bells and other copper artifacts found there were apparently made there, in contrast to those found at Chaco, which was occupied significantly earlier and imported its copper bells from West Mexico, which at that time was the only part of Mesoamerica to practice copper working.  By the late Postclassic period, however, when Casas Grandes flourished, copper metallurgy had become a standard practice at major centers throughout the Mesoamerican culture area.

In the sixteenth century, however, Casas Grandes was very clearly no longer occupied.  The Ibarra expedition, which came through the area in 1565, found the site already a ruin, and the only local people were hunter-gatherers living in simple, impermanent dwellings quite different from the imposing multi-story adobe edifices at Casas Grandes.  These hunter-gatherers, however, did have some copper “plates” which parallel the ones reported by Cabeza de Vaca’s sources.  The expedition also noted evidence of metalworking at the ruins of Casas Grandes, but did not mention any evidence that the current inhabitants had made their copper plates themselves.

So how did the hunter-gatherers who lived around Casas Grandes in 1565 get their copper plates, and how did the people in Coahuila in the 1530s and the people living along the Rio Grande in 1581 get their copper bells?  Epstein’s answer, which I find quite convincing, is that the local hunter-gatherers dug into the ruins to get the copper artifacts in them, then traded them to various other groups in northern Mexico.  That is to say, they “looted” the site for economic gain much the way modern pothunters in the Southwest and elsewhere do.  Indeed, according to Epstein, the extensive excavations at Casas Grandes conducted by Charles Di Peso for the Amerind Foundation in the 1970s uncovered “evidence of Precolumbian vandalism” (in Epstein’s words) in some areas of the site.  So it seems looting of archaeological sites has a long history in the Southwest.

Jerome, Arizona from Tuzigoot National Monument

What I find most interesting about this is the parallel to the situation in modern cities, which now contain such huge amounts of certain materials, especially copper, that they are becoming a major source for materials that have traditionally been mined from nonrenewable natural deposits such as those that spurred the settlement of Western mining towns like Jerome, ArizonaJohn Fernandez of MIT discusses this issue, drawing on the work of Tom Graedel at Yale, in this video from 2007 (starting at about 21:29).

Fernandez quotes Jane Jacobs as saying that “our cities are the mines of the future.”  And, at least as Fernandez presents it, that does indeed seem like a prescient statement.  Epstein’s article, however, demonstrates that digging for copper in abandoned homes is hardly a new phenomenon.  Like so much else that humans do today, it has a very long history.  The cities of today may be the mines of the future, but the cities of yesterday have already become the mines of the past.
Epstein, J. (1991). Cabeza de Vaca and the Sixteenth-Century Copper Trade in Northern Mexico American Antiquity, 56 (3) DOI: 10.2307/280896

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Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo, California

In November of 1793 a British naval expedition commanded by Captain George Vancouver arrived at the small Spanish settlement of Santa Barbara on the coast of California.  Vancouver’s primary mission was to explore and map the poorly understood northwest coast of North America, building on the more preliminary information provided earlier by Captain James Cook.  He was quite successful at this, and the detailed maps produced by his expedition greatly enhanced British understanding of this area, which was becoming very important geopolitically as a result of its potential resources and increasing competition among Britain, Spain, and Russia to claim it.  When he arrived at Santa Barbara he was headed south, having spent the spring and summer exploring the area around the island that now bears his name and bound for Hawaii to spend the winter.  He anchored off of Santa Barbara for eight days to rest and resupply, and his men took advantage of the opportunity to trade with the local Spanish and Chumash inhabitants.  Mission Santa Barbara was only a few years old, having been established in 1786, and the presidio where Spanish soldiers were garrisoned was only four years older than that.  Although the Chumash had been in contact with the Spanish since the Cabrillo expedition of 1542, the permanent Spanish presence in their territory dated only to the establishment of Mission San Luis Obispo in 1772, and at the time Vancouver’s expedition stopped by they were only just beginning to move to the missions and experience the profound and complicated cultural changes that would result.

Chamber of Commerce, San Luis Obispo, California

George Goodman Hewett, Surgeon’s First Mate on Vancouver’s flagship, HMS Discovery, was among the members of the expedition who did some trading with the locals at Santa Barbara.  Hewett apparently had a strong interest in the customs and lifestyles of the various peoples the expedition encountered, and he collected from them various items of material culture whenever possible.  Over the course of the four years that the expedition ended up taking he acquired a substantial collection.  While the greatest number of items in the collection were from the places the expedition spent the most time, particularly Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, the items from Santa Barbara were (and are) of particular interest to later anthropologists, since Hewett collected them at a time when traditional Chumash culture, now known primarily from the very detailed but nevertheless retrospective ethnographic fieldwork of John Peabody Harrington in the early twentieth century, was still mostly intact and only beginning to be affected by missionization and Spanish contact.  Hewett’s collection remained in his family until 1891, when it was acquired by the British Museum, where it remains.  A description of some of the most significant items was published by Charles H. Read in 1892.

Hill, San Luis Obispo, California

Read’s description included two atlatls.  One is an elaborately carved example from southeast Alaska, where use of the atlatl is known to have persisted into modern times, perhaps because of its usefulness in fishing and maritime hunting compared to the bow.  The other is from Santa Barbara.

First Bank of San Luis Obispo, San Luis Obispo, California

The Santa Barbara atlatl, as it has been known ever since Read’s publication, is very odd for a number of reasons.  For one thing, just at the outset, the idea of the atlatl being used at Santa Barbara in the late eighteenth century is odd.  California is one area where the replacement of the atlatl by the bow and arrow, whenever it happened, is widely agreed to have been complete by long before then.  While atlatl hooks have been found in early archaeological contexts in various parts of the state, including the Chumash area, there is no evidence of atlatl use from later prehistoric contexts, and the copious ethnohistoric and ethnographic literature on the Chumash nowhere mentions the atlatl, whereas the importance of the bow and arrow is discussed many times.  Read was not in a position to know any of this, of course, since this understanding of the culture history of the area came long after his time.

San Luis Surf, San Luis Obispo, California

Furthermore, the form of the atlatl itself is odd.  While archaeological and ethnographic examples from North America, including the Alaskan ones from the Hewett collection, are typically long and thin, the Santa Barbara specimen is short and thick.  While most atlatls are about half a meter long, this one is only 15 cm long, and nearly as wide.  Furthermore, while North American examples typically have either attached leather finger loops or none at all, this one has two large holes carved out of the wood itself.  The wood seems to be a local type, and no one has questioned the authenticity of the specimen or Hewett’s account of its origin (Read notes that Hewett’s record-keeping was pretty good by the standards of his time), but it’s all very odd and hard to explain.  If it represents a survival from a local atlatl tradition, this tradition is suspiciously absent entirely from both the archaeological and ethnographic records.  While it’s true that atlatls, being made of wood, rarely survive archaeologically, this one does have a bone hook, so if it represents a survival of an ancient atlatl type that continued in use after the adoption of the bow and arrow it would be reasonable to expect at least one similar bone hook to survive somewhere, and this still doesn’t address the lack of ethnographic evidence.

Street Signs, San Luis Obispo, California

Nevertheless, the Santa Barbara was generally accepted as an unusual but indigenous type of atlatl until 1938, when the prominent California archaeologist Robert Heizer published an article looking at the issue and coming to a quite different conclusion.  Heizer pointed out the lack of any other evidence for this type of atlatl as well as all the oddities of the Santa Barbara specimen compared to other examples, and went a step further by noting that it bore a striking similarity to the atlatls still in active use at that time by the Tarascans of western Mexico (remember them?).  These also have paired finger-holes carved out of the wood, and have the same widening of the body of the atlatl around the holes.  The dimensions are still different; the Tarascan examples are much longer and thinner than the Santa Barbara one.  There is still a remarkable similarity, however, and Heizer goes on to point out that the Spanish were known to use Tarascans and other Indians from previously colonized parts of Mexico as settlers on the frontier, particularly in the northwest, which is where the expeditions that colonized California in the 1770s are known to have started.  Although there is no direct evidence that the Spanish soldiers and missionaries in California were accompanied by Mexican Indians, given typical Spanish practices it would not be a surprise.  This, combined with the striking similarities between the Santa Barbara atlatl and Tarascan ones, leads Heizer to propose that the Santa Barbara example is not a survival at all, but a reintroduction of the atlatl to the area from Mesoamerica, where it remained in use long after the Spanish conquest.  The Santa Barbara one is clearly of local manufacture, however, which suggests that this process did not simply involve Tarascans bringing their own atlatls to California, although that was presumably part of it.  Rather, once the Mexican Indians were there, they apparently showed the Chumash the use of the atlatl, which they used for fishing and hunting in maritime settings, and the Chumash (who were a coastal people very oriented toward the sea) were sufficiently impressed to copy it themselves.  Since it apparently did not become established securely enough to be noticed or mentioned by either the Spanish or later ethnographers, the Chumash don’t seem to have ultimately decided to adopt it as a core part of their culture or subsistence system, but they do seem to have at least tried it out.  Indeed, Hewett may have encountered the Chumash at a time of experimentation connected to the changes associated with the transition to mission life, and his acquisition of the atlatl may have preserved a moment in time, a tentative embrace of foreign technology that was ultimately rejected and that would therefore otherwise be unknown to history.  Along the same lines, it’s worth wondering why the Chumash were willing to part with this obviously unusual and presumably rare item when all the other things they gave Hewett were rather typical and plentiful items such as bows.  Was whoever tried to copy the Mexican atlatls, or whoever had tried to use the copy made by someone else, displeased with how the experiment had turned out and eager to get rid of the item when a foreigner interested in buying random things showed up?  There’s no real way to tell, of course, and it’s also possible that atlatls like this were used successfully for a while around this time then abandoned for some other reason.  This item is, however, an intriguing window into a complicated past, and it shows that it’s important to look carefully at the stories behind artifacts before constructing theories based on their characteristics.
Heizer, R. (1938). An Inquiry into the Status of the Santa Barbara Spear-Thrower American Antiquity, 4 (2) DOI: 10.2307/275985

Read, C. (1892). An Account of a Collection of Ethnographical Specimens Formed During Vancouver’s Voyage in the Pacific Ocean, 1790-1795 The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 21 DOI: 10.2307/2842277

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Sunset Crater Volcano

I’ve written a lot here recently about the Athapaskan migration(s) into the Southwest.  It’s a very interesting topic in a lot of ways.  I find it especially fascinating because although the evidence that it happened is very strong, nothing else about it can be easily determined.  We know that at least one migration of Athapaskan-speakers from northern Canada to the Southwest happened, but we don’t know when it happened, what route it took, or why the Athapaskans left the north in the first place.  Archaeology, linguistics, and ethnography all contribute some clues to this puzzle, but there’s so much ambiguity remaining that the mystery is by no means anywhere near solved.

"Birth of a Mountain" Sign at Sunset Crater

In addressing the “why” question specifically, it is perhaps most fruitful to look at the starting point rather than the ending point.  Although archaeological evidence for Athapaskan groups in Alaska and Canada doesn’t seem to appear until the early centuries AD, and even then it’s not necessarily entirely clear who those people are, this is much more evidence for Athapaskan presence in a particular place at a particular time than anything in the Southwest until historic times, and infinitely more evidence than anything anywhere in between.  Looking at the north also has the advantage of the continuing presence of a wide variety of Athapaskan groups, and their linguistic relationships and oral traditions are potentially useful evidence in understanding their past, and by extension the past of the people who once lived among them but later went south.

Bridge at Sunset Crater

A fascinating paper from 1992, though not focused specifically on the migration of the Southwestern Athapaskans, contributes considerably to this issue.  The starting point is oral traditions among some, but not all, of the northern Athapaskans describing phenomena at the beginning of time that sound very much like the events surrounding the eruption of a volcano.  This isn’t very surprising, since Alaska is an area with considerable volcanism, but it’s important to note that even in volcanically active areas volcanoes don’t actually erupt very often.  Indeed, intervals between eruptions are routinely measured in centuries or even millennia.  Since human generations are so much shorter, knowledge of volcanic eruptions in oral history, even if, as is usually the case, it’s in a very heavily mythologized and allegorical form, in most cases probably results from direct experience of specific eruptions that can be dated geologically and correlated with the human occupation of the area.  A well-known Southwestern example is the eruption of Sunset Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona in the late eleventh century AD.  This event remains well-remembered in Hopi traditions, and it has also played a considerable role in the development of archaeological ideas about the Sinagua people who inhabited the area prehistorically.

Sunset Crater Visitor Center

Turning back to the northern Athapaskans, the only volcano to have erupted in the (rather extensive) areas they have traditionally occupied in the relatively recent past is Mt. Churchill, in eastern Alaska very close to the border with the Yukon Territory.  There appear to have been two major eruptions of this volcano: one around AD 20, which resulted in a major area mostly to the north being covered in volcanic ash, and another much larger one around AD 720 which resulted in a very large area to the east being covered with a thick layer of ash.  If, as seems probable, Athapaskan-speaking people were living in the area when these eruptions occurred, they would surely have made a profound impact on their lifestyles.  Indeed, either or both of them could have made such large areas uninhabitable that the people who had been living there migrated elsewhere.  And that, of course, is where the relevance of all this to the Southwestern Athapaskans comes in.

"Volcanoes All Around You" Sign at Sunset Crater

So, assuming the oral traditions of the northern Athapaskans record a memory of an actual volcanic eruption, which one was it?  The authors of the article conclude that it was most likely the AD 720 eruption.  For one thing, this is the more recent one, and it would be more likely to be remembered simply on that basis.  It was also more powerful than the earlier eruption, which would also make it more memorable.  Indeed, it was a very powerful eruption.  It had a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 6, the same as Krakatoa and Mt. Pinatubo.

San Francisco Peaks from Sunset Crater

There’s also the matter of which specific groups have the traditions in question.  It turns out that the volcano traditions are not present among all northern Athapaskan groups, but are highly localized among the peoples of the Mackenzie River region of the Northwest Territories, due east of Mt. Churchill and the ash fall from the AD 720 eruption.  Some of these peoples have traditions mentioning a mountain that exploded in fire, while others mention conditions that sound like the ash fall and the subsequent period of cold weather.  There are also references to the discovery of copper, which occurs in elemental form in the general area and may have been dislodged by the eruption, around this same time, and some of the stories even link the copper directly to a fiery mountain.  In historic times the people who lived in the area of Mt. Churchill controlled a substantial amount of the trade in native copper, which only occurs in a few parts of North America.  These groups, however, although they do speak Athapaskan languages, apparently do not have any traditions referring to a volcanic eruption, which suggests that they were living elsewhere at the time and only moved into the area after it had recovered ecologically from the effects of the ash fall.  Similarly, a recent study has suggested that the caribou populations in the area today are not related either to surrounding populations or to the caribou that lived in the area before the eruption, suggesting that it was uninhabitable for caribou for some period after the ash fall.

"Life and Landscape Transformed" Sign at Sunset Crater

Thus, the article concludes that it is very likely that the AD 720 eruption made the area uninhabitable and so traumatized the inhabitants that they moved to the east, past the mountains into the Mackenzie River valley, to become the various peoples that the article refers to collectively as the “Dene” (something of a confusing term, since most of the Athapaskan-speaking groups call themselves by a cognate of this term, such as Navajo Diné).  The traditions also refer to a divergence of languages after the time of the eruption, before which all the people could understand each other.  This is certainly intriguing, since this is apparently what did happen, but it’s important to note the similarity to the Tower of Babel story here.  These stories were recorded by a Christian missionary who spent many years in the area, and the people he ministered to would certainly have been familiar with the Babel story and may have incorporated parts of it into their own traditional stories.  Nevertheless, they may have done so specifically because the story of the eruption already involved a divergence of languages.  There is, of course, no volcano in the story of the Tower of Babel, so there’s something more going on here than a straight adaptation of a biblical story to a native context.

Cinder Hills Overlook Sign at Sunset Crater

The connection to the Southwestern migration is somewhat subtle.  Since the Navajos and Apaches don’t have anything like these volcano traditions, it doesn’t seem likely that the eruption forced people to migrate all the way across the continent.  Rather, it’s more likely that the migrating Dene from the ash-fall zone entered territory previously occupied by other Athapaskan groups and set off a chain reaction of migrations that eventually led to the Pacific coast and the Southwest.  The details and dates remain vague, of course, and will continue to do so until the elusive archaeological evidence for the migration itself appears.  If the eruption was the ultimate cause, however, it does set a terminus post quem for the migration, which couldn’t have happened earlier than AD 720 and probably would have been some time later, after the early parts of the chain of population movements had occurred.  Note that this doesn’t say anything in particular about when the Athapaskans arrived in the Southwest; pretty much all dates that have been posited so far would work with this scenario.  Nor does it give much insight into the route the migration would have taken, which depends on who was living where and which way they went after being pushed out.

Lava at Sunset Crater

All of this evidence points to the era after the breakup of Proto-Athapaskan as the time of the eruption, which makes sense for other reasons as well.  The most divergent Athapaskan languages (i.e., the ones likely to have broken off earliest) are to the west, further into Alaska, and they don’t have any volcano traditions.  Nevertheless, and more speculatively, the authors suggest that the earlier, smaller eruption of Mt. Churchill might have played a role in the initial breakup of the protolanguage, despite not being impressive enough to be remembered.  If the protolanguage was spoken in the area around the volcano, which some have suggested on other grounds, then even a small eruption could have sent some groups away early, resulting in the striking diversity of northern Athapaskan language groups.  Some of those people might even have come back and resettled the Mt. Churchill area after the AD 720 eruption.  Again, though, this is all speculation without much evidence behind it.

"Power to Symbolize" Sign at Sunset Crater

Overall, I think this is a fascinating subject.  The interaction between people and the environment gets a lot of attention these days, but it’s mostly in the context of people’s effects on the environment.  Sometimes, however, the environment gets to call the shots, and it does so in the form of flaming mountains and showers of ash.  People just have to deal with it the best they can.
Moodie, D., Catchpole, A., & Abel, K. (1992). Northern Athapaskan Oral Traditions and the White River Volcano Ethnohistory, 39 (2) DOI: 10.2307/482391

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