This week, I gave a talk at the Bodo Archaeological Society on the earliest human occupations in the Americas. As I was driving across Alberta, working on my talk, seeing all those stunning landscapes, thinking about how they had evolved since the Last Glacial Maximum, and imagining how people had lived in them and adapted to them over time, I came to a small town that prominently displayed a Canada 150 sign. After spending a day lost in thought on deserted rural roads, contemplating all the cultural and adaptive diversity that had lived and grown on this land for so long, that sign was jarring. It shocked me out of my thoughts. It renewed my purpose in giving my talk the next day, and it suddenly and viscerally convinced me that Canada 150 is at best an inadequate slogan.
When I got back to the office a couple of days later, I googled Canada 15 000 and was not surprised to find that others were way ahead of me in realizing it. Film-maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril makes the point powerfully, and better than I can, in her Walrus Talk from March 25th of this year. Brian MacLean, a member of First Story Toronto is quoted on this question on a University of Toronto page.
I can only speak from my perspective as a euro-Canadian archaeologist. It seems to me that thinking of Canada as 150 years old, and focusing our celebration those 150 years, is counter-productive in many ways, and for everyone, indigenous or not, Canadian or not. There is a political reality called Canada that is 150 years old in its current form (broadly). But there is a land and the many diverse communities that live there, including euro-Canadians, that have a much longer history.
First, focusing on the last 150 years makes it easier to ignore the historical injustices with which we live today and that are the result of Canadian colonialism. If we limit ourselves to thinking about the past 150 years, we make it more likely that we will forget to acknowledge that there were people living here before that, people who were at home on their land.
Beyond that, it cuts us off from 15 000 years of human stories and accumulated wisdom from which we can all benefit. The Americas were the last significant land mass to be occupied by humans (again, from my archaeological perspective. Other people have other stories about this). Those early occupants entered an environment about which they knew nothing, under conditions of extremely rapid climate change at the end of the last ice age, and they were extremely successful in adapting to it. They spread very quickly to cover the entire area from Alaska to the tip of South America. Not only did they adapt and expand quickly, they did so across many different ecological zones and climate bands from North to South. In a time during which we are all facing increased climate and environmental variability, understanding how they did it can help us understand how we can cope with current and future environmental challenges.
After the initial peopling of the Americas, and as Holocene climate and environments gradually stabilized, an incredibly diversified array of cultural systems evolved and thrived on the land. Continent-wide systems of exchange of goods, ideas, and genes developed. There was the emergence of domestication, pottery, and metallurgy, but also of social inequality, stratification, and warfare. There were humans being humans, with all the wonderful and all the horrible that this implies.
Unlike the initial human occupation of the other continental masses, the first arrival of humans in the Americas is relatively recent. From an archaeological perspective, that means that we have better preservation of all kinds of material that allow us to understand the process in some detail. We also have partners and colleagues who live in the traditions that were born from that process.
The arrival of Europeans in the Americas is part of the story, and from that we can also learn valuable lessons. How should we conduct ourselves when confronted with difference? How can we learn to live with others in respect and mutual autonomy? How can we be better to each other?
The study and the commemoration of the past 150 years should certainly be a chapter in the story, one from which there is much to learn. In a sense it is a brief, violent, and depressing post-script, but also one which carries great hope. The other, earlier chapters are larger in scope, and at least as rich in learning. We do everyone a disservice by removing them from the book.