Tracking languages with eagles and arrows

The story goes that the rock monster eagle used to swoop down and carry people off to feed to his children in a nest on top of a tall rock. One day, the monster slayer decided to kill the eagle.

The story goes that the rock monster eagle used to swoop down and carry people off to feed to his children in a nest on top of a tall rock.

One day, the monster slayer decided to kill the eagle. So he allowed the eagle to pick him up and bring him to his nest. But before the eagle could feed him to his nestlings, the monster slayer shot him with an arrow. When monster’s mate returned with another human to feed to her children, the monster slayer shot her, too.

The monster slayer then spoke to the two nestlings and agreed not to kill them. Instead, one of them became the golden eagle and the other became the owl.

Then the monster slayer left, taking the hearts of the eagles with him.

Now, that’s just one version of the story. There are many, each slightly different from the others.

But the stories all have certain elements in common. In every story, the eagles are killing people, and have to be destroyed by a hero for humans to thrive. They always feed humans to their nestlings. The hero is always brought to the nest and either kills the eagles or finds a way to escape. Bows and arrows are often used.

The similarities between these stories tell us a lot about the history of the different indigenous peoples that speak Athabaskan languages, according to Joseph Wilson, an anthropologist and instructor at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

Wilson will be giving a talk via Skype at the Beringia Centre this Saturday, as part of a Long Ago Yukon series called “Encounters With First Peoples.”

And he’ll be defending a somewhat controversial theory – that the Athabaskan people and their languages spread across North America, from western Alaska to Hudson Bay and south to northern California, in about 400 years, between 900 and 1,300 A.D.

That’s fast. Faster than most of his colleagues have proposed, Wilson said.

Today, Athabaskan-speaking people include the Northern and Southern Tutchone, Dene, Kaska, Gwich’in, Tahltan and Tlicho people in the Canadian North, many First Nations in interior B.C., and Navajo and Apache Native American tribes in the U.S.

Wilson calls the migration of the Athabaskan languages “the largest and fastest pedestrian language spread in the world.”

“It happened overnight,” he said.

And that monster slayer folklore plays a key role in his theory. Wilson said the fact that so many elements are consistent between the stories “suggests that they moved quite rapidly.”

The languages, too, are very similar. “Athabaskans are quite uniform in their speech and in their folklore,” Wilson explained. He drew a comparison to the differences between Spanish and Portuguese. Someone fluent in one language, he said, would more or less be able to understand the other.

So what explains this rapid migration across North America? Wilson thinks it has a lot to do with weapons, and with Asia. Around the time the Athabaskan migration started, he explained, there was a period of “intense imperial warfare” in Eurasia.

Wilson thinks that conflict may have spilled across into North America.

“Imagine refugee soldiers from frontier garrisons in north Asia who were defeated by enemies in some geopolitical struggle and embarked on flights into the tundra,” he said.

And when they came across the water, they likely brought their weapons with them, especially their bows and arrows.

That means that many Athabaskan Alaskans might have fairly recent Asian ancestors, as well as those who’d been in North America for much longer.

Wilson believes the appearance of a powerful weapon like the bow and arrow would have helped the Athabaskans to become dominant and spread rapidly throughout the continent, bringing their language with them.

That would also explain the appearance of the bow and arrow in so many Athabaskan myths.

The clincher, Wilson said, is that there are Siberian languages that seem to be related to the North American Athabaskan languages.

“There’s a suggestion that the word for ‘bow’ in Yeniseian (a Siberian language) is the same as the word for ‘arrow’ in Athabaskan, so there’s clearly a connection,” he said, adding that the Siberians seem to have at least one mythological story that’s very similar to the Athabaskans’.

Of course, all of this is subject to debate. Wilson said there is some genetic evidence to suggest that Asian males mixed with Athabaskans in the not-too-distant past. But it’s not conclusive.

And clues are being lost all the time, as more and more Athabaskan languages go extinct from lack of use. Already, much of Wilson’s linguistic research is based on records from the 1920s and 30s.

“Most of these languages are not spoken very much anymore, and most of these stories are not told very much anymore,” he said. “Most of them are critically endangered.”

It’s estimated there are upwards of 50 Athabaskan languages, though many are spoken by fewer than 100 people. Chipewyan is one of the more widespread languages, and still has roughly 12,000 native speakers.

But Wilson said his research does more than illuminate the possible history of the Athabaskan languages.

He believes it’s also giving the lie to a pervasive stereotype about Athabaskan peoples.

“Athabaskans are stereotyped as being extremely primitive,” he said. Because Athabaskan peoples traditionally lived in less complex societies, he said, they were assumed to have borrowed their religion and folklore from other indigenous groups.

But in fact, Wilson said, the Athabaskans may have been the source of these stories, which then spread to other peoples.

“My argument is that we have been making all kinds of assumptions about what the original Athabaskan culture was … not based on any real evidence,” he said.

“Don’t assume… that the Athabaskans were a blank slate onto which other cultures painted a mirror of themselves. It ain’t necessarily so.”

Wilson will be speaking via Skype at 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 5 at the Beringia Centre. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/LongAgoYukon.

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Yukon Department of Education building in Whitehorse on Dec. 22, 2020. Advocates are calling on the Department of Education to reverse their redefinition of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that led to 138 students losing the program this year. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Advocates call redefinition of IEPs “hugely concerning,” call for reversal

At least 138 students were moved off the learning plans this year

Medical lab technologist Angela Jantz receives her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Whitehorse hospital on Jan. 13. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Online booking system for Moderna vaccine opens as mobile teams prepare to visit communities

“The goal is to protect everyone and stop the spread of COVID-19”

adsf
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Jan. 15, 2021

Zhùr, the ancient wolf pup found mummified in permafrost at Last Chance Creek mine in July 2016. (Government of Yukon/Submitted)
‘Mummy’ wolf pup unearthed in permafrost paints a picture of ice age ancestors

Zhùr is the best preserved and most complete mummy of an ancient wolf found to date.

The Fish Lake area viewed from the top of Haeckel Hill on Sept. 11, 2018. The Yukon government and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced they are in the beginning stages of a local area planning process for the area. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Local area planning for Fish Lake announced

The Government of Yukon and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced in… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Fire damage, photographed on Jan. 11, to a downtown apartment building which occurred late in the evening on Jan. 8. Zander Firth, 20, from Inuvik, was charged with the arson and is facing several other charges following his Jan. 12 court appearance. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
More charges for arson suspect

The Inuvik man charged in relation to the fire at Ryder Apartments… Continue reading

The grace period for the new Yukon lobbyist registry has come to an end and those who seek to influence politicians will now need to report their efforts to a public database. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Grace period for new lobbyist registry ends

So far nine lobbyists have registered their activities with politicians in the territory

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21, 2020. Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive up to $20,000 to help recover from losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Details released on relief funding for tourism and culture non-profits

Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive… Continue reading

Mayo-Tatchun MLA Don Hutton won’t be runing for re-election. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Mayo-Tatchun MLA won’t run for re-election

Liberal MLA Don Hutton won’t be running for re-election. A former wildland… Continue reading

Large quantities of a substance believed to be cocaine, a large amount of cash, several cells phones and a vehicle were all seized after RCMP searched a Whistle Bend home on Jan. 6. (Photo courtesy RCMP)
Seven arrested after drug trafficking search

RCMP seized drugs, money from Whistle Bend residence on Jan. 6

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Most Read