Leonard Cohen once wrote a book of poems called Let Us Compare Mythologies. I don’t recall the gist of them now but the title has always stuck in my head. Maybe it’s because the inference is so arresting. I mean, geez, all of us have a tendency to lean on what we have come to believe about our personal and cultural histories. All of us have a predilection for mythologizing those stories.
I suppose it’s because we all want a better story than the one we have. What we want more than anything is to be able to tell a rip-roaring good yarn about ourselves and our people. Everyone has a literary bone. Everyone wants a captivating tale. So regardless of our cultural origins we want the sweep of adventure, romance and drama in the stories of us.
I believe it’s because we all share a common beginning. At the very start of our histories we were tribal people hunkered around a fire in the night. When stories began to be told, no one wanted to listen to a boring retelling of banal events. Stories needed to be rollicking good to keep us awake and proud of ourselves. Not much has changed in all the eons since.
I was thinking about this the other day while reading an essay arguing the origins of Canada’s native people. There’s a long-standing story about native people coming to North America across a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait. Archeologists and anthropologists agree in the likelihood of that – but First Nation people get a little perturbed over it.
To some degree it makes sense. Western thinking tells us that everyone had to arrive from somewhere. Given enough time a scientist would eventually draw us all back to Africa as the place of our origin. Our migratory paths as human beings began in the savanna. So the theory goes that native people must have trekked through Asia and across the Bering Strait.
See, it’s the idea of a band of hunter gatherers following a herd of caribou that makes it easier for Western science to agree with. As nomadic cultures there’s something normal about that image to them. But my people learned the word logistics from nonnative people and the logistics seem kind of fuzzy.
For one thing, there couldn’t have been one long migrant line of us in pursuit of meat and furs. Someone would have had to go back and tell everyone else. There would have been a runner selected to carry the news of a whole new territory to those left behind. Whoever he was, I feel sorry for that guy.
That’s, like, 80 kilometres. Plus, the area lies just below the Arctic Circle. In winter, when caribou are moving, that would mean temperatures dipping to around minus fifty with howling Arctic winds. Even in more temperate conditions it would be a hard slog. Say, 160 kilometres in total through freezing temperatures.
The poor guy would not have had the benefit of snowshoes. They’re a North American invention. So he was out there jogging back and forth in simple moccasins and wrapped in furs. Would you believe a half-dressed, half-frozen man calling you out into the teeth of an Arctic storm? It would take an awful of persuasion to get others to cross that bridge.
But they did, according to the theory. Thousands of them. So many that the land bridge must have collapsed under their weight because it hasn’t been seen since. For all their knowledge, scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint where it was, how it came to be or where it went.
Yet when native people say we were always here, it’s discounted as being scientifically improbable for lack of evidence. The mythology doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. If legend doesn’t fit the paradigm, the paradigm wins.
On the other hand, the standard Canadian mythology has early explorers discovering things in a wild and unmapped land. The legend that generations of Canadian school kids have grown up with is Radisson and Groseilliers, say, humping it through a raging prairie blizzard to discover things.
Well, native people have always believed that you can’t discover something when you’re lost yourself. But that mythology stands. This, despite everyone knowing full well that they were led to things by native guides. But it’s better in the telling if the Frenchmen were more heroic than that. Our Canadian cultural mythology demands heroes, not addled wanderers asking directions.
So when we compare mythologies we need to understand that the germ of truth in them is minute. All the scientific reasoning in the world won’t change that. Me, for instance, I believe the Bering Strait story. How else to explain the popularity of Chinese buffets with native people? Now that’s scientific reasoning.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org