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The Bering Strait Controversy

Teachers should be aware of the controversy between archaeological interpretation of history and traditional knowledge. Specifically, many Indian people disagree with the Bering Strait theory. Most tribes believe that they originated in their homeland, not in some foreign continent. This issue is addressed in OPI's Essential Understanding Regarding Montana Indians 3: "each tribe has its own oral histories, which are as valid as written histories."

For more information on this controversy and for two views of the debate, see Vine Deloria, Red Earth, White Lies, Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact (New York, 1995).

For an archaeologist's perspective, see Stuart Fiedel, "Initial Human Colonization of The Americas: An Overview of the Issues and the Evidence," Radiocarbon 44: 2 (August 2002): 407-436.You can access the article, in PDF format or search for the article on the University of Arizona's Digital Commons website. Be aware that this article may take a long time to load.

Given the intense feelings around this debate, this chapter might be a good place to explore with your students how we know what we know. There are three equally valid ways to learn about the lives of ancient people:

1) from oral histories of contemporary people, which provide information, histories and ways of understanding passed down through orally instead of in writing;

2) from archaeology, the scientific study of physical remnants of human activity in the past; and

3) from anthropology, the study of contemporary people and cultures who may live most like the ancient people lived.

Until recently the oral traditions of Indian cultures have been overlooked and undervalued by non-Indians. This is one reason that, as OPI puts in Essential Understanding 6, "histories are being rediscovered and revised," and that "History told from an Indian perspective conflicts with what most of mainstream history tell us." (Another reason, of course, has to do with subjectivity and point of view.)

Another useful framework to explore this potential paradigm shift might be the idea of the "canon" - the body of knowledge widely accepted to be true. In the study of history and other disciplines, knowledge included in the canon is taught as fact.

As people learn new things about our world, the canon changes. Sometimes new knowledge leaps ahead, and it takes the canon a while to catch up. For example, in the fifteenth century most people thought that the sun revolved around the earth. Even after Copernicus (1473-1543), and other scientists figured out that the earth revolved around the sun, it took many years for this knowledge to be accepted into the canon and to be taught to others as fact.

Some facts that may help us learn more about human history are not included in the canon, and so they are not taught. Sometimes beliefs are so strong they prevent people from seeing evidence that is there. This was true of astronomy in Copernicus's time. Is it true of the archaeology in our time?


Ice Age people, courtesy Montana Department of Transportation



Detail, Camas Gathering, Gary Schildt, Montana Historical Society Museum



Warrior with bow and arrow from Pictograph Cave, courtesy Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and MSU COT



Oscar Lewis at Pictograph Cave, photo by Bill Browne, Montana Historical Society Photo Archives PAc 90-96 Sheet 1, #7