Who is a Native?

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This column was originally published in the Roanoke Beacon the week of August 4th, 2021.

The word ‘native’ is derived from the Latin verb ‘nati’ = ‘to be born’. ‘nati’ is a semi-deponence, i.e. a verb that exists only in the passive voice. Makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, being born is the most passive act you ever perform in your life. A ‘native’ to a certain place would seem to be a person who was born in that certain place. Accordingly, if you were born in e.g. Columbia NC you can call yourself a native of that town. But the common use of the term goes beyond this narrow meaning. American Indians call themselves “Native Americans” or “indigenous” and the non-European Australians are called “aborigines” with the connotation that they, i.e. their predecessors, ancestors, forefathers were all born in America or Australia or at least on the American or Australian continents.

This would seem to imply the notion that e.g. the American Indians originated in America and have always lived in America, which would exclude the notion that they have ever migrated to America from some other place. However, so far, no bones have been found in the Americas that are significantly older than 13,000 years. This is a time just past the height of the last ice age, 15-20K years ago. At the time, the Bering Strait was frozen over, and people could migrate from Kamchatka to Alaska on foot. Genetic analysis shows that the first “American Indians” left Siberia around 25,000 years ago, slowly migrating East and arriving in America about 15,000 years ago. Compare the coast lines of Beringia 14,000 years ago with the modern coastline. It was all covered with ice and it was possible to march on foot from Siberia to Alaska.

That the American Indians migrated to America from Asia is also confirmed by linguistic research, which shows that the Na-Den and the Yeniseian language families of American Indian languages originated in Asia. Wikipedia calls the Mazateca “indigenous people of Mexico”, but the Mazateca, just like the Mishteks, the Tolteks, and the Azteks, were all immigrants. The migrated in waves coming from the North, moving through California into Mexico, each time conquering and destroying preexisting peoples, civilizations, and socio-political structures. If, as some American Indians believe, the Indians came from “the Gods”, surely, these Gods must have lived somewhere in North-East-Asia. Clearly, the Indians were intruders, conquerors, occupants, just like the Europeans, when they came to America. This seems to give the terms “native”, “indigenous” or “aboriginal” a new meaning, at least with regard to America: while it can obviously not mean “we were always here”, it could mean “we were here first”. With regard to North America, even the claim that the Indians arrived on the continent before the Europeans did, appears now a bit shaky. Latest archeological research found that the most common American upper paleolithic flint tools and blades, the so-called Clovis type, resemble the Solutrean stone

tools found in Southern France more than any other flint tools found in North America so far. The Solutreans lived in Southwestern France and Northern Spain 12,000 to 17,000 years ago and apparently died out. They developed a unique technique for making flint tools. Clovis tools do not only resemble these Solutrean tools morphologically (i.e. with regard to form) but also technologically, as it can be shown that they were produced by the same sequence of production steps. Solutrean flint tips were also found around the Chesapeake Bay and New York. These three arguments – morphological and technological similarity plus founds of Solutrean flint tools in Eastern North America – all argue for a direct relationship of the Clovis and Solutrean cultures. As we can see below, the European ice shield extended to approximately Southwestern France, maybe the area, which is today Bordeaux, and the Atlantic had probably a significant cover of large icebergs. It cannot be rules out that the Atlantic itself was also partly frozen over. Unfortunately, ice and glaciers leave no traces on water like they do on land.

What we can reasonably suspect though, is that the Solutrean Europeans, a Proto-Celtic population, arrived in North America from Europe about at the same time or even before the Indians arrived from Asia. Much of what was dry land 20,000 years ago, is now under water and we may expect more intel about this issue as the newest branch of archeology, underwater or deep-sea archeology, keeps evolving. Maybe the French should sue the American Indians for restitution because they wiped out the Proto-Celtic Solutreans? Just kidding. (For those interested in the Clovis/Solutrean issue, read Across Atlantic Ice by Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley, 2012, ISBN 978-0-520-27578-2).

If we look around the world, we can hardly find any present population that can rightfully claim to be truly “native” to the land on which they live today. Let’s look at Europe: the Celts arrived in Western Europe around 2,500 years ago coming from the East, probably Ukraine. What is today Austria, became the epicenter of Celtic civilization, the so-called Hallstatt culture. However, there were people living there already who were pushed westward by the advancing Celts. We know that the Germanic tribes came from Scandinavia, but we cannot be sure if they also originated there, whatever “originate” may mean in this context. The Germans began moving South and East about 3,000 years ago and started occupying much of eastern Europe. Eventually, they also moved West, pushing the Celts across the River Rhine. In any event, neither the Celts nor the Germans are truly “natives” of the lands they currently inhabit.

Or let’s look at the Near East. It is impossible to determine who were the “original” people that lived in Palestine. The Bible mentions a goodly dozen of small ethnic groups, all with their own languages and city-kingdoms. The land was occupied and governed by the Hebrews, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Mongols, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Persians, the Muslim Arabs, the Turks, and the British. It was called “Palaestina” (after the Philistines) by the Romans to anger the Jews. Today, the “Palestinians” claim to be the “natives” of Palestine. Truth is that every ethnic group claiming to be the original population of Palestine, including the Jews, originally invaded the region and established their presence by military force, conquest, and subjugation of those having settled the land before them.

Or let’s examine a very local situation: I was raised in Cologne, Germany. The city developed out of a Roman military camp named “Colonia Castra Ara Agrippinensium”, which means “Military Camp and Colony dedicated to Agrippina”. The place used to be owned by the German tribes of the Ubiers and the Sugambrians, who had taken it away from the Celts. The name of the city still today means “colony”. Should the Celts sue the Ubiers and Sugambrians for restitution? Should the two German tribes sue the Italian government, as the successor to the Roman Empire, for restitution? Sounds pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it? Ceteris paribus.

Or this: England was originally owned by the Picts and Celts. It was invaded conquered and occupied by the German tribes of Angles and Saxons, the Romans, and the Normans first from Denmark and Norway, then from Normandy in France, which the Normans from Denmark and Norway had invaded first. The Celts were surely also invaders, and who knows how the Picts got there.

Seems that there is no real native, indigenous or aboriginal peoples. At best, we can use these terms to refer to those folks who got there first, even though they did not originate there. On deeper inspection, we are almost all invaders, intruders, conquerors and colonizers. So, let’s not point fingers, lest the remaining or reverse-engineered Neanderthals will file a class-action suit against the Cro-Magnons. Or as the Catholic “Pater Noster” says: “dimitte nos debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris” (forgive us our wrongdoings as we forgive those who have wronged us) or in plain English: no nation is truly native; we all have invader-egg on our faces.

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