Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thule: The First Conquerors of America

The common perception of invasion on the American continent by outsiders involves Indians versus Europeans. While this conquest history (1492 to 1890) is the one that changed the history of the continent the most it was not the first. About 500 years before Christopher Columbus introduced the New World to the Europeans, an Asiatic horde swept across the northern rim of present-day Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.

There is a reason why many references, including the United States Census, refer to "American Indian and Alaskan Native." This is because there is a difference between those commonly referred to as American Indians, those found between northern Canada and the tip of South America, and the Eskimo and related nations. These nations descend from the Thule, a culture of eastern Siberian natives who spread from Alaska to Greenland like wildfire.

The Thule people started off in Siberia. Groups like the Siberian Yupik are the descendants of those who remained. The period around AD 1000 was one of global warmth and allowed Thule who had settlements along the very coastal edge of Alaska to begin their march into North America.

At this time the coastal lands around the Arctic Ocean and the Atlantic Coast of Newfoundland was dominated by Dorset, Innu, and a form of Beothuk. It is believed either the Dorset or Beothuk were the first Indians to encounter and fight Europeans. After a series of land and sea battles the Vikings were forced to abandon their North American colony in the early eleventh century. The Vikings described the natives they fought as Skraelings, an at first peaceful race that becomes fierce fighters.

Eskimo legends describing their advancement tell of stronger giants who lived on the land now known to be inhabited by Dorset peoples. The myths go further in telling how the giants would flee from the Thule. Exactly why this once fierce people fled is unknown. However, the rapid advancement of Thule leads one to believe there were conflicts combined with a fall in strength of the Dorset.

The Thules did not stop in northern Canada. They continued on to Greenland. During the warmth period it is commonly accepted that Vikings had colonized the south of Greenland (it was green at the time) while the Dorset had settlements elsewhere in the northwest of the island. During the start of the Little Ice Age the Dorset had been replaced by the Thule. The Thule adapted to the climate change by fishing, whaling, and remaining a mobile-capable culture. The Vikings meanwhile continued to try to practice European-style land agriculture on the freezing island. The Viking were forced to abandon Greenland while the Thule thrived.

Today the Thule descendants, primarily Eskimos, are (perhaps) the most politically successful of the pre-Colombian American nations. The Inuit have a Canadian territory, Nunavut, established as a sort of homeland. Nunavut was specifically designed to be a territory and not a reservation; however, demographics and the design of government give the Inuit large sway over the province. Nunavut even means "Our Land" in the local Inuit language. Another political success story for the Inuit is Greenland. Though eventually claimed and partially colonized by Denmark, Greenland has been gaining sovereignty and almost ninety percent of Greenland is Inuit. In late 2008, three-fourths of Greenlanders voted in favor of greater home rule. The vote was non-binding but Denmark vowed to enact requested changes including removing Danish as an official language in Greenland thus making Greenlandic, an Inuit language of the Eskimo-Aleut family, the sole official tongue. It is believed by many that Greenland will eventually declare independence. While it is questionable if Greenland can survive on its own, it would be the first case of pre-Colombians regaining independence from an European power.

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