Historian Catherine Revland asks if some ancient migration was West to East

In his book, Songlines, Bruce Chatwin visited remote groups of Australian aborigines that each sang a song with the same melody but a different verse, one that described the natural features of their home territory. When all the verses were put together side by side they became a map of Australia. Chatwin speculated, “I have a vision of the songlines stretching across the continents and ages; that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song, and that these trails must reach back in time and space to the African savannah [and] the First Man.”

Regrettably, Chatwin died before a number of recent scientific discoveries confirmed his vision, but I have the good fortune to still be on that trail of long-forgotten knowledge. In my case, the journey began more or less in my backyard, atop Standing Rock Hill overlooking my birthplace of Fort Ransom, North Dakota. For a number of years I had been researching the history of my pioneering ancestors who had settled in the picturesque valley of the Sheyenne River, where each spring farmers’ plows threw up a new crop of arrowheads and bits of pottery. Other indications that the valley had long been important to Native Americans were many burial mounds, “writing rocks,” and the strange vertical stone shaped like a finger at the summit of Standing Rock Hill.

Expanding my quest for knowledge about my ancestors from northern Norway to information about the people they displaced, I made a trip to the State Historical Society in Bismarck where I read an account of an early settler who had often seen groups of Indians camp near the river and make pilgrimages to the Standing Rock. I asked a cousin who worked at the museum about its significance and her answer was, “I want to show you something.” She took me to a moisture-controlled room where toys, clothing, and ornaments were stored in narrow drawers, each item meticulously labeled, and told me the room was visited regularly by Native American holy men who blessed the artifacts, filling the building through the air vents with the smell of burning sage.

Not knowing how to find these holy men, and uncertain of the reception I would get if I asked them to give me the one thing that hadn’t been taken from them – their mystery – I went to the library. There I discovered that standing rocks of a similar shape were found on promontory hills along the entire Missouri River System. I also read about them in the oral histories of tribes from the Pacific Northwest to New York State. I learned that they represented the First Man, who had given so much of himself to future generations that he turned to stone. The trail then led to the Old World, where I read that similar rocks marked the major land routes of every continent, dating back to the Bronze Age, and that the most ancient form was a single finger-shaped stone. These standing rocks of high-latitude North America had to be very old indeed!

My excitement didn’t last long. The ruling dictum among plains archeologists was that the Dakotas had no prehistory and not much of a history, either. One academic told me with a wave of his hand, “They had no horses until the 16th century, and they could hardly have dragged their households around the prairie without them.” End of story.

I abandoned my research until 2000, when I read an astonishing article about early human migration in the New York Times. DNA researchers had discovered a way to trace the dates and the routes by which the human race had emigrated out of Africa and settled the earth. Their data confirmed that 90 % of Native Americans alive today had ancestral roots in the so-called New World that went back 30,000 years. One very small group, labeled Haplogroup X, was even older. It was found in populations in northern Scandinavia as well as some high-latitude tribes in North America, including the Sioux. Scientists assumed that members of the European group must have migrated by crossing the Atlantic. Stunned by this news, I resumed my efforts to find someone who could tell me their story. By a strange series of coincidences, I got lucky. Very lucky.

Ellsworth Chytka (pronounced kit-ka) lives on the Yankton Sioux Reservation near Lake Andes, South Dakota. He is descended from a line of “tradition keepers,” spiritual people who have passed on the tribe’s history and culture from grandparent to grandchild for untold generations, keeping it alive by going underground for a hundred years when it was illegal for Indians to practice their traditions. Ellsworth is now the last surviving member of his generation of tradition keepers. “When I go, it’s gone. So it’s time for someone to write it down.” That someone became me.

When I told him about the mysterious Haplogroup X, he wasn’t surprised. He said he had visited the Saami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. “They have the same old-style pow-wow, the same ‘yoiking,’ telling stories by song. My grandmas told me that we went over there, not the other way around.” He says many things they told him that were almost impossible to believe have since been validated by science. North America was discovered by Norsemen blown west in a storm, but the prevailing winds blow west to east. A convincing argument could be made. Yet Ellsworth is not interested in proving anything. For me, however, this oral history has become a stanza in Chatwin’s World Song, part of the trail that leads across the continents and the ages back to the First Man, where it all began. Maybe, just maybe, we’re cousins.

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