In an article published over 70 years ago, Edward Sapir set out with remarkable prescience and clarity the cultural traits that archaeologists should look for when seeking evidence for the migration of Athapaskans south from their ancestral home in the interior northwest of Canada:
"Northern origin does not in the least imply a direct line of movement from north to south across the Great Basin. Such a line of migration is most improbable. It is far more likely that the movement of these peoples proceeded via the western Plains. If this is correct, an analysis of Southern Athapaskan culture would aim to reveal four strata: a fundamental northern layer, comparable to the culture of the tribes of the Mackenzie Basin; an early western Plains adaptation, more archaic in its outlines than the specialized culture of the Plains as now defined by ethnologists; a first Southwestern influence, tending to assimilate these tribes to the relatively simple non-Pueblo culture of the Southwest; and a second, distinctively Pueblo, Southwestern influence. To these must naturally be added a good deal of Navajo specialization on the basis of the Pueblo influence. This disentangling of these various layers is work for the future and, in any event, is hardly likely to be ever more than fragmentary. Meanwhile, the geographical sequence: Chipewyan, Sarsi, Kiowa Apache, Jicarilla Apache, Navajo, may stand as a suggestion of the reality of the historical problem, though, no doubt, the Plains character of Sarsi and Kiowa Apache culture is in each instance of a much later type than the hypothetical Plains influence to be worked out for Navajo cultural antecedents."
Even today, Sapir’s statement is ahead of the time. Ancestral Apacheans could not have moved south across the Great Basin, while his Plains route remained in favour for many decades, then vanished with the Huscher’s surveys in the 1940s, plus the Gunnerson’s work on the Dismal River Aspect, which favoured an Intermountain route. It is not that a Plains entry has ever been disproven, especially for the Plains Apache; it is just that a Foothills or Rockies entry overshadowed Sapir’s earlier suggestion, and it is time that we return to it, in addition to more closely demarcing an Intermountain route. Until now, Wyoming , Colorado , Utah and New Mexico archaeologists left no room (geographically and chronologically) for Northern Dene (Proto-Apachean) movement and residence using an Intermountain route in their States. Now that the Numic Expansion (esp. Ute) appears more and more recent to the Historic period, a large space/time gap in the period 1200-1400 AD encourages a new look at old collections for possible Northern Dene (Proto-Apachean) artifacts in these States. Sapir’s concept of layering remains applicable.Does a fundamental northern layer persist in the American Southwest? What about an adhering level of an archaic Plains adaptation on the trek south? Can a third layer of the first Southwestern non-Puebloan influence be detected in this cultural palimpsest? Finally, does the final layer of a distinctive Puebloan influence mask the underlying layers? His pessimism about anyone ever disentangling this palimpsest does not bode well, but even the exposure of some fragments of the underlying layers is valuable. We know these layers existed, but we do not know if they persist. It is clear from linguistics that the Navajo-Apache have Canadian ancestry, but unravelling the layers Sapir refers to has remained an enigma for archaeologists for a century.
Sapir’s last sentence (my italics) focusses on the central Canadian Chipewyan, who better fit the chronological and geographical time frame than the Sarsi and Kiowa. The Sarsi are a Rockies foothills people that were adopted in the early historic period by the dominant Blackfoot of southwestern Alberta, and thus are most unlikely to have formed the proto-Navajo or Apache. They had some contact with the Kiowa, but this occurred later than the post-800 AD southern Athapaskan migration to the American Southwest, as proposed here. They also had contact with the sacred Black Hills, as did the proto-Navajo or Apache, but much later. While Apache are widespread in the Southwest, their archaeology has been eclipsed in favour of the more numerous and policially active Navajo. New research shows Navajo-Apache greatly predating Coronado’s 1541 sighting, but identification and dating of their sparse and rare pre-16th century sites are hampered by the Dene habit of adopting toolkits of existing cultures and leaving little definitive material in their simple brush dwellings. Problems in dendrodating also arise because their later 5-pole hogans could be built with previously collected wood. Perhaps the greatest reason that Southwest archaeologists do not know when Athapaskans arrived is that they are pre-occupied with hogans, Dinetah-gray pottery and dendrochronology. These Southwest elements must be ignored, but this leaves precious little to mark ther arrival – a scattering of Plains Side-Notched-like arrowheads that they adopted enroute and which lie in concealed or remote sites, certain warrior or turtle motifs, many large retouched flake knives and scrapers, and possibly some hide abraders that may have evolved from chithos used on caribou very far to the north.
It is the aim of our research group to assess the present state of the evidence for dating and identifying a route for this migration and to suggest that there is an urgent need for more data to validate or invalidate some of the many theories that have been set out regarding the Athapaskan migration. Before doing this, it will be necessary to deal with several controversies associated with this migration and what might account for it, namely, (1) the theory of the White River ashfall as providing the impetus for southern movement (both to the Pacific Coast and the American Southwest); (2) whether the Avonlea phase represents evidence of Athapaskan migration through the southern Canadian prairies; and (3) what relationship exists between the Dismal River phase, the Fremont culture, the Promontory Point site and Apachean peoples in the Southwest. It is my view that these three controversies represent diversions that cloud the central question and can result in much needless controversy about side issues.
A word on nomenclature: Maestas (2003) and some Apache use variants of the general term Nde or people, but the Apache identify themselves with Spanish names. The Navajo call themselves Dine (sing.) or Dine'e (plural) but their official name remains the Navajo Nation (Brugge, pers.comm. 2006). I use Dene for each and all Northern and Southern Athapaskan groups, and shall explore their changing traits along three proposed routes from Subarctic Canada to the American Southwest. These three routes are the Trench, the eastern Foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and the open Plains to the east.
Bryan C. Gordon