Interested in Ethnohistory panel on issues related to indigenous historiography, protohistory and ethnogenesis in Siberia/Alaska/Canada

Joseph Wilson's picture

Greetings!  The 2020 Ethnohistory Conference CFP (Durham NC) suggested that individual paper-proposal authors should solicit collaborators for panels on relevant H-Net networks. 

I want to present a paper on the subject of Athabaskan migrations and ethnogenesis.  My paper will address the central claims of one very influential 1991 paper in the journal Ethnohistory. The Athabaskan ethnic group is a closely related group of languages spanning the distance from Northern Alaska to Northern Mexico, with collateral relatives among the Ket ethnic group in the Yenesei Valley of Siberia.  Collectively known as the Dene-Yeniseians, they constitute the largest and fastest pedestrian language spread zone on earth, spanning more than one third the circumphrence of the earth within a relatively breif period of late prehistory. The Ethnohistory journal article which I am interested in reassessing and critiquing is the following:

Moodie, D. Wayne, et al. “Northern Athapaskan Oral Traditions and the White River Volcano.” Ethnohistory, vol. 39, no. 2, 1992, pp. 148–171. 

Athabaskans were the first Native Americans to use fire to anneal copper and create edge-hardened forged blades. My own work suggests that Siberian-derived hot-forge copper metallurgy (rather than Yukon volcanism) is the basis for the firey imagery invoked by the oral traditions cited by Moodie et al. (1992), and this may have been one of several major technological advantages which gave the Athabaskan ancestors the ability to colonize such a vast terrain. The White River volcanic event serves merely as a terminus post quem (a coincidental archaeological horizon) helpful to date the rapid mass-migration, rather than an impetus for said migration.  My work in ethnographic collections shows that the cultural patterns which define the Athabaskan expansion do not originate from the ashfall zone.  The Yukon-Alaska borderland urheimat was a speculative 1981 proposal (by linguists Michael Krauss and Victor Golla) as the epicenter for the Athabaskan migrations, primarily as a "rescuing device" to account for the lack of Yupik loanwords in the prima facie West Alaska homeland. The natural first impression of a more westerly origin is indicated by the greatest depth of Athabaskan dialect cleavage in far west Alaska, i.e. the beachhead for contact with Siberia via the Aleutian corridor.  Key Athabaskan technologies (complex archery tools and low-fire ceramics) were never found in the Yukon borderlands. The absence of Eskimoan loanwords in ancient Athabaskan languages on the western contiental fringe is a 'dealbreaker' for West Alaskan Athabaskan origins according to conventional wisdom.  This depends on many unproven assumptions about the murky demographic history of the region, especially insofar as the Yupik and Inuit peoples (like the Athabaskans) are also highly mobile 'indigenous colonizers' of vast regions of the continent within the last 1000 years. The location and duration of possible Yupik-Athabaskan co-residence is unclear.  In my opinion, scholars need to question many timeworn assumptions about late prehistoric demography of the far northwest of North America, and must embrace a world-historical paradigm for Pacific Rim culture history.  The sea border between Alaska and Siberia is an artificial modern political barrier which handicaps our historiography and prevents a fair assessment of ancient relationships between the parallel ethnic and cultural patterns among the closely related indigenous peoples living on both sides of Bering Strait.

Are there any scholars currently thinking about other proposals for the upcoming Durham Ethnohistory conference (early November 2020) who could form a panel proposal with my own?  If so, please feel free to contact me at

Thank you kindly in advance!


Joseph A.P. Wilson

Worcester State University (history) / Fairfield University (anthropology) / Sacred Heart University (religious studies).
Associate Editor and Book Reviews Editor, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture

I would like to add a note of clarification. To potential respondents, please do not feel limited by the "Siberia/Alaska/Canada" geographic range in my call for collaborators. Of course this panel can include thematically similar topics relevant to a wide variety of regions and time periods and ethnic groups. I should have made that clear in my original post.