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Tatters of leather mashed into layers of sediment were all that remained of the 250 moccasins in Utah’s Promontory Cave. Given their age – roughly 700 years – it was a miracle they’d been preserved at all. When anthropologist Julian Steward excavated the site in the 1930s he’d been perplexed by the find. This was sandal country: Moccasins were inappropriate for the terrain. Local aboriginal people never wore them.

Seventy years later, in 2002, the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City figured out how to bring the moccasins back to life. With a touch of isopropyl alcohol, the leather slowly relaxed and took its original shape. 

Though well-worn and oft-patched, the footwear’s design became visible: a rounded, puckered toe and a T-seam heel. These were the hallmarks, the curators realized, of the moccasins of Northern Canada’s Dene. The shoes – and their owners – had clearly walked a very long way.

A Navajo elder before his log-and-earth hogan in Arizona. Bruce Dale/Getty Images

Inhabiting a vast swath of Arizona and New Mexico, plus bits of surrounding states, the Navajo number 300,000 citizens, making them the United States’ second-most populous tribe. They call themselves Diné; their mother tongue is Diné bizaad, which, along with the nearby Apache language, is a branch of the Athapaskan language family. Unlike these southern Athapaskans, most other Athapaskans live far to the north – largely in Alaska, the Yukon, and the NWT – and call themselves Dene. Just how these groups became separated has long been a mystery. Only in the past few years have clues to their common origin begun to fall into place.

Linguists marvel over the capacity of Athapaskan languages to remain mutually comprehensible despite centuries of geographic separation. Clayton Long marvels at it, too. The 55-year-old Navajo man oversees language training in 12 schools around Blanding, Utah, a largely Navajo border town a 20-minute drive from the reservation. “There are five Apache groups here that are easier to understand – then, as you head up north, we have to really listen,” he says. When he took one of his classes to the Yukon not long ago on an educational exchange, the similarities were literally loud and clear. Verbs and sentence structure were identical, along with names for body parts. The differences were concentrated in the areas of modern technology and European culture: words created recently, after the Navajo and Dene parted ways.

Of course Navajo, like most North American aboriginal groups, hold to creation myths that have them originating in the place they presently live. The notion that aboriginals might be immigrants has psychological and even political consequences. The very idea of “indigenousness” is rooted, as it were, in the concept of a long-occupied homeland. Modern land claims are based on inherent connections to the areas being claimed.

Yet in the case of the Navajo, scientists have followed converging lines of evidence to a touchy conclusion. The evolution of the Athapaskan language suggests a migration from north to south. Throughout the Southwest, words for uniquely southern phenomena – rattlesnake, scorpion, corn, tobacco – are all the same, clearly composed by a single small group that later expanded to form the vast Navajo and Apache societies.

Geneticists confirm this suspicion. They’ve identified what they call “founder effects” among southern Athapaskans. Navajo and Apaches carry a disproportionately large number of certain rare genes, suggesting they descended, quite recently, from a small, discrete band of people. And because they share genetics with the Northern Dene, it seems almost certain this band of people came out of the North. 

Despite the potential controversy in such conclusions, the research intrigues many Dene and Navajo. “Dene people want to know about where they come from,” says Raymond Yakeleya, a Dene TV producer living in Alberta, “but they don’t just want to hear that from the white man.” That’s why, in 2005, Yakeleya organized a pan-Athapaskan meeting in Calgary, where Navajo and Dene themselves could gather, explore their linguistic and cultural bonds, and at least dabble in the notion of a shared family tree. Another such gathering is planned for Yellowknife in 2009. 

Lisa Koyima from the NWT. Bruce Dale/Getty Images

For the past several years, Greg Hare and his archaeological team have been studying alpine ice patches across the southern Yukon. In summer, for centuries, these cool and breezy snowfields have drawn caribou. The caribou, in turn, attracted human hunters, who left evidence of their material culture behind. “If someone threw a weapon and missed, it would be embedded in the ice,” explains Hare, the site-assessment archaeologist for the Yukon government. “These preserved organic weapons could be carbon dated in the way stone tools can’t.” Using that radiocarbon dating, Hare has found a remarkable break in the archaeological record. 

For eight long millennia, up until about 800 A.D., the weapon of choice among Yukon First Nations people was the stone-tipped dart, hurled with a wooden throwing-lever known as an atlatl. But about 1,200 years ago, the weapons used on the ice patches suddenly changed. The dart and atlatl vanished, replaced wholesale by spruce arrows, tipped with antler points and shot from bows. Such weapons may have already been in use by the peoples across the mountains, on the spruce-forested Alaskan coast. 

Hare and other researchers speculate that only a traumatic occurrence could have prompted such a break in Dene hunting tradition. “The fact that all the materials, even the wood-type, changed – that suggests a cultural event,” he says. He thinks the people of the southern Yukon suddenly travelled en masse to coastal Alaska – likely because their homeland was in crisis. They picked up new technologies and ideas and then, when it was safe, returned to the Yukon. And Hare’s got a good idea of what that crisis was.

If the spread of Athapaskans out of the North was a sort of Big Bang, Mount Churchill was the centre of the universe. The fourth-highest volcano in the United States, it presides over Alaska’s Wrangell volcanic field, amply demonstrating its authority. During the past 2,000 years Mount Churchill has blown its top in two of the most powerful eruptions on the continent. Its summit collapsed from the force of the explosions. Some 50 cubic kilometres of ash were ejected – 50 times the volume released by Mount St. Helens. Cinders smothered much of the North. 

Today, just below the topsoil, a grey blanket – the White River Ash -– is visible 60 centimetres thick in the ditches that line the Alaska Highway. “Closer to the vent,” says Greg Hare, “the ash is up to seven feet thick. Imagine everything covered with powdered glass. People and animals around Snag, Yukon would have been killed, and those on the periphery were displaced. There are even traces of the ash in the NWT.” 

The first and smaller of Churchill’s eruptions occurred 1,900 years ago. Spewing molten lava through populated valleys, its plumes delivered ash over 400 kilometers to the north. Then, 1,250 years ago, there was an even bigger blast, which obliterated the landscape to the east, stretching its leavings over 800 kilometres. In the wake of these catastrophes, the fallout-zones would have become virtually uninhabitable. 

With uncanny precision, the timing of these eruptions matches evidence of Dene migration: the radical switch in weapon-technology in the Yukon, and the remarkable appearance of Dene moccasins in north-central Utah. The conclusion: The Churchill eruption caused a massive Dene exodus. 

When Jack Ives, a 56-year-old professor of Northern Plains archaeology, heard about the collection of moccasins in Utah, he knew there had to be a tie to the Athapaskan migration he’d been studying.

At the time the provincial archaeologist in Alberta, Ives confirmed that the ancient footwear was made in the unmistakable style of the Canadian Subarctic. A characteristic T-seam in the back, a sole made from a single piece that folds up and gathers at the rounded toe – even the beading and the quill-work were of a signature Northern design. 

If the Churchill eruption is what set these people walking south in their moccasins, admits Ives, they needn’t have travelled so far to avoid the perils of volcanoes. “There was a pull as well as a push,” he says. “The plains world was very attractive. Bison hunting offered tremendous freedom. You would have a surplus of bison products that you could then trade with agricultural societies and other Puebloan people.”

While Ives emphasizes that the data really does support the White River Ash incident – the Big Bang theory – as the genetic and geographic origin of the Navajo and Apache, he doesn’t feel this conflicts with southern-based aboriginal origin myths. “In some sense, the Navajo never existed before they were in the plains,” he says. “When the people combined with their new environment, a culture formed, and this was the birth of the Navajo.”

When Clayton Long set out from Utah for Northern Canada with his Navajo pupils, he was not searching for his origins. But the staff at the Yukon Native Language Centre told him about the research on the ice-patches, and the theorized link to Mount Churchill. They said, “This is the mountain you lived near,” he says. “This is why you left.” 

Suddenly, to Long, the link between the Dene and the Diné made sense. Before his mind’s eye, the bubbling lava flowed through an ash-covered landscape – a sort of nuclear winter. The legends of his Navajo childhood, he realized, spoke of angry mountains. Though the majestic ranges in America’s Southwest posed no threat, his people calmed the peaks with offerings of tobacco. Clearly, after coming so far – across a whole continent, walking in mocassins – they had retained their memories of the North.