Ever since I was a kid, I have followed in my mind the migrations of the American Indians from their land of origin in eastern Asia (Columbus was almost right to call them Indians), across the Bering Straits into Alaska and Canada, continuing all the way down to the tip of South America. This was generally thought to have happened twelve to 15,000 years ago. Aggressive research at the end of the 20th century, however, has called some of these assumptions into question. There have been demonstrations of human presence on these pristine continents well before the Bering Strait migrations. Still, clashing professional points of view on these speculations have led most natural history and American Indian museums to hold with the northern route as the primary avenue for the opening of the Americas to human habitation.
Never in my youthful matinee days did I see a movie about this monumental human adventure. Unlike the temperate though equally bold migrations of the Polynesians up from the Southwest Pacific, the Indians followed the receding lines of the last ice age through cold and forbidding territories. The most evocative fiction I have found on this trek is the lead volume in the “First Americans” series, called People of the Wolf (1990), by W. Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear. It has all the ingredients for an epic movie except roles for high profile Hollywood actors. The Gears have generated a full bookshelf of novels imagining the lives of people in the Americas before the coming of Columbus. Somebody ought to make them into movies.
Legend has it that these two-legged humans were following four-legged mammals, notably mammoths and mastodons, into uncharted lands. The 20th century has given us a few movies that picture these realms of snow and ice, and their native people as they are today. The classic among these is the semi-documentary, Nanook of the North (1922). For a stronger storyline, there is The Silent Enemy (1930), filmed in northern Canada. A more recent and more respected treatment of the tribes of the north is The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (2002). Each of these films was made with an entirely indigenous cast. See also the documentary, Reel Injun (2009) for an update on the making of The Fast Runner, and an ironic view of Indians in the movies.
Note on the photo above: I took this from an airplane somewhere northeast of Canada and pasted in the only mammoth picture I had. It is a shorthaired Columbian Mammoth from Lubbock, Texas, probably not right for this far north. Imagine her with a woolly coat.