We Crees have maintained a strong cultural and unshakable ecological and spiritual values derived from our thousands of years as hunters in the boreal forest of northern Quebec.
History of the region prior to the arrival of Europeans
– Following a period of deglaciation, most of Eeyou Istchee became habitable 6,000 years ago with temperatures much higher than they are today.
– The oldest dated human settlement was 5,500 years ago near the Rupert River dam.
– “Muskimu” (broth made with bones) was the main drink before the emergence of tea.
– From 2,000 to 1,600 years ago, there was active settlement of Eeyou Istchee
– 1,600 years ago, long houses with a spruce-pole framework, known as “shaputuan” made their appearance. This a Cree and Innu word meaning “crossing” a reference to the presence of doors at either end of the long house. Today, it is still a powerful Cree symbol representing the sacred sharing of food.
The fur-trading era
The fur trade is one of the great epics of North American history. Since the 17th century, the Cree of Eeyou Istchee have experienced three forms of invasion, from: fur traders, missionaries, and government (both federal and provincial).
Initial contacts with Europeans in the 17th century marked the beginning of a saga that is still going on today, namely, the story of the fur trade. Similarly to the development of major hydro-electric projects in Eeyou Istchee in the late 20th century, Europeans’ insatiable appetite for fur (at first, felt hats and, later, fur pelts) had a direct impact on the daily life of thousands of Cree east of James Bay well into the 20th century without, however, compromising (even today) the very essence of Cree culture. 11
« Unlike other places, in James bay, European methods never flourished and Europeans continued to be bounded by the hunter’s work and, increasingly, the hunter’s words…the larger history of contact between natives and Europeans illustrates how dramatically European work and words reshaped the Native world…whereas in other places periods of negociation lasted only a generation or two, in James Bay they were much longer, which is rare if not unique. »1
Cree trappers, hunters and tallymen
Hunting and trapping are at the heart of Cree identity. Winter is trapping season. Traditionally, in mid-winter, the Cree travel by snowshoe and sled before snow cover begins to melt. In spring, they are stationary as they wait for the thaw to use their canoes. In summer, the main activities are fishing and social interaction.
From their social structure of the 19th century, we learn the following facts about the Cree. They lived in local groups under a single leader. On average, groups consisted of 7.5 hunters and their families. Families were made up of patriarchs, who were mature polygamous hunters and owners of a hunting territory (“natuhuwucimaw”).
Three Cree beliefs:
– It is the animals, not people, who control the success of the hunt
– Hunters and fishers have obligations to show respect to the animals to ensure a productive hunt
– Continued proper use is necessary for maintaining production of animals
The most important animal for Cree hunters is the bear. Respect for the animal is displayed through platforms featuring its bones or by hanging its head from a tree (ceremonial pole).
The space inside the tents created continuity as a family or families moved over the land. Outside space varied while inside space did not. Inside space was considered personal space, while outside space contained the world of interaction and relationships. Inside the tents, it was common practice to yield part of the food to the fire with tobacco. Large feasts were held – along with drumming and chanting – following successful hunts for big game.
The customary practices of the trappers are called “Eeyou Indoh-hoh Weeshou-Wehwun.” Tallymen guard the territory (hunting leaders) and are known as “Kaanoowapmaakin.” As in the case of reindeer herders among the Sami, tallymen are a fundamental part of Cree culture and represent potential tourism ambassadors and operators.