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James Bay Cree: Hunting as Way of Life and Death

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James Bay Cree Indians are one of the few nations in North America that still rely on traditional hunting and fishing for sustenance. Over the past several decades, their ancient way of living has been jeopardized by large-scale hydroelectric projects; since the 1970s, they have been fighting legal battles to prevent damage to their ancestral lands, and to get compensation for the flooding of thousands of acres of their sub-Arctic forests.

In order to understand the struggles of today’s Cree Indians, it is important to look at their history and traditions. For centuries, their entire existence has been centered on Mother Earth and Her generosity. When Europeans came three hundred ago, they brought with them technology and innovation, but they also brought confusion and ignorance. In the words of a Cree elder, “the land was there long before we were born. It was like this for the people who came before us. God made the Earth before he created humans. He also made what we needed to live on, for the good of our health and for our children.” Hunting is essential to the Cree tradition. It stands for a lot more than putting food on the table—it is a part of their worldview, their identity, and their religious beliefs. “In Northern Quebec the Cree Indians still live primarily by the traditional methods of hunting, fishing and trapping,” writes Jace Weaver, Director of University of Georgia’s Institute of Native American Studies, in his introduction to Margaret Sam-Cromarty’s article Will James Bay Be Only A Memory For My Grandchildren?. “They follow a spiritual way of life designed to balance their own needs with those of the animals on which they depend. They are merely fellow creatures, predators like the wolf, who must kill in order to survive.”

In “Burbot of the La Grande River”, Sam-Cromarty (James Bay Cree) expresses that viewpoint in a poem:

Burbot is a freshwater fish,

My mother told me.

It’s very good,

This river cod.

The river cod,

So excellent in taste,

This rich fish is my fondest memory

Of my tradition.

They call it progress.

All the same time,

We voice our concern

About the river cod.

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It’s full of mercury,

They said.

I try not to cry.

“We Crees still have the old ways in us,” Sam-Cromarty wrote. “We still do things the way our ancestors did. So we Crees of today really aren’t too much different from those of before. We are supposed to be more ‘civilized’ and ‘educated’, but weren’t we so before the White man came? Maybe not in his ways but in ours.”

In the Cree tradition, Mother Earth, animals, plants, and natural phenomena are all live beings that possess a consciousness, a free will, and habits. According to Boyce Richardson [Strangers Devour the Land], animals, plants, and natural forces are, “personalized in the Cree mind and are spoken of in the Cree language in the personal form.” To Cree hunters, the ability to communicate with animals and spirits is a practical skill that is necessary for their everyday survival, much like computer proficiency is essential for an office worker.

Because animals are seen as intelligent beings, the relationship between them and the hunters is based on mutual responsibility. The Cree have come up with a regulatory system that ensures intelligent consumption of natural resources. This system is interwoven with the Cree spiritual beliefs, yet at the same time it is distinctly practical: as long as people use nature’s gifts wisely and don’t get too greedy, Mother Earth will continue to provide for. In the Cree culture, “pragmatic” and “spiritual” are two sides of the same coin.

“The Cree are efficient enough at hunting that they could deplete the game,” writes Harvey A Feit, Professor Emeritus at McMaster University whose research has been used in courts to defend the interests of James Bay Cree Indians, in his article Hunting and the Quest of Power: The James Bay Cree and Whitemen in the 20th Century. “All the land on which they hunt is divided into territories that are under the stewardship of elders.” While land and resources are owned communally, stewards exercise authority over their territories, “in the name of the community and the common interest.” The steward's authority is “spiritually sanctioned, thus obligating him to protect and share the resources.”

Cree hunters believe that human willpower and skills alone are not enough for the hunt to be successful. Animals have to “agree” to be killed. “When a bear den is found in winter, a hunter will address the bear and tell it to come out,” Feit writes. “And bears do awake, come out of their dens sluggishly, and get killed. That such a powerful, intelligent, and potentially dangerous animal can be so docile is significant for the Cree.”

The relationship between humans and animals is treated like a contract: hunters are expected to respect the animals and never kill more than they need, and animals are expected to continuously give some of their lives to feed the people. If humans overhunt, the animals get "mad" and “have fewer young or make signs of their presence harder to find.” Unlike “civilized” men, who tend to ignore nature’s warning signs--such as the fast-paced loss of biodiversity or an alarming rate of pollution-related health issues-- Cree hunters take hints from the nature. When they notice signs of animals being “mad” at people, they realize that the animals are expressing their “wish to give fewer of themselves, and, out of reciprocal respect, the hunters will take less.”

Just as animals are “like persons”, so are natural phenomena: wind, water, as well as God and various spirits. The Cree believe that the world is “volitional,” and the perceived order in the world is not a, “natural law but rather like the habitual behavior of persons,” Feit writes. “It is possible to know what will happen before it does occur, because it is habitual. But there is also a fundamental unpredictability in the world as well: habits make action likely, not certain… The world of personal action is therefore a world neither of mechanistic determination nor of random chance: it is a world of intelligent order, but a very complex order, and one not always knowable by men. The Cree world of complex interrelationships is analogous to that of some ecological scientists, although the scientists use an organic rather than a personal metaphor.”

The Cree concept of hunting, “links intimately with basic Cree attitudes toward human life itself. The life and ultimate death of both the hunted and the hunters are as enigmatic for the Cree as they are for us,” Feit writes. “That humans should have to kill animals to feed themselves and their families in order to live and that humans themselves all die are fundamentally mysterious features of life. Both animals and humans participate in the mystery of death, and Cree symbols of hunting elaborate the mystery and bring the wonder of life and death into the world of everyday meanings… Hunting is not just a central activity of the Cree, nor is it simply a science or a formal ritual. Hunting is an ongoing experience of truth as power.”

At the time of first known contact between American Indians and Europeans, European culture and their predominant religious views were very different from those of Native Americans, and he colonists’ understanding of ecosystems was beyond primitive. According to Feit, fur traders and missionaries were present in the area since the mid-17th century, but the Quebec government didn’t interfere with the Cree until the late 1920s, when it “responded to requests to help solve the crisis created by white trappers.”

In the 1950s, the government sought to “open the North,” which led to “expansion of the rail and road networks” into the Cree territory, Feit writes. It was then that hunters reported significant negative effects of the industrial development on their traditional lifestyle. They successfully petitioned the government to cease the spraying of the roadway shrubs with harmful chemicals, as moose and other game started dying from eating the poisoned shrubs, and it became unsafe for people to eat the meat of the animals they hunted. The Cree reported, “frequent finds of dead fish and aquatic animals and changes in the tastes of the animals over large areas” due to “pollution from the mine waste waters.”

As a result of the industrial development, the Cree social structure was disrupted as well. Due to a decline in food supplies coming from hunting and fishing, the Cree hunters were forced to seek part-time employment with Canadian companies.

In 1971, the government of Quebec announced plans for hydroelectric development in the James Bay region. Nobody consulted with the Cree when making that decision, and they had to resort to legal action. In 1973, the Quebec Association of Indians won a court injunction. It was ruled, according to Feit, that “the Cree and Inuit people did appear to have an Indian title to the land; that they had been occupying and using the land to a full extent; that hunting was still of great importance, constituted a way of life, and provided a portion of their diet and incomes; that they had a unique concept of the land; that they wished to continue their way of life; that any interference with their use compromised their very existence as a people; and that the project was already causing much interference.”

Seven days later, the injunction was over-ruled by the Quebec Court of Appeal, and for the next two years, Cree Indians were in constant negotiations with the Quebec government. In 1975, they signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). According to Feit, the agreement, although it didn’t halt construction, “enhanced the perceived viability of hunting as a way of life,” and the number of traditional hunters started to grow again.

The first phase of James Bay Project was completed in 1986, and in the same year, the Quebec government announced plans for the Grande-Baleine hydroelectric project, that called for the construction of several new power plants and the flooding of about 1,700 square kilometers of land. In 1994, following protests by Cree Indians and international environmentalists, the Grande-Baleine hydroelectric project was abandoned.

In 2002, the Cree and the Government of Quebec signed the Agreement Concerning a New Relationship, also known as Paix des Braves, approving the completion of James Bay Project. The most recent legal development goes back to 2004, when, according to the Grand Council of the Crees website, the government of Canada and the Grand Council of the Crees signed a Statement of Intention, “to begin an out-of-court process demonstrating a mutual commitment to settling issues through meaningful discussion rather than through the courts.”

Today, everybody seems to agree that industrial development of the region over the past few decades has gravely damaged its ecosystem. “Civilization” is here, with all its good, bad and ugly. In the face of contemporary economic and environmental challenges, both Cree Indians and the descendants of the European colonists can--and should--learn from the “Native ways.” Whether we realize it or not, we are all children of Mother Earth.