There are many ways to think about the lessons we can learn from the land. I think it’s wise that we always remember how vast, how big the land is, how the land not just feeds us but how, if we’re not careful, it will, like a Wihtigo, swallow us whole. The land is our mother, our nurturer. But the land is just as much our torturer. It can even be our executioner if we take it too lightly. The Cree of Mushkegowuk know this lesson all to well.
Tonight, I want to explore the landscape of our country with you. Tonight, in part, I want to explore the bigger landscape that is Canada. Specifically, I need to talk about the conversation that has consumed the whole land that is our country regarding Mushkegowuk, regarding Attawapiskat in particular.
I need to do this because this conversation is not just about Attawapiskat. It’s about Fort Albany, it’s about Kashechewan, and Peawanuck, and Moose Factory. It’s about Chisassibi and Kahnawake and Burnt Church out east, it’s about Wausauksing and Beausoleil and Rama down south, it’s about Kittimat and Red Pheasant and Ahousat out west. It’s about Iqualit and Nain and Cambridge Bay up north. It’s about all of our reserves. It’s about all of us. There’s a big conversation going on in this country about our First People, about our land, and so I will talk tonight about that dialogue, in the hope that there are lessons from the bigger land to learn. But don’t worry. I’ll try to make it fun.
READ JOSEPH AND AMANDA BOYDEN’S REPORT FROM THE GREAT MOON GATHERING AND THE REFLECTIONS OF SOME OF ITS PARTICIPANTS:
But I don’t only want to talk about lessons from the bigger land that is Canada. I’m here, in one of the most special places on our planet, to talk about lessons from the land of Mushkegowuk, too.
I can already here some of you saying, jushstuck! Aah gijisk! But don’t judge me too quickly. When a man falls in love with a land, it’s powerful. So tonight I’m also going to share some lessons I’ve learned from my time here in Mushkegowuk, from my 20 years visiting your land, from becoming, over this time, a part of your land.
I’ve decided to divide this brief address into three acts, because I’m told that this is the classy thing to do. It makes me sound smart, like I know what I’m talking about.
So now, I’m going to share with you some statements from Canadians all across this land that I’ve been collecting the last months. These statements that I’ve heard come from many different sources. All right, fine, I’ll admit it. They mostly come from the Internet. Please, feel free, if you agree with any of these statements, to clap or whistle or hoot and holler or stomp your feet. And please, if you disagree, feel free to show your displeasure by booing, hissing, general catcalling, or throwing things at me. Most of these statements are simple. Some are factual. Some are opinion.
Some lessons from the land that is Canada:
- Mushkegowuk is the homeland of the Cree.
- Mushkegowuk is some of the most beautiful country in Canada.
- Mushkegowuk is rich, really rich, in natural resources.
- James Bay is a desolate hellhole.
- The Cree of James Bay aren’t equipped for modern living.
- Isolated reserves such as those found on the west coast of James Bay are impossible to maintain. We must relocate the people on these reserves to the South, closer to urban centers.
Some pretty starkly different opinions. But you know what I’m discovering the more and more I dig around and try to figure stuff out? The opinions that sound most absurd are made by the people who have no idea whatsoever who the Cree are. They have no understanding of the bond the Cree have to their land. They have no idea of the rich culture that, despite the best efforts of past, dead institutions like Saint Anne’s, is intact because that culture is a part of you. Is you.
LOOK AT ANDREW TOLSON’S PHOTOGRAPHY FROM THE GREAT MOON GATHERING:
Now, here’s a lesson from the land that is Mushkegowuk:
I once remember a Cree elder praying over his food before eating, and I asked if he was Christian. “Yes, and no,” he said. “The Christian in me…” he said, “prays only to God in thanks. But the Indian in me prays to all the animal in thanks.” And then he told me the following story, and it was like that light bulb in cartoons turning on above my head. Suddenly, I saw the world in a way I hadn’t known existed before. It’s a simple story, but the best ones usually are.
Me and that elder talked about how Christianity is, in some ways, very similar to the aboriginal spiritual world. Take care of one another, share, live life well for it is a gift given to us from the Creator, do not steal. But in some ways, Christianity and the sacred teachings of the Cree, and your cousins, the Ojibwe, are not more opposite.
This is the example the elder shared with me: In the Christian worldview, God created all of the animals, the lakes and rivers and oceans, the forests, the mountains and valleys and then, last but certainly not least, He created man. And man was put on this Earth as the ruler of it, as the boss. The animals, the plants, the trees, all of the flora and fauna were his to do with what he pleased. The Earth is God’s gift to man, and man wanders it as its ruler. God put the animals on the planet for us to eat and make clothing from, He created rivers and lakes and oceans for us to travel on and to harvest food from and even to dump our waste into. He gave us trees to use for heat and for building material. There certainly is an order to the animal kingdom in Christianity, and man rules the roost.
In the Cree spiritual world, though, our place in it is seen a little differently. Two simple questions, the elder told me, must be asked. First, what do we humans need of the physical world in order to survive? An easy question, right? We need the animals for food and for clothing, we need trees for heat and for shelter, we need water for thirst, we need the animals that live in the water for sustenance, we need the soil to grow vegetables, we even need the simplest rock for a multitude of purposes. The list goes on and on and on.
But the more interesting question is this: what in the physical world needs humans to survive? Think about it. Even domesticated animals easily turn back into the wild again. Do moose need us? Do pickerel or pike or sturgeon? Do trees or grass or dirt or rocks? Of course not. Let’s just put it this way. The physical world doesn’t need humans at all in order to thrive. In fact, it would probably do better without us around!
And so how, the Old School Cree asked, can we consider ourselves at the top of the animal kingdom, the masters of the Earth? Are we really at the top of the totem pole, to use a wonderfully wrongheaded saying? Of course not. We are actually at the bottom. Yes, I can feel certain people shuddering at the thought. Nothing on the land needs us for its survival, but we need everything, from the atomic particle level up.
And so this is why the elder leaned over his plate of food and thanked it. The animal and the plants on his plate in front of him had given themselves, willingly, in order that he might survive. Because everything, the elder believes, contains a spirit; and the animals sometimes give themselves to us willingly so that we humans might continue to survive. A simple whisper of thanks is the least we can offer in return.
One more brief lesson from the land, from Mushkegowuk:
The one person who’s taught me the most about the bush and the water of Mushkegowuk is William Tozer. You might remember him as that crazy Cree pilot from Moosonee who did the pop and chip runs up this way so many years ago. William, he’s smarter than he looks.
William told me a story about how when Tembek and the other logging companies come to Mushkegowuk, he watches how they clear cut big swaths of land. Really big swaths. As you know, you can’t go far in this country without hitting a river or pond or stream, but clear–cutting is called clear-cutting for a reason, and it can jump over ponds and streams and rivers like an angry giant with a very sharp scythe. There’s not much left after the clear-cutter comes through, including a habitat for the animals who once lived there. And so the animals—moose, marten, black bear, wolf, fox, lynx, hare, beaver, to name a few, most all these animals are forced to leave, to move on to another place where trees, where life grows.
But it’s the beavers that William is most interested in. The literal beavers, I mean. He’s watched over the years how whole families of beavers will be forced from their pond—their land—once the clear-cutters have come through, and now that their food and their building materials have been wiped out. But William has watched how, as soon as it’s viable, it’s the beavers who begin to come back home, how their water is like a magnet to them. They will often be the first to begin re-populating these swaths of clear-cut land. They signal when it is OK to return.
To end Act 1, I want to share with you that because I write about you, people down south often ask me, “Who are the Cree?” And I tell them, “Go north. The Cree people typically don’t bite. Find out for yourself.”
ACT 2 (Don’t worry. It’s a short one.)
Again, let’s look at some of the lessons from the bigger land that is Canada.
Here are a few more statements I’ve come across in the last months. Again, please feel free to show your agreement or disagreement. Feel free to show it as loudly as you can:
- The Cree of James Bay shouldn’t directly profit from the natural resources found in their territory.
- The Cree of James Bay shouldn’t benefit from the resources of their land because they will mismanage the profits.
- Clearly, third party management is the only solution.
- The most sensible route for the people is for the people to have control of the decisions that directly affect them.
- The Indian Act is a 19th century relic and needs to be re-imagined for the 21st Century.
- Profits from natural resources extracted from traditional First Nation lands must be fairly shared with First Nation peoples.
Do you begin to sense the two sides of the argument, how the argument has been framed? Can you even believe that the argument still exists?
Here’s a lesson from the land that is Mushkegowuk:
My friend William has been trapping marten all winter. One day in early January, he began to notice that a number of his marten traps had been destroyed and their contents eaten by some sort of powerful animal. It was strong as a bear, managing to pull traps right off the trees, traps hammered on by four inch spikes. But clearly, it wasn’t a bear. And a fisher wasn’t powerful enough to do this. Soon, when he identified the tracks, it dawned on William. A wolverine had come into his territory.
About that time, stories began to circulate about this wolverine. Another trapper had actually snared the wolverine but it somehow managed to fight its way out despite nearly severing its own head, cutting itself to the windpipe. And then, a few days later, the conductor on the Little Bear surprised this wolverine and the animal, not having seen a train before, ran down the tracks to try and escape it. But the train caught up and hit the wolverine so that it flew into the bush. He survived this, too, scampering away into the forest.
And, so, the wolverine kept destroying William’s traps, devouring the marten. For a month, William tracked it and set conabear traps for it, and for a month, the wolverine tried to heal from its wounds and kept escaping the wily William. But finally, its luck ran out. William and his son Ben finally managed to snare the animal. They found it, still alive, in a conabear trap one morning. Knowing how ferocious the animal was, they didn’t want to get near enough to club it, so Ben shot it in the neck to try and put it out of its misery. Once he did that, Ben approached the wolverine, now lying on its back, and poked it with a stick. The wolverine flew into a rage, managing to grab the stick in his paws and pulling it from Ben’s hands. That’s when William walked up, and finally ended the mighty struggle with one more bullet.
That’s a true story. And the lesson here? That’s an easy one. You got to be tough to live in Mushkegowuk. And wolverines are nicknamed demon bears for a reason.
To end Act 2, I want to share with you that when people down south ask me who the Cree are, and I tell them to head up north and find out for themselves, they typically don’t listen to me. So I tell these people, “If you’re not going to go up there and find out for yourself, then go and read my books.”
Once more, let’s look at lessons form the bigger land that is Canada. As always please feel free to show either your pleasure or displeasure.
- First Nation children are the fastest growing population in Canada.
- Aboriginal education initiatives are absolutely vital for the long-term economic future of our country (Drummond report).
- The Drummond report implores the government to spend more money in only one area—aboriginal education—because too many First Nation children live on reserves without proper schools.
These next two statements I’ve paired together because they seem to be the yin and yang of so much debate in Canada. They constitute the two sides of things. One is opinion, and the other is fact. Let’s see if you can figure out which is which:
- I’m sick of my hard-earned tax dollars being poured into the bottomless pit that are Canadian reserves. I mean, haven’t we given enough handouts?
- First Nation children, on a national level, are funded 2-3,000 dollars less per student than non-native kids. In Ontario, the ratio of funding native children versus non-native children is often half.
When the situation in Attawapiskat first started making news, I followed closely. After all, James Bay is very dear to me, has become a part of my heart. And I was shocked by the hatred, the anger, the sheer ignorance and racism that began to bubble up in the comments sections of all of our newspapers. At first, I was angry, and so I waded into these comments sections and tried to correct the misunderstandings, the vitriol, the sheer lies. But like a kid trying to swim up the Albany River, the sheer volume of hatred quickly overwhelmed me. That anger turned to sadness, even depression. Do so many Canadians really believe the lies blossoming in these comments sections like black mould? Do Canadians not understand that the Cree of Mushkegowuk helped build and define our nation, that the fur trade that made Canada a country was built on your strong backs?
I’ve been thinking pretty hard about all of this. And when I was sick of all of the hatred spewing like a broken sewer out of the comments sections of newspapers, I walked away from them because it finally dawned on me that the people making these comments are a minority, and they are a bunch of chickens who won’t even use their real names, who hide behind fake ones. When you’re faced with such blind hatred, you have to just walk away.
And that’s when I began talking to other people, and I quickly found out that hatred and racism isn’t in control. There are actually a lot of people in Canada who care. A lot of people. People who are newly immigrated to this country, people who live in cities, or who live in suburbs, or in the country. I’ve found people who care who have lived in Canada all their lives, people whose families go back generations. And certainly, the people who care have always been here.
Now, on last lesson from the land that is Mushkegowuk:
Earlier this winter, William had a number of youth out on the land with him, teaching them how to hunt. They came across a cow moose with her calf. William decided to harvest the calf to feed the youth who were with him. But he didn’t want to shoot the cow, who he knew was pregnant. William explained to the youth where to aim, just behind the shoulder. Then he shot, and killed the calf. But rather than running, the cow stood her ground and tried to defend her child. Every time William tried to approach, the cow flattened her ears and charged him. Finally, William aimed at the cow and fired a shot just over hear head to try and scare her away. Even then, after a bullet cracked over her head, the cow wouldn’t leave.
Finally, exhausted, the cow wandered into the bush just far enough for William and the youth to load up the calf into his sleigh and they took off on their snowmobiles. The mother moose returned a short time after and wandered up and down, searching for her calf. A mother’s instincts are that strong.
That night, William admitted to being a little spooked by the mother’s behaviour. In the middle of the night, he had to pee. Normally, he’d walk a respectful distance from his door, but that night, images of the mother moose, waiting in the darkness, her ears flattened, waiting for vengeance, made him decide to go right there, off the step of his camp.
Look how many of us have gathered here tonight because we care. I haven’t seen so many visitors to Fort Albany since Blue Rodeo came here that one summer! We’ve got people from Peawanuck to Attawapiskat, to Kash, to Moosonee, Moose Factory, Toronto, Winnipeg, New Orleans, Gabriola Island. People everywhere care. We even have this group of guys, some band called the Tragically Hip here tonight, who came because they care. We care about our First Nations. We care about the original people. Most importantly, we gather at the Great Moon Gathering, despite what the haters would have the country believe, because we love and care for our children and our children’s education, whether that education happens in the bush, in the sweatlodge, in the home, or in the classroom. We care.
People often ask me who the Cree of James Bay are. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Why do they bother asking me? Why don’t they just go ask a Cree?
Do you want me to tell you who I think the Cree are? This is who I believe you are:
You are elders who build a raft with the youth and every spring you float down the Albany River. You are Shannen’s Dream and Shabotowan. You are Louis Bird’s stories, and you are his smile. You are a fire in the snow that warms the feet and hands. You’re a kid with a runny nose eating a bag of chips as you walk to school. You are a people of the water. You are moose hunters. You are expert goose callers. You are the seasons: snowshoes and freighter canoes, spring snowflakes and levee breaks. You are that elder who deeply understands your place in nature, that you are not the master of the world but just a part of it. You are the beaver that always knows when it’s safe to come back home. You are that tough wolverine that refuses to go down. You are that moose who won’t leave her young. Or her home.
Two more quick statements: feel free to clap and cheer, or boo and hiss.
- The Tragically Hip rule!
- Joseph Boyden is the most handsome and talented writer in the whole wide world.