How Cultures Remember: Traditions of the James Bay Cree and of Canadian Quakers

How Cultures Remember: Traditions of the James Bay Cree and of Canadian Quakers

Richard J. Preston, McMaster University

In almost four decades of listening, recording, thinking and writing about Cree tradition, the sense I have reached is that I have an appreciation for a large number of stories, and have touched on a wealth of thought, an ethics of living in the subarctic bush, and expressions of a spiritual integrity. It has been a privileged experience, and I am grateful. So what’s my problem? I believe that, for all that, I still have a too-superficial grasp of just what a tradition is and how it works.


How could I possibly know that my grasp is too superficial? There are good reasons, and here are three of them:

First, because my Cree mentors (like people everywhere, including you and me) knew more than what they actually said. At the end of the sixth summer of recording, John Blackned said that he thought he had told me all the stories he was sure he could remember correctly, and he didn’t want to tell me things he was not sure of himself.

Second, John knew more than he was consciously aware of at that particular time and place. Years later, when I asked John if he thought it would be appropriate to use a particular story to start a book of Cree history, he said he thought I could do it that way, and after a moment, said, “There’s a part of that story I didn’t tell you. Then he started in as if he had just finished the last sentence of what he had told me years before. A different situation makes for a different recollection.

Third, I know my grasp is too superficial by comparison to my grasp of another tradition that I am a part of. I am a Friend—that is, a Quaker. For that matter, I am a Quaker old man, with a few stories of my own. Like Cree stories, Quaker stories express a wealth of thought, an ethics of living, and a spiritual integrity. I only know a small part of the stories that go with my tradition, but my experience of Quaker tradition goes well beyond stories, into belonging and acting within a community, and both conscious and habitual (out-of-consciousness) guidance ideals for the actual intentions and actions in my daily life. Don’t get worried, I don’t want to scare you with religion. I just want to use the Quaker comparison to make the point that, from my own experience, I know that John Blackned’s experience of his tradition went far beyond the stories he told me.

So why do I want to know more about what a tradition is and how it works? Well, because its pretty basic to my profession, and I think this is probably true for most of us. We describe and analyse or interpret aspects of Algonquian traditions. Understanding, in general and abstract terms, the dynamics of persistence, loss, and transformations of a tradition is still a problem for most of us, with the possible exception of the historical linguists. We have a pretty good grasp of the elements, but not of the actual processes. Borrowing a useful metaphor from Northrop Frye (1957), we can do the anatomy of a tradition, but not the physiology.


The Cree data variously show continuity, non-structural changes, transformation, dormancy and loss of tradition. Discerning these processes to see evidence of underlying form is a difficult task.

We have an example of resurgence of oral tradition at Attawapiskat. At the time of Honigmann’s sojourn in 1947-1948 and 1955, people claimed to remember very little and to regard these traditions as suspect, because they expressed what was believed during a period of time prior to the coming of Catholicism. Yet when John Long and Norm Wesley inquired during the 1980’s, people seemed to have re-remembered a great deal.

In a curious parallel from Waswanipi in the late 1990’s, we find a kind of generation gap, where middle-aged people claim to know little of the past, yet the children seem to share the older people’s open interest and knowledge of tradition. There may sometimes be something like a gender gap, too. Harvey Feit told me of hearing that at Waswanipi, women were recovering knowledge of traditional medicines they had forgotten. It was possible because when they wanted to find out, “the men told them”.

At Moose Factory, after a lapse of several decades, there was a revival in the 1980’s of the walking out ceremony, because Randy Kapashesit and others wanted their children to have this experience.

Tradition can go dormant, and sometimes become revived. People may look more deeply into their memories, actions and spiritual integrity. Words once believed to be lost can again come to mind, as if they had been there all along.

There is also a specific trigger to my present concern. At the 26th Algonquian Conference, George Fulford told us of a Cree young boy’s drawing of his camping experience that seemed to show cognizance of traditional persons and events that are recounted in a 'Trickster steals fire' story that the boy may never have heard (1995: 100-102). Terry was a Grade 4 student and a Ninja turtles fan, but in this drawing was playing adroitly with an idiom of Cree tradition. This got my attention, and held it. In three compact pages, George posited a unity of lived experience and oral tradition that deserves a much more full exploration, and leads into the theoretical question of what a tradition is and how, and when, and for who, it works.


I wish to re-examine the concept of tradition and to do it by looking at the case of Eastern Cree tradition (Preston 1999), in comparison to Quaker tradition. Why compare Cree tradition to a Christian religion? For a 'traditional' Cree hunter, eating was a holy act, the ground of one’s practical life and one’s spiritual being. Eating was the tangible re-affirmation of the continuing practical and spiritual relations between humans and the animals that give themselves so that humans can live. That’s religious, both in practice and in ethics. For their part, Quakers believe that there is 'that of God' or of the Christ spirit, in every person, and that this quality of spirit may be found by seeking deeply within one’s self and others, and nourished. This is both practice and ethics. So both Cree and Quaker traditions are spiritual.

There are other interesting structural parallels between Cree and Quaker spirituality. Comparable to the Crees, Quakerism is part of the tradition of spiritual mystics (shamans and others), in which people are believed to be able to participate experientially in the prophetic stream of continuing access to truth or discernment.

Perhaps less comparable is the Quaker conviction that prophecy enables a person’s potential, through discernment, to seek to do God's will - witnessing to the world - both inwardly (personal and interpersonal character) and outwardly (healing and correcting the wrongs of the world). Yet Cree shamanism enables a person’s potential to know the intentions, and influence the actions, of other-than-human persons, and enjoins humans to act respectfully and generously towards all persons.

But the practical reason for me to make the comparison is that I know quite a lot about both traditions, and find that the comparison is congenial and productive in many ways. Especially appealing to me is that I can be sure of sustaining a thoughtful and respectful treatment of each by holding it carefully up to the other. It may also be useful for you, since this comparison expands the context for your own comparisons to traditions you are a part of.

The long-term goal, then, is to theorize the general and abstract concept of tradition as a dynamic process, embodied in people, with substantive patterns of contents understood as manifesting an underlying dynamic 'grammar' of cultural form. The content will vary from one situation, individual, or family to another, and one region to another, and may at times change rapidly. The cultural form, in contrast, varies much less and changes much more slowly.


In conceptualizing cultural form I am quite convinced of the necessity to follow Edward Sapir's lead in combining history, culture and personality into a single locus or nexus. In 1994 Judith Irvine published her reconstruction of Sapir’s seminars on The Psychology of Culture, which provides a rich and comprehensive overview, as he saw it in the 1920’s and 30’s (see also Preston 1986). As far as I know, almost no one has followed this up, although I am told that Jean and John Comaroff are now working on the role of 'enchantment' as a personal-level complement to their fine work on the more general level interplay of history and culture (1985). George Fulford, who I have already referred to, above, has used Bettleheims's work on the psychology of enchantment.

Sapir took cultural form to mean historically determined types of organization, not so much known as intuitively felt by the behaving persons we can observe, "...for behavior follows forms, [like a gesture following] a curve pattern that begins and comes definitely to a closure. The closure comes when all the elements contributing to the behavior are present and aid in the end of a set of responses." (Sapir 1994: 104) In the example of speech, the form is sound [e.g.; the English plural (1994:140)], the function is meaning (1994:122). At the far more abstract level of linguistic structure, the forms will exemplify movement towards or away from one of a limited number of types, such as the analytic and synthetic types posited by Sapir (1921, Chapter 6). But he is explicit that cultural forms differ only in degree, not in formal types (Sapir 1994: Chapter 6). In music, examples of form include polyphony and harmony (1994:130); in poetry, the sonnet (1994:131-132).

Gesture, music and poetry are particular domains of culture with alternative and specific forms, But in the overarching domain of culture, what does form consist of? How can we think intelligibly about cultural form? This question continues to boggle my mind, and I ask your help. We have analogies for the genesis of cultural form: Sapir on dialect formation (1921:149-153), on personality ontogenesis (pre-cultural, culture-taking, culture-forgetting, culture changing), and Sapir and others on the processes of symbolic formulation and transformation. What was Sapir thinking when, excited by his reading of gestalt psychology, he aspired to elucidate a geometry of cultural forms? His critique of Jung included some correctives that enabled Sapir to pose parallel 'as-if' psychological characters of cultures within which individuals may find their personality type in either harmony or disharmony (e.g. an extroverted person within an introverted cultural milieu)

This is as far as I am presently able to understand the psychology of cultural forms, and I will not linger further on my struggle to think in terms of general and abstract levels of cultural form as the approach to theorizing tradition. My strategy for the rest of this paper is much more simple and specific; I will ask who, when, what, and how.


Who embodies a tradition?

John Blackned was an exemplar of learning, embodying, and transmitting a tradition. He learned many of the stories as a child, listening to his grandmother, and added many others through his full and long life. He was, by temperament and by hard experience, inclined to acquire things and not to lose them, and he had a nearly indelible memory. He was an excellent mentor. But John's mentoring is only one route to understanding tradition, and each Cree individual has their own path.

Irving (“Pete”) Hallowell had a comparable mentor in Ojibwa Chief William Berens, whose own knowledge was opened by conversations with others while he and Pete travelled up the Berens River in the 1930’s (Hallowell 1991).

Comparing briefly to an Athabascan example, we have another exemplary teacher in Billy Williams, who was Cornelius Osgood’s mentor in trying to reconstruct a Ingalik contact-traditional culture. Williams taught Osgood for long hours each day, and went off in his canoe in the evenings to discuss his subject with his neighbours, to prepare for the next day’s lessons. The result was a three volume set of finely detailed descriptive ethnography. Some years later, when Osgood made a return trip to check some of his writing with Billy, the response was a chuckle. Osgood rather defensively asked if he had understood it so badly, then. But Billy reassured him. “No, its just that I have forgotten most of that stuff, but you have it all written down.”

Does this mean that Billy Williams had, in the space of a few years, let the past go and was really no longer very much a part of his tradition? That seems a poor take on the situation. If a lot of detailed content had passed out of his conscious memory, that seems too weak a reason to decide that Billy no longer embodied a tradition.

For present purposes, I want to let this open our way to examining tradition, not as defined by exemplary traditional individuals, but by looking at a wide range of persons, including some middle-age people who (so they say) know little of Cree tradition themselves, young adults, and children. Knowing a great deal of the content of one's tradition, its stories and skills, makes the basis for a great teacher. But looking across the community, we may have people who don't know many, or even any traditional stories, or who are not even fluent in the language. So where are the boundaries - the limits of people we may consider part of a traditional community? There are nine Cree communities on the east side of James Bay, and they differ in small ways from each other. They all share in a larger, regional tradition, though particular communities may be regarded as more traditional than others.

The approach to answering this question is based partly on my comparison case of Quaker tradition. Quakerism has a history of periodically trying to re-define its boundaries as a traditional faith community, with groups segmenting off from time to time on the basis of objectively rather small differences. These branches do not thereby intend to give up their continuities with their Quaker past, or their identity, but rather to get closer to what they believe to be the main current of the tradition.

A Quaker Meeting community will also show a good deal of individual variation, including some middle-age people who (they say) know little of Quaker tradition themselves, young adults, or children. Still, we are a traditional Quaker Meeting. Our tradition might be transformed into something else if many new people started to attend at about the same time and, instead of enculturating themselves into the Meeting, they developed a consensus to move radically in some other direction, beyond the boundaries of our tradition. Historically, this has happened, but it is fairly rare.

Similarly, the Cree tradition might be transformed by an influx of new people through immigration, marriage, or adoption, if these people did not become enculturated into the community. This was temporarily the case for the community of Winisk (now Peawanuck) when the radar base was constructed there in 1955-1957. But most of the temporary immigrants left in 1957, and the community gradually readjusted. I do not know how deeply or enduringly the community was transformed, but some enduring effects seem likely. Louis Bird would know.

To summarize on the question of who embodies a tradition? The answer seems curiously inclusive and generalized. Both the Crees and the Quakers draw a line around their communities as enduring groups who all, each in their individuality, share in this heritage, as persons in relations defined by a shared tradition. Enculturation is the main process or experience that maintains the traditions shared by these groups.

When are traditions transformed? Persons in relations in history.

The short answer to the 'when' question is that is it constant and normally gradual. Here we are speaking of the cumulative change or 'evolution' of tradition. We can see the continuities and changes in oral tradition from, say, mid-17th century when Jesuit missionaries recorded stories, to early in this century when Robert Bell and Alanson Skinner recorded a presumably-transformed oral tradition from James Bay Cree, to mid-century when John Honigmann, Douglas Ellis and George Bauer recorded some of the same stories, to the recent decades when Louis Bird, George Fulford, John Long and Norm Wesley recorded on the west coast and Sarah and I, and Lucy Turner recorded on the East Coast.

Starting in 1971, Pentecostalism made some difference, but for the most part, like the much earlier fur trade and missionary interventions and narratives, these potential conflicts were incorporated and moderated. At about the same time, Quakers had a New Foundation group developing a more fundamentalist strain, to “stop the drift” of Quakers. But these potential conflicts also were incorporated and moderated. In theory, if we understood the formal processes well enough, we could tentatively project alternative formal possibilities for change to a few decades from now, or even to the mid-21st and late 21st century, and further. But we will shy away from prediction.

We need also to look at the shorter term - changes during an individual's life course. Sapir told us decades ago that the child has learned the rules of his or her culture by the age of four, and subsequent research has supported this view. We know that as people reach older age they normally become more adroit at fashioning meanings with their words.

What are the points of contact of specific persons and history?

This brings us back to George's paper, where "Terry" connects somehow with the "theft of fire" narrative. This is the nexus of the process where a person intuits a feeling of fitness to a "take" on some string of events. This is rarely a purely intellectual process, and often a much more fully physiological one, as for example a poetic, artistic feeling about some experience..., or even the feeling of hair standing on end in an eerie situation. Words come afterwards. While these words then form a text, they arose from a less articulate, esthetic experience.

The short answer is that the points of contact are our intuitive appraisals of

- immediate experience

- memory of own life experience

- stories of others' life experience

How does tradition work in, or through, specific people?

For every person, cultural form allows cultural patterning to be psychologically real but out of consciousness and less than articulated, until brought to conscious thought, and spoken or acted.

Of course, in a sense we know the answer to how tradition works, because we experience tradition working in our day to day experience. But we only know it unconsciously and, through our sense of intuitive fitness, demonstrate it behaviourally. If we are to consciously, intellectually know how tradition works, it will have to come by searching beneath the behavioural covers. But that is next year’s paper.


For a further comparative discussion on tradition (ours and theirs) I enthusiastically recommend, “Reflections on culture, history, and authenticity” (Preston 1999).


Comaroff, John, and Jean Comaroff. 1985. Body of power; spirit of resistance. University of Chicago Press.

Frye, Northrop. 1957. The anatomy of criticism. Princeton University Press.

Fulford, George R. 1995. A structural analysis of Cree children’s drawings - III. Papers of the 26th Algonquian Conference, ed. by David H. Pentland (Winnipeg, University of Manitoba), 85-103.

Hallowell, A. Irving. 1991. The Ojibwa of Berens River, Manitoba: ethnography into history. Edited with a preface and afterword by Jennifer S. H. Brown. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Preston, “ Richard J. 1986. Sapir's Psychology of Culture Prospectus. In, William Cowan, Michael K. Foster and Konrad Koemer, New perspectives on Edward Sapir in language, culture and personality. Proceedings of the Edward Sapir Centenary Conference (Ottawa, 1-3 October 1984). (Philadelphia: John Benjamins), pp. 533-551.

---. 1999. Reflections on culture, history, and authenticity. In. Theorizing the Americanist tradition, edited by Lisa Valentine and Regna Darnell. University of Toronto Press, 150-162.

Sapir, Edward. 1921. Language. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

---. 1994. The psychology of culture. Edited by Judith Irvine. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.