Quebec Cree art embedded in its cultural context

Quebec Cree art embedded in its cultural context. 2012

Richard Preston

McMaster University

Art is universally a cultural idiom of expression. Edward Sapir, thinking outside of the box a century ago, claimed that cultures, and languages, are themselves aesthetic wholes, albeit with leaks (Sapir 1921, 1924; Preston 1986). Genuine cultures, like traditions of classical art, have an inner harmony in their largely unconscious processes, drifting towards some point of poise, and then on towards the next point of poise. In her doctoral dissertation, Cath Oberholtzer described a point of poise in the Cree decorative art of clothing, based on her examination of artifacts in forty-one European museums or collections.

She told us that “East” or Quebec Cree art has historically been indigenous or “embedded symbolism” that is manifested in making and using their material culture (Oberholtzer 1994). To be more specific, Cree art is embedded not only in material objects and oral tradition, but also in actions, and in the designs, materials and skills that precede and guide actions. These symbolic expressions are intended not only, or even primarily for human appreciation, since humans are only part of the great community of persons (Preston 1997). Oberholtzer showed that the beaded hoods and leggings made and worn during the 1600s - 1800s were primarily for the appreciation of the caribou and other animals they were in the act of hunting. We may plausibly say that this decorated clothing was emblematic of a spiritual relation with caribou.

This paper describes and depicts visually the art of clothing of a generalized and idealized hunter of the mid-1800s. In terms of Sapir’s conception of cultural drift, this was a period of cultural fluorescence. Florescence in artistic expression came in parallel with a period of plentiful caribou, and was replaced with periods of hardship, especially hunger and disease. There is a striking contrast with the images of Cree hunters of a few decades later. Here we see men dressed in plain looking European clothing and looking like the proletarians of the northern fur trade. But as Morantz has shown, these people are not simply the product of political-economic oppression. Instead, there are multiple causal processes at work, including medical, ecological, and probably religious reasons for this. The caribou declined to the point of many Cree starvation deaths in the 1890s, and measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever and flu all came at about this time. Our early 20th century images are of people who had recently survived severe hardship.

The point of this paper is to argue that it would be a mistake to generalize this 20th century image of hardship back in time. The collections that Cath Oberholtzer researched and the impressive artifacts that she described came from the preceding decades of successful hunting and relative freedom from diseases and other Eurocanadian influences. Here we can see a very different picture, from very different life circumstances. And we can try to see beyond the artifacts themselves to what they were intended to express. Willett says it nicely:

To dwell upon studies of the tools of production and to fail to make speculations about the underlying strategies for creating a pleasing way of life for the hunters, i.e., the manner in which the tools are used, or to what ends the goods produced will be used, is to leave out the human part of the equation. (Lawrence T. Willett, "Micmac Ideology and Resource-Use" Paper read at the CES Meetings, May 11-13, 1984, p. 11)

Cath helped us to do this by going beyond the artifacts themselves to point to their role in the life of hunting men and their wives. She says,

The hunting and killing of caribou, and especially bears, was marked by rituals denoting this respect. Hunters dressed in beautifully decorated clothing intended to please the animals so that the animals would “give themselves” to the hunters. Distribution of meat followed cultural patterns in which sharing and reciprocity were key elements for existence.”

(Oberholtzer 2012:26)

To put it simply, the hunters wanted to become attractive to the animals they were seeking the tracks of (Flannery and Chambers 1985:7), and so they sang their hunting songs to the caribou (Preston 2002), and clothed themselves accordingly. And the hunters’ wives also dressed attractively, to welcome the animals that their husbands brought in. This “art of the hunter” was embodied in the attitudes and actions of the hunters and their wives.

{begin power point slide show}

We can see this from

1) the hunter’s made-to-order HBCo trade musket,

2) his and his wife’s beaded hoods (O),

3) his coat (O),

4) his and his wife’s beaded leggings, where the notch in the man’s style mimics a caribou’s leg (O),

5) his beaded primer pouch,

6) bullet pouch,

7) powder horn, and

8) the decorations on the tipi. Combined with the hope communicated in his hunting songs to the caribou (CN), we can try to suspend our habitual disbelief to imagine an aesthetic of the hunt that was to appeal to the spirit of the caribou, so that they would make their tracks accessible for the hunt to commence.

What became of this pleasing celebration of the relations between hunters and the animals that were their food is a perplexing question. Why did these artistically beaded artifacts disappear? What we get in the turn of the 20th century period could be the same clothing as we would see on the streets of Lachine or Liverpool.

Was Calvin Martin right, that the failure of the animals to appear and the rash of diseases was seen as a breakdown of the respect relations? Or did John Horden’s replacement of native spiritual practices, including the denial of spiritual relations with animals, with Christian practices make people decide to dress in European fashion? It is really a bit baffling, and Cath does not speak to it in her dissertation. Come to think of it, maybe this change swept all the north in the late 1800s. What else was happening at the time? We know that there were game shortages, religion conversion, repeating rifles, diseases, many more whitemen, and a decline in the fur trade.

And it is only in the later decades of the 20th century that Cree art reappears, mostly depicting animals and the past. [could I show Tim Whiskeychan’s coin design, Harry in his milieu, and or other examples here?]

Creating art, like any other creation, is guided by techne = knowledge and associated bodily motor-control skills = strategies for designing and making things and for using these things for some pre-defined task. So technology does not refer directly to tools and other products of human action; it refers to the strategies for their production and use.

The whole body of lore provides the setting (the oral equivalent of context) for understanding individual stories and re-creating meanings at the level of forms and their relations, allowing authenticity in story-telling. The structure of language and the structure of thought carries individuals beyond their own experience, imbedding experience in deep cultural context.

There are changes as literacy develops or evolves, both gains and losses in the domains of:

- spirituality as a shared, as well as an inward experience,

- techne (the knowledge component of hunting technology) (Ridington 1982),

- poetic uses of language (Toelken 1981; Bringhurst 2002; King 2003),

- selecting context, and critical interpretation: the case of my book (Preston 2002).

Literacy: a record of others’ experience may add to a person’s private experience:

1) a syncretic spiritual domain and the inspiration of syllabic ‘songboards’.

2) hymns, hurtin’ music, pop, and songs of the new traditionalism.

3) tipachiman and television, secularizing stories that incorporate global narratives for understanding and creating meanings.

4) Bilingual and bicultural bases for the social imaginary (Appadurai 1996:161; Taylor 2004).

Ray Spencer did art for art’s sake

Songs were like prayers, arising in dreams and sung to the spirits of animals or rapids or …. And were sung after the process of “listening up” to the drum

John Blackned told stories for reaffirming a world view and ethos……… see my Ch

The skimming spoon was made to be useful and beautiful

The pipe, ditto

Mocs, snowshoes, ……

The toss of the dishcloth onto the drying line in the film CoPH

Oberholzer, Cath

1994 Together We Survive: East Cree Material Culture. Ph.D. dissertation, McMaster University.

Preston, Richard J.

1997 Getting to know the great community of persons. In, D. Pentland (ed.) Papers of the 28th

Conference on Algonquian Studies. University of Manitoba.

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Edward Sapir Centenery Conference (Ottawa, 1-3 October 1984). Philadelphia: John Benjamins. pp. 533-551.

1984 Reflections on Sapir’s Anthropology in Canada. In, Edward Sapir: Appraisals of his Life and

Work. Konrad Koerner (ed. Pp. 179-194. Amsterdam, John Benjamins.

1984 Sapir and Culture. Paper read at the 11th Congress, Canadian Ethnology Society, Montreal.

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1984 Sapir, Sullivan, and Lasswell Collaborations: Real and Imagined. Paper read at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association, Denver.

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Ridington, Robin

1982 "Technology, world View, and Adaptive Strategy in a Northern Hunting Society" Canad. Rev. Soc. & Anth. 19(4).

Sapir, Edward

1921 Language. Harcourt and Brace

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Dick: This is a VERY GOOD PIECE THAT BRINGS TOGETHER MATTERS OF SPIRIT AND TECHNIQUE. It is also a moving tribute to Catherine’s vision of Cree art.

Albert Cheezo, who was in his 80’s in 1976-7, once asked me if I wanted to buy his snowshoes. They were made of tamarack and strung with caribou hide and in the webbing they had two teepees (miichuwap) the one on the front was larger than the one on the back but in both the doors (astikun) surrounded the foot. He asked me if I knew what the design was about and I asked him to tell me. He said that the one behind is the teepee that you leave when you go out hunting and that the one in front was the teepee that you entered when hunting. Both had their rules of behavior (Do you remember the story about the man who is so weak that he survived from his wife’s breast milk?) This was I believe a story about the two universes but one must also ask whether it is a story about the growing disjuncture between the home and the hunt that came along in the 19th century. That story is neither an atiiyokan nor is it a tipajimowin. It occupies that space between the two where Chikabesh and many other characters had also found their place. There are plenty of stories about the connection between the actions of people in the home in cooking, eating, sexual relations, caring for the home and the children and following the rules that bring harmony between the animals and the humans. This story is however different. It deals with disjuncture between the home and the way of life on the land. Is it a tale just about the dangers that life in the home can bring to life on the land or is it a tale of change where there is an acceptance of the two being different?

Christianity was and is a great liberator for many Crees in the 19th and 20th centuries and going into the present. It became a shield against the use of sorcery and it also opened space for a new synchretic model of belief. I think that the following of the older rules presented a crisis in faith when people began to starve because of the failure in the hunt. One wonders how cycles of starvation shaped the deeper tradition. We are now facing a similar down fall of caribou. On the barrens it appears to be a 100 year plus cycle but in the woodlands it seems that the woodland caribou are on the verge of extinction due to excessive lumbering and road construction.

There were many reasons for this ecological and economic failure in the late 19th century and early 20th century, not the least being the increased presence of competition for furs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The HBC lost its monopoly and the increased competition led to a gutting of the HBC market beavering, opening the door to ecological collapse. Colonization of lands to the south led to an influx of market hunters, ex-“Great War” vets looking for a way to make money through use of poison baits and air transport. This sped up the collapse of the hnting lands. The prices of beaver pelts went to $142 (in 1999 dollars [$12 in 1917 dollars]) in 1917 and increased through the 1920’s to $310 in 1928 and peaked at $545 in 1945. Today a large raw beaver pelt sells for $32 (2012 dollars see: ) or roughly 80 cents in 1917 dollars. Beaver pelts tanked in the 1980’s largely due to the influx of synthetics and to the anti-fur movement and prices have remained very depressed ever since. In the 1980’s many trappers across Canada stopped trapping as it no longer paid. The exception were those east coast James Bay Crees who were on the income security program. Due to the changes in the Cree economy since that time the local market for beaver carcasses for food has prices from $50 to $80. This means that the pelt and the food value of the beaver is still roughly $80 to $100 in present dollars, still only about $2 to $2.50 in 1917 dollars.

As more food security came through working with the Hudson Bay Company in reorganizing the hunt through the Beaver Preserve System (Which began in 1932 in Waskaganish.) people were less dependent on the rituals of the hunt. Christianity also grew in importance in the communities and services began to become available in the communities in the 1950’s and 1960’s; schools were built, nursing stations, welfare became available and old age pensions came in. Very few people starved through this period. The synchretism of Anglicanism with the traditional beliefs of the people began to be questioned in some communities and Pentecostal and Baptist beliefs have become more widespread, promoted by many who are in search of a new synchretic solution. The youth play a role in this, as they have brought in drum ceremonies from western Canada and along with their elders continue to reinterpret the traditional mythology - atiiyokan.