Twentieth Century Transformations of East Cree Spirituality and Autonomy

5 Twentieth Century Transformations of East Cree Spirituality and Autonomy

by Richard J. “Dick” Preston

“… globalization is seen as a largely secular process/construct …[but]… for Indigenous peoples/communities the spiritual is ever present…. It is also the area least often included in academic attempts to reconstitute a non-modern framework. Furthermore, globalization has been going on in the context and in dialogue with a much more explicit set of claims for the role of religion in governance and in economic relationships in many parts of the world, both through sectors of the Islamic world and in different ways through sectors of Christianity in the US itself. So I would like to propose that the area of spirituality/religion may be an important area for inquiry on the assumption that the role that they have in Indigenous Peoples lives and organizations is different than both the secular discussions of globalization and also different from the ways the ‘world religions’ are implicated in and responding to what we call globalization.”

-- Harvey Feit


The James Bay region has been the hunting grounds of Native peoples since sometime after the melting of the great Wisconsin glacier, several thousand years ago. People spent most of their annual cycle of hunting activities in small groups dispersed over the region, and in the summer gathered into larger groups at a good fishing spot, for social and ceremonial purposes. Europeans arrived in the 1600s, and for three centuries the Crees were summer sojourners to European-based trading post settlements, dominated in a colonial fashion by a trader, a small number of Company artisans and other “servants,” and starting in the mid-1800’s, a missionary. Annually, for a few summer weeks, the Crees brought their furs to trade, briefly enlarging the colonial community. During the past century, the trading post communities have gradually become the year-round residence of the Crees. Starting in the second half of the twentieth century, the settlements were provided with government services (nursing stations, schools, welfare) and administration, and then politically transformed by being administrated by Cree townspeople (Morantz 2002).

What happens when people who have long practiced a land-based spirituality move from their bush home areas into towns and become more sedentary, and identify themselves with a Christian or a pow wow religion? In the argot of globalization scholarship, this is at once a process of supraterritorialization (transcending local boundaries for new beliefs) and deterritorialization (moving off the land that was the source of their regional traditional beliefs). That is, traditional, regionally distinct spirituality is transformed by varieties of Christian religions or by pow wow spiritual forms, constituting a kind of supraterritorialization.

These transformations also involved blending or replacing major domains of life experience and portions of the indigenous Cree, land-based spirituality that had developed in ways that were specific to the geography and ecology of that region, over thousands of years of hunting. These changes in experience and spirituality are a kind of deterritorialization. There are now some Crees who feel awkward when they go out on the land. At the same time, the processes of developing and maintaining personal autonomy have been substantially transformed, and have been complemented by developing and articulating political autonomy, at both community and regional levels. The Crees have long regarded their lands as crucial to their lives, and now have developed strategies for negotiation with governments to ensure their future (Feit, this volume).

Particularly remarkable is the ability of the Crees to carry their bush-based spiritual ethos or ideology into modern political representations, as we shall see. I hope to persuade you that there is a continuity in the spiritual basis of Cree personal autonomy that has been sustained through this period of radical changes, and now informs their distinctive and quite successful strategies for strengthening political autonomy within the Canadian nation state.

Often, globalizing processes of transformation are more easily understood by taking a local, empirical case study approach. But there is a risk involved in making this fundamental query too exclusively focused on the James Bay region, and, due to its distance from us in its subarctic climate and its hunting culture history, making the Cree case study seem so remote as to be exotic. To avoid such a mistake, let’s initially, heuristically, set our context of inquiry by generalizing out from the Eastern Cree case to our own -- or to the human near-universal. What happened to the major patriarchal monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam when those pastoralists moved many times, over many centuries, in many geographical and cultural directions -- and now most recently into an uncomfortable juxtaposition with secular modernism? And what has characterized their strategies for strengthening political autonomy?

This is a radical query, but it has been well researched. In all these examples, we know from the comparative study of the history of religions that, through myriad changing contexts, some traditional beliefs and practices were kept but reset into larger (supraterritorial) regions and culture areas, some were conflated with other peoples’ beliefs and practices, some virtually disappeared (deterritorialization), and some were substantially revised to serve the political autonomies of competing churches. In this latter process, the politics of conversion required having the power to compete with other religions. These were major institutional changes of social scale and religious behaviour and convictions, but I should like to keep in mind that in spite of these formal organizations and their political autonomies, the mystical or personal apprehension of the spiritual persisted through the centuries, allowing for the maturing of personal spiritual autonomy. We can find a parallel mystical core in most Indigenous spiritualities, including the Crees.

With the development of the three great organized, monotheistic, or “Abrahamic” religions, spirituality was codified, competing authenticities were claimed, and institutions of religious and political hierarchy were developed, and they contested their orthodoxies against other religions. Innovations, mystical or sectarian, within orthodoxies would appear from time to time but for the most part were suppressed for the sake of holding to what were argued to be the original, or authentic revelations. This was only partially successful, as reformations or major splits within religions did periodically occur.

And in the past century fundamentalisms in all three traditions that originated in the Middle East (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have emerged in response to processes of modernization, especially in reaction to the accelerating velocity of processes of secularization and liberalization. We see happening now a tension between those accepting and engaging modernity, and those “fundamentalists” who reject it as immoral or ungodly, feel themselves dis-empowered, and reject the pressure of new experiences, new knowledge, and implied or explicit criticism and emendations of their orthodoxies.

We will want to look for some of these tendencies in the Cree case, below. But I will argue that what we find in the Cree case is a transformation of the ethos and world view of “bush” hunter-trapper spirituality into principled and firm political representations of Cree autonomy. Strategies and the spirituality ideology of hunting-trapping seem to me to have resurfaced in politics, with preference for strategies of negotiation that maintain respect relations, so long as success can be achieved in that way. I will return to this in the conclusions section.

<2> Introducing my Personal Politics

By way of a brief intellectual, reflexive introduction, I should mention that we authors were asked by the volume editors to explain our political position. I was trained as an anthropologist, and have been consistently inspired by the optimistic humanism of the anthropologist Edward Sapir (1883-1939). Like Sapir and also like Cree writer Tomson Highway, I deeply believe that cultures thrive when there is a strong and coherent spiritual basis for living well with others, and that only then can political and economic factors make a substantial difference in peoples’ life chances. I care deeply about human life chances, or the potential to live “a good life.” In spiritual terms, I personally have for the past thirty-five years been a Quaker by convincement. That is, I am convinced by sustained critical and reflexive testing of Quaker examples and precepts, leading me to sustain my conviction that this spiritual path suits me deeply. This is a great deal more than “conviction” Consistent with this, I regard it as my moral imperative to support those aspects of people’s personal experience and life chances that contribute toward living a good life.

Why do I care about the transformations of Cree spirituality, in particular? I care because it interests me, and has done so for over forty years, and because I believe that I know something about it. I do not presume that what I write will be the final word on the subject, but it will be an approximation and an informed and thoughtful opinion. We have a great many topical and community studies of the James Bay region, but far too little on the actual transformations that have taken place in these communities. Here I offer a description of one transformation.

I began this study in 1963 with an interest defined for me by the interests of John Blackned, my principal Cree mentor. He was born “in the bush” in 1894, and “the old ways” spiritual domain was the milieu of most of his life. Contemplating this milieu and sharing the stories that characterized it intrigued and pleased him. For different reasons of birth and biography, it somewhat differently intrigued, and profoundly influenced me, and our interests converged over the years of our association (R. Preston 1999). So I care because it matters deeply to some Crees whom I have regarded as friends, and because it enlightens me. I am a spiritually deeper person for having known some Crees fairly well, and fairly long. They were mostly men, but this bias is partly offset by three women members of my own family (plus several women whose graduate programs I advised) who have done graduate theses on the same people and places. But the gender perspective of my learning and writing has been male, so the disproportion is there, and here. Furthermore, I am covering a vast area of space and time, and have not differentiated the variety of perspectives and preferences that exist. This essay is, by necessity, an oversimplification. But most of it is well grounded.

Given the potential hurdle of merging Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers, ideas, and conceptual structures, I believe also that a healthy dose of reflexivity and sustained sensitivity may keep my mind open to being surprised by alternative perceptions -- even to larger cultural idioms. One strategy for this that I have found helpful is to compare (not to conflate!) the representations I make of the lived experience of other people, with comparable experiences of my own, as a way to put myself in a personal relation to the views of another. This is usually done piecemeal, on a particular thought or act or context, but sometimes it is more sustained, as in my paper “How Cultures Remember: Traditions of the James Bay Cree and of Canadian Quakers” (R. Preston 2000). Rightly or wrongly, I see this as an intellectually subversive practice, challenging the various -ist and -ism impositions of perspective that are implicit in representations of others, or “Othering,” and I believe that it is consistent with the correctives urged by Edward Said in Representations of the Intellectual (Said 1995).

<2> Introducing Cree Spirituality

This chapter on transformations of Cree spirituality will focus on how new perspectives get into a kind of conversation of, and about, life’s spirituality, where people adapt to new beliefs and at the same time adapt the new into the existing Cree structure of knowledge and belief (R. Preston 1982). For the purposes of this chapter I am defining spirituality as a condition of whole-ness or holiness, at once open to personal revelation and open to learning and being disciplined by respect for what has been learned by others, encompassing a whole mode of life experience. Land-based spirituality, like all spiritualities, encompassed that mode of life’s most central connectedness. But the Cree hunter’s land-based spirituality was distinct from most other spiritualities in that it arose from and incorporated peoples’ cumulative life experiences of the land and of hunting the animals -- focusing on the animals’ characteristic actions and their strategies for living and evading capture -- and the human actions and strategies for tracking and killing some of them.

This spirituality of hunters was primarily, then, focused on the acts of preparation, tracking, hunting, and eating (Speck 1933) as the basis for life and thereby for autonomy, embedded first in a small number of relatives within which he or she grew up. It was a portable, personal life-cycle community (R. Preston 1975a) within which the child matured as an apprentice adult, watching and listening to those who were more experienced. The true locus of Cree personal autonomy was in this small-scale personal community, where practices of “reciprocity, resource-management, family-hunting territories, proper hunting conduct and acknowledgement of animal spirituality … embody Eeyou [Cree] ideas of respect, honor, wisdom, sharing, group solidarity, self-reliance, individualism, health, wellness and living responsibly” (Louttit 2005, 15).

Then, for the young adult man, his spirituality was gradually matured in mostly solitary practical action and intuition, much of it more of a tacit learning from experience and from the narratives of others than from formulating a general and abstract intellectual knowledge. The goal of his action was to succeed in a relationship with the animals he was hunting. There was a mystical apprehension of what was not seen or known directly, and most of the experiential world was characterized by an underlying quality of contingency (R. Preston 2002, Chap. 8) or indeterminacy. But overall, there was normally more practical knowledge, intuition and action, than abstract metaphysics, in Cree spirituality. Young adult Cree women matured in a mostly social (rather than solitary) context of action and intuition, and as with the men, learning from the examples of others, whether personally observed or heard about from others. The goal of her action was to care for children and the home site, receive and process the food animals taken by her husband or that she herself hunted, and to support the social composure of the hunting group (for more depth in women’s roles and values, see the writings of Sarah J. Preston, especially 1986, Regina Flannery, especially 1995, and Ohmagari and Berkes 1997).

The Cree traditional structure, of unknown but distant time depth, was based in their hunting “techne” (Ridington 1982), that is, in the strategies, skills, belief, knowledge and memory for making the tools needed and for acting with the best chance of success in finding and getting the animals. The Cree techne is currently incorporative of many modernizing trends toward more individuation in bush living and greater aggregation in towns. Tools and clothing have been subject to replacement with more modern materials, and a more secular attitude toward animals is evidenced in many people.

While Cree men’s spirituality was primarily based in solitary hunting action, it was not only solitary. Coordinated group hunts, under the direction of a hunt leader, took place at some seasons (geese, caribou, moose, beaver), and each child learned their skills from years of apprenticeship to a parent or other older and more experienced guide. Spirituality is also consciously learned and articulated in songs and stories, that is, derived from the social reservoir of memory culture. Hunting songs were owned by the individual who dreamed them, unless they were bestowed on another person. They were sung to the animals (Louttit 2003; R. Preston 2002, Chap. 6), and are musically comparable to chants and work songs. Their purpose is rather like that of celebratory hymns or optimistic prayers, expressing hope and respect, but with some anticipation of substantial results. The stories comprise a large and coherent moral order (R. Preston 2002, Chap. 2, Chap. 7), guiding people’s relations with the wisdom of long, collective experience.

<2>Cree Traditional Autonomy and Spirituality

There is a kind of tacit autonomy expressed in this spirituality that permeated Cree culture until the mid-twentieth century, an autonomy developed and embedded in the small personal or family community and in the characteristic solitude of each hunter’s decisions and actions. This was part of a larger sense of autonomy that characterized and motivated the animals that the Cree hunted, and other types of other-than-human persons, or spirit persons. The Cree world was constituted of a great community of persons (R. Preston 1997), all of whom somehow came into the world in ancient times with the common goal of finding a home, and so of pursuing the means to eat and live well, according to their specific natures. Each species had their own characteristic kind of autonomy, sometimes with a strong sense of shared community (i.e., geese) and sometimes very solitary and asocial (i.e., wolverine). This great community of persons contrasts with the more socially elaborate societies of the universalist religious traditions, with their gardens to cultivate and harvest, or their herds of one or two species of domesticated animals, or, later, their industries. I believe that this is a very significant difference, leading to a difference in the way that autonomy and community are found in families and communities.

Cree autonomy took its character from the relationships between small numbers of individual humans and between humans and the particular animals they hunted. Hunters communicated with others, human or other-than-human, by means of finding and reading their tracks and other signs (S. M. Preston 1999), as well as by songs. Humans were aware of the clues they were leaving for others to recognize as they traveled. In some spiritual sense the animals were similarly, perhaps mystically, aware of giving humans their traces. It was believed that these tracks were found only if the prey was, in a spiritual sense, willing to make itself known to the hunter. For it was believed that the purpose of the animals was to give themselves to humans so that they could survive. In various acts of ritual communication (including songs), the hunter spiritually transmitted his hopes, and his gratitude for success in killing the animals so that he and his family could live (R. Preston 2002, Chap. 7). There is an interesting parallel here with the story of the sacrificial killing of the man Jesus, providing “the blood of the lamb” for the spiritual life of humans (Long 1987). But that is for another paper.

While this autonomy was mostly based in solitary tracking, it was by no means identical to autonomy imagined in the ideology of radical individualism found in our own contemporary social imaginary (Taylor 2004). The tracking itself was seen as a kind of spiritual coordination, where the animal has made his traces visible to the human. The presence of sustained and shared responsibilities within his group, and of the felt need to manifest respectful relationships with the prey, made Cree autonomy a mix of private decisions and actions in tracking and killing, followed by bringing food for collective recognition and collective, sharing, consequences, for both humans and animals.

For me, this theme of responsibility and respect for others is highlighted in the examples of the failure to observe this standard -- where people interfere in the autonomy of another, and the consequences that follow (R. Preston 1991). A mythic paragon of interference and transformation is the Cree trickster figure, whose (usually) unwitting interference in the lives of others is the source of deep mirth and wonder at the absurdity of irresponsible (or better, pre-responsible) behaviour. The Cree writer Tomson Highway sees the trickster as the Indigenous equivalent of the Christ figure of Christian myth, or more accurately, he sees the Christ figure as a version of this universal mythic “first-born” and unsocialized moral nomad and teacher of the full complexity and ambivalence of life, but the Christ version is simplified and morally sanitized by centuries of Catholic religiosity (Highway 1989, Introduction; J. Preston 1990, Chap. 1).

Besides the trickster-transformer (a mythic person known by various names, globally, since millennia ago) of Cree myth, there was a widespread perception of the presence of what are sometimes called, in English, spirit helpers. A hunter might cultivate, in dreams, visions, and unusual experiences, a relationship with a “great man” (R. Preston 2002; Speck 1935) or mistabeo, who assisted the human by extending his powers of observation, prediction, and influence over animals and others. The man and the mistabeo spirit both maintained their coordinated personal autonomy, and either one would always have the option of terminating the relationship (although this was rare in practice). Many men had this spiritual ally, and they were usually individually named.

Regina Flannery found, in the 1930s, very much more differentiation of spirit-persons than John Blackned and others told me about in the 1960s. That is, mistabeo to John was a name for many spirits whose specific names John did not know or recall, but which were known individually and recalled by old men that Flannery spoke with (Flannery and Chambers 1985). This looks like a case of “history,” in the form of the missionary Christian denial of these spirits’ existence, passing by the old spirits and leaving a single label in it’s wake. At any rate, the role of spirit helpers is now rarely heard of, largely replaced by Jesus and God.

This is the baseline of “the old ways” Eastern Cree spirituality, against which modernizing and globalizing processes have played in transformative ways. It offers us the insights of a radically different kind of autonomy.

The spirituality that characterized the old ways in the Cree region was embedded in a cosmology that had its core in the personal experience of individual, and usually solitary, hunters, so that there was a range of variation in cosmological perceptions from one hunter to another. This is comparable to the private experience of shamans in some cultures, or to mystics in other cultures who seek their insights in solitude, yet in the Cree case it was not limited to unusually gifted individuals, but rather it was expected of each hunter that he would, as his measure of ability and interest permitted, regard and respect the mystical in his daily experience. And from this his sense of autonomy grew.

Human hunters learned much of their practical strategies and their moral guidelines from their observation of animals. Men (and some women) often initiated the hunt, in hope that the prey would respond by making its traces visible. Or the reverse might be true, where the discovery of tracks led the human to feel obliged, out of respect, to undertake a response to the animal’s invitation. The deep play of the chase and the kill ensued, and with the hunter’s success, the animal, in death, lost its physical but not its spiritual autonomy, and became food. Eating was a holy act; the meat was the source of life and the animal who gave it became the recipient of pragmatic gratitude and continuing respect. The autonomy of humans, and of the animals, had its defining core in this deep play between them, and the respect for the food they were given was generalized, not only event-specific. Before starting to eat, it was expected that the hunter would put a bit of food in the fire.

We may interpret this into our own cultural idiom by regarding it as a mystical act whereby the hunter returns a symbolic piece of the animal that sacrificed itself, by giving a reciprocal sacrifice. In some sense it is at once given to the particular animal, to other animals past and future, to the memory of deceased humans of that family, and finally to respectfully thank some unseen and un-named quality of the cosmos that has directed this sustenance to the humans. This is not a supreme God in the sense claimed and affirmed by the universalistic monotheisms emerging centuries ago in the Middle East. Unlike Yahweh, God, or Allah, or their predecessors, we are not to think in terms of an extraordinary and supreme personage. A better comparison might be with our more distantly personal notions of destiny or fortune.

Nor did the Cree presume to know about the creation of the world, or the fate of the soul after death. There are myths of the world’s transformation from one condition to another, but no ultimate creation story. With an abiding concern to say only what they knew to be true, they relied, from childhood through the life course, on “the discipline of the bush” and the sharing of stories within their small, mobile, personal community, for confident knowledge. For this reason, they spoke of this life, but not of where it came from or where it may go. The Christian traders and missionaries, in contrast, offered confident answers to these mysteries, which greatly interested the Crees. These answers had emerged over thousands of years within pastoral and agricultural societies, and by the time of the fur trade, were represented as literal historical truths, rather than eternal myths (Harpur 2004, Spong 2001).

Myths, as the editors of this volume wrote in a discussion paper, are the charter narratives of our selves in our world. I find this assertion very congenial to my discussion of spirituality. Turning for a moment to an examination of our own beliefs, it is instructive that Tom Harpur’s recent book The Pagan Christ has achieved prolonged best seller status for a radical subversion of the Bible as history or as literal truth. Harpur urges us to see more than history or literal truths. If we make the effort of will, we may take scriptures, any religious scriptures, as representations of universal human spiritual mythologies. The Bible is a case in point, with the major events attributed to the historical Jesus (the annunciation, three wise men, virgin birth, a wicked king ordering the killing of infants to prevent loss of his power, the Christ child’s precocious wisdom, miracles of multiplying loaves and fishes, raising the dead, cures, and the crucifixion and resurrection) all found in Egyptian narratives from two thousand years earlier, and also in other, older, oral traditions. In this case, oral traditions have become the doctrinal codes of autonomous institutions.

<2>The Cree-Christian Transformations

The effects of Christian missionizing, as a part of the fur trade, were initially not much resisted but also were probably only occasionally radical. Anglican religious teachings censured particular behaviours, but had little effect overall on the “bush” religion. Particular prayers and hymns were easily incorporated into the traditional spiritual domain and were used daily by many families in the bush, while the other aspects of Anglicanism were mainly a trading post phenomenon. There is one early exception to this generalization. In 1842-43 there were two York Factory Crees who identified with Christianity extremely. One was Abishabis, a self-proclaimed prophet who took the name of Jesus Christ, and the other was his partner, called “The Light.” They travelled east and south as far as Fort Albany, spreading their good news, including hymns and prayers written in syllabic Cree, with great effect among the Crees and to the consternation of the Hudson’s Bay Company managers. The story is still remembered, but the great enthusiasm probably did not survive the winter. (Brown 2004; R. Preston 1988)

It is not true that this example is typical of the ways that the Crees kept control of their spiritual lives. On the other, more dependent side, there are many examples of the acceptance of, or submission to, the authority of the Catholic priests, and the seeming discarding and replacement of old beliefs with new ones. Some measure of personal autonomy seems to have been sacrificed, too, although I am not clear on this. Regional groups or even families might also become exclusive in their religious identification. But this is also not the whole picture.

For a more typical example, perhaps two decades after these prophetic events, some men came to the Anglican Bishop of Moosonee, John Horden, and said that they were very appreciative of his sermons, but were troubled by the difficulty they had understanding his words. And he, though preaching in Cree and translating scripture into Cree, had difficulty understanding their words to him. Words are one thing, their meanings are more subtle to discern. He could not discern what his performances said to his audience. Some of the answer to Horden’s dilemma may be found by examining what the performances of Cree traditional old stories said to their audience (R. Preston 2002). For that matter, how would Anglican theologian and writer Tom Harpur (The Pagan Christ) or Bishop John Spong, author of A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born (2001) speak about the Bible’s rendition of those traditional old stories to their ecclesiastical ancestor, Bishop Horden (1828-1893), and vice versa? Horden would likely make a passionately literalist defense against their mythic claims! Here is a sample of Horden’s reporting, from a 1869 trip:

There goes the bell! It is just six o’clock. I had service every morning at Rupert’s House, but this morning there is an innovation, I am one of the assembly, not the leader; I have deputed an Indian to conduct the service, and right well he performs his duty. The Litany is very impressively rendered, and a chapter of St. Matthew well read. The numerous voices mingle in their translation of “He dies, the friend of sinners dies” - Nepeu, umra ka sakehat - to Luther’s hymn; then I take the Testament and once more read the chapter and explain it, enforcing its lessons on my hearers; the hymn, “Lord, dismiss us with Thy blessing,” is sung, and the congregation separates. (Batty 1893, 75)

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics, and Baptist missionaries viewed their own doctrine as divinely authorized and viewed each other with strongly negative, exclusionary attitudes. This attitude they piously extended to Cree traditional spiritual beliefs and practices, which they condemned as devil worship. For the most part, however, the Crees were able to separate the uncharitable, dismissive judgments of individual missionaries from the wisdom teachings and mythic truths or ritual efficacies of the Bible, prayers, and hymns. Again, for the most part, the Crees sought what value they could find in, or behind, the words and actions of Europeans, whose ineptness in the bush would indicate that, while they claimed great authority, they were not infallible. Things of value that blended especially well with Cree traditions included prayers and hymns that focused on hope for the animals’ gift of food, and baptism as protection from the threat of sorcery.

<2>The Cree New Ways

For many Crees, their life cycle has now mostly lost the basic lessons of the discipline of the bush, where much of the learning came from the animals and from others’ stories. This learning context is largely replaced by learning from townspeople’s statements and interactional strategies, from media, and from school. For some of those who spent years in a residential school there was a resulting emotional deficit (Schuurman 1994; Sindell 1968), though our present grasp of this concept is inadequate. These several replacements have been radical, yet they seem not to be as influential as might be expected. While the experiential basis of learning spirituality and personal autonomy has changed, the core values have persisted.

And then came the Pentecostals, speaking even more radically of receiving Jesus and living temperately. The Pentecostals have gone through quite substantial changes since they got started at Waskaganish in 1971 (R. Preston 1975b). The early Pentecostals tended to be the town-oriented families, and were often wage-earning families who approved of their modern new world order, including jobs with the Baie James hydro-electric project. They also tended to be exclusivist, like the missionaries before them. This led to families divided over who would go to heaven and who to hell. My late friend Isiah Salt was an Anglican warden, in his late middle age, when the Pentecostals first came. Isiah was soon repudiated by a Pentecostal cousin whose born-again prestige left him feeling proudly superior -- not a Cree relationship! The young man told him, that when the time came, he was going to go up the stairs to heaven, and he would look down and see Isiah going down the stairs to hell, and he would laugh!

But eventually people in the communities have moderated the exclusionist, fundamentalist perspectives. The Pentecostal Church has prospered and mellowed over the years to the point where, at a funeral I attended in 2000, people of non-Pentecostal persuasions were sincerely welcomed. This inclusive attitude is very traditional in terms of the Cree manner of relationships, suggests to me that the value of respect for the personal autonomy of each person has been incorporated. Hymns used in 2000 were still of the country-western revival style. Doing well with regard to the acquisition of goods and income is now a tangible sign of God’s favour. The bush is one source for getting income, but at first the bush spirits were excluded (even shunned), because of being a belief from a time before Jesus came to the Crees. Recently there seems to have been some easing of even this exclusion.

A colleague recently told me a story of the Pentecostal Cree hunter who, stalking a moose, saw the cow moose’s youngster circle three times around its mom. The man killed them and afterwards said that the three circles indicated that Pentecostalism is OK in the bush -- the “old way” context. This unusual triple circling behaviour on the part of the calf was understood by the hunter as a sign of God’s grace or generosity, in the setting of the hunt, but its recognition is a familiar part of traditional bush spiritual significances.

I invite you to compare this case of finding God in the bush to a story I heard some twenty years earlier, of a man who bought and set a bear trap. Astonishingly, the trap caught two bears, simultaneously. He reset it, and later again caught two bears. Later, he reset it, and for a third time caught two bears. He then sold the trap for a fraction of its value. Here the spiritual message of three repeated events was one of unexpected power attached to a particular trap, which the man felt he could not predict or control. Rather than risk continued use of such an unlikely tool, he got rid of it. (Brian Craik, personal communication) This was not the gift of a benevolent God to a believer, but a potentially dangerous motion of mysterious contingencies in nature. If it could trap two at a time, what else might happen with it, or to the person who possesses it? But behind this, I invite you to notice the significance, in both cases, of an unusual event that happens three times. The Pentecostal example shows a radical change in the meaning of spiritual power, becoming one of a benevolent and approving deity. On the other hand, the three circles shows a traditional marker for perception of a significant message.

The traditional hunting songs are also greatly diminished in performance and in memory. They started to give way, at first, with the incorporation of hymns and Scottish dancing music, then were largely replaced by country and western, and eventually by global pop/rock styles (Whidden 2004; R. Preston 1985) and by pow wow songs. Their future is tenuous. Similarly, there is a diminishment in hearing or performing the traditional narratives, which have been displaced in part by television narratives. Both stories and songs were important components of learning spirituality and personal autonomy, and it is not clear to me that there are alternative ways of learning Cree autonomy, unless, as I suspect, its expression in day to day actions is directly recognized and expected of leaders, of other adults and, from an early age, of children.

<1>Pow Wow Religion

Also in the 1970s, the new pow wow traditionalism was brought to James Bay from the west. Often shown in network television newscasts, it is marked with loud drums and songs, which like hymns (but unlike the hunting songs) are sung in unison. Pow wow is mainly social for some participants, but it is taken as deeply spiritual by others. It is said that the big drum replicates the heartbeats of mother earth. These performances are not solitary, but social. Some participants feel deeply moved by the drumming, and by experiences of the sweat lodge. The songs mostly have a story behind them, so that there is a parallel to the regional/family oral traditions. Many, perhaps most James Bay pow wow spiritualists believe their ceremonies were once indigenous to the James Bay area, blending, in their minds, the drumming, dances, songs, sweats, and tobacco ritual of their ancestors with the pow wow practices that many of them learned in Saskatchewan. I have not heard of a James Bay person who was personally very familiar with the old ways who has expressed this view of the pow wow practices. But many people see and respect the discipline of mind and body that it includes, and are accepting of people who believe in its spirituality.

<2> Residential and other schooling: autonomy and spiritual transformations

What kinds of Cree autonomies emerge from these encounters? One kind is the individuating, assimilating type of autonomy that goes with academic success in southern schools.

The liberal goal of the church-run residential schools was to take the bush out of the Indian, by ensuring that children grew up in a Christian institutional setting. What did this do for spiritual maturation? For the maturation of Indigenous autonomy? Certainly it was a microcosm of the modernity that was rapidly developing as people settled into northern communities. Certainly it frustrated the maturing of emotions that went with growing up “in the bush” within the relationality of a traditional personal, life cycle community. Certainly there was significant language loss. And certainly the residential school experience varied a great deal with the individual child and the individual staff. In June 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada, speaking for the entire nation, made a formal and public apology.

Residential schools were not only a cloistering of children away from family, environment and culture. They were also a place where some staff and some students were overtly abusive. In some places this was very grievous, including some traumatic events at the Catholic school at Fort Albany, and criminal charges have been belatedly laid. In other places, including the Anglican school at Moose Factory, overt abuse was not tolerated, and staff were disciplined if examples came to light. There were some very caring and dedicated staff, but their responsibility for so many children spread their nurturing pretty thin for any one child. Emotionally, the residential schools were a poor replacement for the child’s family, but not all children grew up feeling abused or deprived.

The first secondary school graduate from Waskaganish spent two years as part of my family, transcribing my tape recordings of the old ways. She commented that it was strange that she had to live with us in order to learn her own history. But she did not come through residential school bereft of her Cree spirituality and autonomy, and has led an exemplary life. Some were dispirited and lacked the inner and relational resources to develop a mature autonomy. Some became lifelong victims; others forgave and moved on.

The first cohort of secondary school graduates formed a peer group of leaders that has enabled the Crees to have a cadre of negotiators in Canadian courts and boardrooms, a range of administrators of their own government, and effective and widely respected political leaders. The timing was just right, with graduates in the late 1960’s, coincident with human rights movements, including “Red Power”, and the Baie James project starting in 1971.

So we must ask, how did they learn and embody the Cree spirituality and autonomy that we can find within this group? First, spirituality and autonomy are not taught and learned in topical school courses, like literacy and numeracy. They are developed in the context of the whole of life experience, and the development starts in early life. We have known since the 1930’s that temperament is largely inherited, and that what we now call deep structure, both of language and of culture, is set by the age of four. How these rules are nurtured into adulthood is a more complex matter, with frustrations of maturity and distortions of emphasis a result of experiences that inhibit a person’s life chances.

And for all the loneliness and deprivation of residential housing, children were normally returned to their families for the summer. They certainly did not learn much of the hunting skills that come with wintering in the bush, but they were re-immersed in the spiritually fundamental respect relations that are basic to family life. This was often a bit intense for the first weeks; a difficult and reactive shift from the peer group relations of school and also from essentially bureaucratic relations with school and residence staff. These latter relations – an unwitting hidden curriculum - became the basis for the survival skills of negotiating with much larger bureaucracies, i. e., governments and corporations, where hunting skills are transformed into political skills, as the concluding quote from Matthew Coon-Come will tell us in a few pages. He provides a sample of how political ideology is mainly spiritual ideology used in a Canadian modernist arena of political negotiation

Less commonplace now is the extended displacement of the residential school students who then went on to post-secondary work in the 1970’s and 1980’s at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, where the pow wow forms were very much respected and taught. Here the peer group was offered a spiritual basis that included collective discipline as performers in a group, and a sense of worth and well-being. These students would have had little opportunity to experience and learn even the basics of their regional bush-based spirituality, and so it is understandable that they would be very interested in, and sometimes converted to, pow wow ritual drumming and singing.

<1>Traditional Cree Personal Autonomy, Today

In the Cree communities, it is now realized by some of the elders that spiritual satisfaction and religious developments of any meaningful kind must be done by those within the communities, since outsiders, whatever their intentions, do not have the ability to do this work for others. This is, I believe, a call for post-missionary autonomy, in the development of spiritual communities. Each new religious perspective may ideally get into a kind of conversation of the spirit, where people adapt the old to the new and at the same time adapt the new into their present structure. What kind of Cree autonomy emerges from these encounters?

While I am now at risk of telling you more than I am sure I see, I believe that traditional Cree personal autonomy has maintained much of its strength through these very considerable changes. I believe that leaders are elected and re-elected when they exhibit these qualities. We have seen that leaders who are thought to exercise political power without an informed and strongly consensual electorate behind them are often voted out of office, even when they are clearly successful in influencing government (MacGregor 1989). In the comparative study of cultures, we have found that values instilled in the process of child-rearing is one of the more conservative aspects of a culture, and so I presume that many Cree children are reared with the core spiritual values as a guide. What I see as the Crees move into the new century is not the wholesale incorporation of Western individualistic autonomy, but to an impressive extent the persistence of an autonomy that is performed, shared, and respected in local groups or personal communities within larger groups, and perhaps with non-Cree groups, and non-Indigenous groups out of the Cree territory. In my opinion, this is an alternative to the imposition of modernity, and it may prove to be part of a larger, globalizing process of spirituality.

I am of the opinion that political autonomy, as practiced by nation-states, is the polar opposite of individual or personal community spiritual autonomy of the kind I have claimed for the Crees. Political autonomy makes eminent sense as a term for the negotiation of collective distinctness when a group is encapsulated within a nation-state. Negotiation and credible identity are unlikely to be achieved without speaking the recognizable and approved language of those in political power, as the Crees discovered in the early 1970s (Richardson 1991 [1975]; MacGregor 1989). But since political autonomy carries the sense of legitimizing and maintaining a boundaried separateness, there is a radical attitudinal problem if this political and externally directed sense of autonomy is allowed to leak over into the formation and nurturing of personal community. A much earlier example of the wrong kind of community autonomy was seen in the competition between the denominations represented by missionaries. It was their ambition not only to win converts, but to define and maintain boundaries that would exclude people of other denominations.

The type of autonomy that is congenial to individuals, or more accurately, to personal communities, is based on inclusion rather than exclusion. In families, or in marriages, or in larger personal communities, autonomy of the type that evidences a shared ethos based on sustained responsible, respectful decisions and actions is successful, where exclusionary and power seeking autonomy is destructive. As we will see below, there is a strong component of personal autonomy brought into the political arena by the Cree leaders.

<2>Cree Ways: Old and New

Religious adaptations are moving fast in some communities. The spirituality that was based in traditional hunting is now harder to find traces of. The vast moral network of oral tradition is now mostly history. Communities that were staunchly Anglican in the mid-l970s are now about 50 percent Pentecostal. In one town to the south of James Bay, the music of a Pentecostal service has been joined by the big pow wow drum -- a new inclusion, and yet another case of blending of religions, comparable to the blending of Christian religion with bush spirituality. The conversation of spiritualities continues.

Politically, the future of the Eastern Cree is much less tenuous than is the case for the future of hunting spirituality. But perhaps there is an unexpected element of carry-over from hunting to politics. I find an underlying element of spirituality in some statements made by the political leaders, such as a speech on forgiveness given by the then-Grand Chief (of the Quebec Crees) Ted Moses. In a presentation made in October 2004 he speaks of “the duty of memory” in the task of “mending the past.” I would argue that the nature and scope of the vision he portrays is essentially spiritual, and we might usefully look for roots of this vision in traditional hunting spirituality. Certainly it is a spiritual perspective.

“The duty of memory”… is to manage the past so that “forgiveness and new beginnings” … are enabled … there is generally a need to go beyond commemorating the victims of grave offences of the past. In my view, some form of reparation or redress would most often be a necessary aspect of forgiveness. Although some things in the past can never be made right, every effort should be made to do so.

An apology, if sincere, can be an essential element if forgiveness is to be attained. Yet it is clear that apologies alone are generally inadequate. Clearly apologies must not be only symbolic. There must also be a clear plan to positively alter the present and future of survivors of appalling human rights offences.

If we are to ensure healing, reconciliation and a promising future, we must effectively deal with root causes. … For the more than 300 million Indigenous people globally, we must be guaranteed our status as peoples and our collective human rights, including the right of self-determination. This necessarily includes control over our natural resources and the right not to be deprived of our means of subsistence.

In regard to all victims worldwide, Judge Richard Goldstone of the Constitutional Court of South Africa has commented on the various choices that States have made in dealing with massive violence and injustices of the past. In this regard, he states: “Some countries simply forget the past and attempt to induce a national amnesia in its people. Of course that is bound to fail -- the victims do not, indeed cannot, forget...”

In other countries wiser leaders recognized that in order to lay a foundation for an enduring peace, measures had to be taken to manage the past. It was acknowledged that history has to be recorded, calls for justice have to be heeded, and perpetrators have to be called to account.

In my respectful view, it is these latter approaches that take us from a mindset of helplessness and despondence to real possibilities for forgiveness and new beginnings. It is also the latter approaches that can help create a lasting culture of peace, truth, and respect for human rights, as well as a genuine hope for the future. (Moses 2004)

A joint submission presented to then Prime Minister Tony Blair, by the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee), endorsed by thirty other Indigenous organizations and NGOs, extended the theme of hope (GCCQ 2004). The particular semantics of hope in these two selected concluding statements is, in my opinion, expressive of autonomy of the traditional hunter’s optimistic type, more than of the political exclusionary type.

The land is the physical and spiritual core that binds communities together. When indigenous peoples lose their land, they lose their language, their complex social and political systems, and their knowledge. At a deeper level traditions are eroded with their sacred beliefs. Although some may integrate and recover meaning to their lives, the removal of first peoples from their land can be likened to genocide in slow motion. (GCCQ 2004)

“People talk about surviving, even thriving, because they didn’t give up, because they had hope -- not because everything turned out the way they wanted. Hope is … interpret[ed] … very personally, not as some depersonalized reference to goals or expectations. Hope is not about naïve or excessive optimism. It is not solely about achievement. It is about not losing sight of the goodness of life even when it is not visible (Moses 2004, quoting Jevne 2004).


To return, at last, to the comparison with the great traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we may examine the extent to which Cree spirituality has been codified, and to which religion has become organized. Codification has been largely confined to the recording of oral tradition (e.g., R. Preston 2002) and commentaries on traditional beliefs and practices, written mostly by non-Cree students of the “Old Way” hunting traditions (e.g., Speck 1933, 1935). These mainly academic writings are a far cry from the magisterial codes found in the Talmud, the Bible, or the Koran and their respective supplementary writings. Cree spirituality, like the great majority of spiritualities, has not traced a path that compares to the few “great” religions that have survived, where many others have disappeared. The comparison served heuristically to give context to this chapter, but it is not worthwhile pursuing further.

Instead, I propose that we put this into a new context: one theme emerging in these globalization and autonomy studies, by restating the query in terms of personal autonomy and political philosophies: How and to what extent have dominant narratives of globalization and autonomy taken over the religious narratives of modernization (Christian denominations) to oppress spiritual vitality, or, on the contrary, to enable a transformed traditional (pre-modern) Cree spirituality that seeks coherence and hope for the present and near-future? The overall picture for religion for the Crees of James Bay is rather similar to that of Canadian religion as a whole. The Pentecostal church has, in the past thirty years, taken about half of the congregations of the other Christian denominations, and seems to be still growing vigourously, in a moderate, more “Cree” and less exclusionary form than it had at the outset. The other denominations are gradually losing strength, in my estimation. But spirituality is not limited to religious denominations.

I propose that the political stance of Cree leaders has sometimes very effectively emphasized the distinctness of Cree lands and identity using the morality and principle of respect for Cree self-determination and other human rights. From a Cree perspective, this ideology includes spiritual as well as economic, social, cultural, and political dimensions. Some professionals in the area of Indigenous politics say that the Crees are at the leading edge of developments of this sort. The first GCCQ Grand Chief, Billy Diamond, grew up as the son of a traditional Cree chief. He attended Anglican residential schools through his graduation He later was for many years Pentecostal, and both before and after his conversion included the spiritual side of self determination in many of his public statements (MacGregor 1989). A later chief who became the head of the (national) Assembly of First Nations, Matthew Coon Come, was well known for his forthright, sometimes blunt statements of conservative Christian values, representing his personal version of Cree hunters’ strategies for success -- “by thoroughly knowing their prey and using their knowledge of the land” (Coon Come 2003) -- and Anglican morality. The Grand Chief (until 2005), Ted Moses, who is cited above, has a similar background. It appears to me that some aspects of hunting spirituality have been transformed, or carried forward, into ideology that succeeds in political negotiation as well as being recognized as spiritual by the Crees.. His statements are appealing to us because they reflect spiritual values that we hold, perhaps with roots in Christian mystical thought. They are appealing to the Cree electorate because he voices their distinct spiritual values, with political effectiveness.

The hunters way of being (ehntohowatsiiwin) is still alive and a factor in how the Crees manage their politics (Craik, personal communication). I believe that the Crees can succeed in contrast to some others who primarily rely on confronting governments. To a significant degree, this may well be because the Cree leaders negotiate using the spirit of hunter-trapper’s survival strategies ensuring the integrity of the land. Distinct societies, including Cree society, may be better safeguarded and further developed through discussion with governments, with exclusionary confrontational politics kept in reserve as the “worst scenario” alternative if negotiations prove to have been in bad faith, or fail for other reasons.