James Bay Cree

James Bay Cree respect relations within the great community of persons: who should be killed and how.

Richard “Dick” Preston

McMaster University

Very Long Before the Twentieth Century

The hunting traditions of James Bay (Northern Quebec and Ontario) Crees are of interest to the development of a non-killing anthropology in part because for thousands of years they made their living by killing food-animals, including large animals, according to a morality of disciplined violence. Their “great community of persons” (Preston 1997; 2002; Hallowell 1955) included other humans, other kinds of animal species, and spirit-persons. Their “techne” -- strategies and skills for killing -- were disciplined by practice, by attending to their success and failures, and by a traditional hunting ethic that is based on maintaining respect relations between persons of all kinds. In turn, the hunting ethic expressed the spirituality of the hunt, and set strict guidelines on the use of violence. Hunting was spiritually and literally the "ground of their being", and hunting was also the basis of their morality of respect and measured violence.

And the traditional, respect-based hunting ethic sustained them for many centuries. Here I present an approximation of the pre-contact and early contact periods, and documentary evidence of the sustainability of this ethic through the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with some concluding thoughts on how this ethic has been transformed and guides the Crees’ political negotiations in the globalized world of the present.

It is very important to remember in this discussion that the respect we are considering – arguing for as a central quality - is not an abstract principle or proclaimed ideology. It is rather an attitude – an emotion in the context of readiness for action – that goes with and guides the very pragmatic actions of the hunters.

More than 95% of human history is a history of hunters. The Crees share this ancient human heritage. The Cree world was had a personal factor not often found today, that would have substantively influenced their ethic. Relations were built on a small number of persons in a vast region - perhaps averaging as few as ten human persons per 1000 square kilometers. The old Cree hunters believed that there was some unseen and unnamed power that governed the land (Long, Preston, and Oberholzer 2006) and so provided the animals. The animals, in turn, were believed to provide – to in some mystical sense choose to show their presence in tracks and other traces, and the humans were, in their turn, obligated to respond by the deep play of the hunt, and so to kill their food (Preston 2002). They were capable and habituated to killing animals. But unless there is a scarcity of resources and intrusive groups of strangers, most of the world’s hunting cultures are characterized by avoiding violence against, and specifically killing humans.

The Cree hunter matured by experientially learning the discipline of the bush, including the typical behaviour of the animals, who were viewed as species-specific types of persons. And the hunter’s maturation proceeded by developing and practicing the measured violence that was called for in each hunting situation. Killing humans would have been technically relatively easy, but the close dependency of humans on their food-animals included a clear and strong line between what is food for their families, and what simply cannot – must not - be food. In other words, there was a fundamental line between food-persons and human persons. This line was a virtual precipice, for the idea of eating a human was a sign of extreme desperation tantamount to madness, and to give in to this urge meant transformation from a human into a Wiitiko (cannibal) monster (Preston, in press, 2002, 1980).

Failures of the hunt were normally an indication of wrong relations with the animals, or ineptitude, but normally not the fault of somebody else (unless, in unusual cases, the animals avoided the hunter, by reason of sorcery). Or failures may be caused by the vagaries of an essentially contingent and mysterious world. What this requires of the hunter is fortitude, resoluteness, and hope, with self-control in order to respect for and engage in deep play with the animal he is hunting (Preston 2002). There is a necessary and morally quite sensible respect for the animals who give their lives so that humans can live. The anthropologist Frank G. Speck claimed that for these hunters, “eating is a holy act.”(1935) This may be true in many cultures, and not only hunting cultures, but it tells us something about the context of killing.

So failure was more likely a failure of the web of mutual respect relations between humans and animals, or of hunting techne. Failure is not normally blamed on an “other” person, but on one’s own limits or shortcomings. In the rare cases of one human killing another, it is usually a response to a person who shows what we would call violent madness - a complete loss of self-control. Being out of control made the insane person too dangerous to have near the family when the men were out hunting. Alternatively, the issue may have been sexual and the perpetrator was a man who was scheming to get rid of a flawed woman; in one case I have recorded she was crippled and unable to walk on snowshoes, in another she was a lesbian in disguise, in two others a woman has sex with a non-human animal, and in a few others a woman kills her infant because she is embarrassed by having become pregnant via the wrong man.

Whether a death by starvation is violent is moot; there may be a sorcerer behind the failure of hunting, or there may be a hunter’s failure to maintain respect relations with the animals he is seeking, and so the food persons are not found. But there are many stories of people who, in their extremity, make efforts to show that they died with full self-control, rather than resorting to cannibalism.

Oral tradition evidence: Seventeenth Century

Cree stories of raids by the Inuit to the north of them are vivid, often emphasizing the killing of adults as a step for the kidnapping of children – trait used by Inuit against other Inuit groups. It is my impression that the Crees preferred to stay away from areas where they might have a chance encounter with Inuit. Retaliatory raids may have occurred but I have no stories to that effect. The Crees feared the violence and regarded the Inuit conjuring as stronger than their own.

Even more fearful were raids from the Nottoways (Iroquois) to the south of them, where women and children might be taken captive but men were normally killed. The Cree response to a raid, usually in winter and lauched at dawn when the women were just starting to build the fire, was for the men to rapidly put on their moccasins, for escape barefoot was sure to bring death from frozen feet. Retaliatory raids may have occurred but I have no stories to that effect.

Ethnohistoric evidence: Seventeenth Century

Thomas Gorst is the first to keep a detailed account of the characteristics of the Indians. He speaks from his residence from 1670 - 1675 at the mouth of the Ruperts River (and mentions exploratory travels along the south and west coasts, including the regions around the Moose Cebee, Shechittawan and Ekwan rivers). His journal has not been found, but we have some interesting passages published in John Oldmixon's The British Empire in America (1708) and an undated, handwritten excerpt now located at Guildhall Library, London (Ms. 1757[19]). Portions of this excerpt are published on pages 134-139 of the text and the whole is in an appendix, in Caesars of the Wilderness, by Grace Lee Nute (1943). Since the Nute's purposes were to relate the history of European exploration, most of the ethnographic content was edited out in the main text. The appendix, although disappointingly brief, is complete and correct, however, as I have obtained a copy of the original Guildhall document, and checked it against Nute's appendix. I will present some of the ethnographic passages here (with explanatory notes and spelling slightly modified without any loss of informational content), since they are our earliest descriptive material (save for Henry Hudson, which is very brief).

[August 31, 1670] We anchored there [Point Comfort, about 14 leagues short of Rupert's River]. The Capt., Mr. Foster, Mr. Gooseberry and I went ashore, killed some fowl, and stayed all night. In the morning two of the natives of the Captain's old acquaintance came to us, called Noah and his Brother.

[September 1] Six canoes more with men, women, and children.

Note: The Captain's “old acquaintance” probably refers to a meeting of the two men as a result of the first (1668-69) Hudson’s Bay Company exploratory voyage, two years earlier. It is interesting that at this point we have the probability of eight families in the vicinity of Point Comfort, (about 42 miles) north of the mouth of the Rupert's River, in early September. It is possible that they were expecting a ship, but it may also be that they were there for their own, ordinary harvesting purposes.

[September 8] ...anchored before Charles Fort... An Indian called Damaris came to us and quickly went to call his companions from the woods where they were hunting.

[September 12] ...The Indians come to us a pace and are willing to trade.

[September 27] The Indians set up their wigwams, or huts, which is almost in the manner of a tent, covered with moose and deer skins dressed, close of all sides and a hole at the top for the smoke to vent itself at. Their Bedds are bows of pine and spruce, which are much like the English Ferne and their beaver coats serve them for sheets, blankets, and rugs. These tents they make bigger or lesser at pleasure. Sometimes I have known 16 or 18 men, women, and children pigg all together, much like the Irish, but only that there are no cows nor hogs to keep them company, although indeed those poor wretches are scarce fit for any better society.

Note again there already were several families in the vicinity of the mouth of the Rupert's River when the ship arrived. The multiple family tipi layout is a familiar arrangement to 20th century ethnographers as well as to archaeologists. English fernes probably refers to balsam fir. The pejorative references to the Irish inclusion of livestock in the household, and to the Indians' lack of fitness for better society, are not so familiar or comfortable to 20th century ethnographers.

[September 29] Some of the Natives brought store of fresh fish as Pikes which are very large. Some I have seen 6 foot long; with attickemeck or scaly fish of the bigness of a perch. There is also fresh Sturgeon very good & Salmon trout plenty enough. They themselves feast chiefly on dried moose and Beaver, bread they have none nor anything in stead of it. The bones of those beasts they use to bruise and boil, and the fat arising thence they skim off and keep like butter, which they call cockamo and serves for sauce to all their delicate dishes - heretofore they used to boil their victuals in some of the skins of those beasts they feed on, but now they find the better convenience of our English kettles. Their dishes are made of the outmost rind of Birch which they work so close together that they will hold water as well as our wooden platters. When they eat they sit upon the ground which serves them for Tables, stools & Table cloth; Trenchers they use none & their own tawny bodies serve for napkins, which are so much more beautiful by how much they are the more greasy.

Note: Six foot fish are much more likely to be sturgeon than pike (for which the current record in North America is less than four feet). Or perhaps Gorst stretches the truth. With regard to cooking, before the English kettles were available, they probably put water into the stomach of caribou or moose, with heated rocks added from time to time to the heat the water and thus cook the food. The seams of birchbark containers may have been made watertight using a strip of fish gut and/or a glue made from the air sac of sturgeon.

[undated] When the weather grew colder they removed their Wigwams from us some leagues into the woods for the better convenience of killing Deer and wild fowl with which they often came and supplied us, as also with some of hares in winter as white as Snow.

The men are much about our stature and born in a manner as white as the English but with grease and paint they spoil their skins and make themselves look very deformed. The women differ not from them in habit, only that the Cape of their coats hang down behind Somewhat like a monk's hood whereas the men wear theirs close to their necks. Also the mens' hair hang long and for the most part downright, but the womens' are generally plaited.

[November 23] The Indians brought us a young deer which they had killed in the woods and they used daily afterwards to bring us fresh venson and truck [= trade] it for our peas which they love extremely but hate beef and pork and every thing which tastes of salt.

[March 14] He [Radisson] returned from thence [Moose Cebee] ... and that was the place where afterwards the Governor went along with him and traded with the people of that place...

Oldmixon is more ethnographically forthcoming in his (apparently verbatim) use of Gorst's journal. Here we learn something of one observer's opinions of native leadership with regard to traditional pursuits.

The Indians about Rupert's River and other Places in the Bay, are more simple than the Canadans, who have had longer Commerce with the Europeans. They are generally peaceable, and not given to quarrel either with themselves or others, except the Nodways, a wild and barbarous People on the Borders of Hudson's Streights; who sometimes in slight Parties make Incursions on the other Indians, and, having knock'd 8 or 10 on the Head, return in Triumph.

Note that the Nodways (a term meaning strange people) are violent, but there is no mention of retaliatory violence. Canadans probably refers to any of the more southerly groups.

The Indians of certain Districhs [sic], which are bounded by such and such Rivers, have each an Okimah, as they call him, or Captain over them, who is an Old Man, consider'd only for his Prudence and Experience. He has no Authority but what they think to give him upon certain Occasions. He is their Speech-maker to the English; as also in their own grave Debates, when they meet every Spring and Fall, to settle the Disposition of their Quarters for Hunting, Fowling, and Fishing. Every Family have their Boundaries adjusted, which they seldom quit, unless they have not Success there in their Hunting, and then they join in with some Family who have succeeded. (Oldmixon 1708, reprinted in Tyrrell 1931:381-382)

Here we have a very early statement by a respected leader (Okima), of the assignment to and extent of recognized hunting areas. The exact nature of the districts is uncertain, but certainly debatable (Bishop 1984:29). If Gorst had it right, and if Oldmixon has not altered it, rivers served as district boundaries. But it is not so clear as to whether the district is that area designated to each family, and the boundary rivers would then be two tributaries to a larger river, or whether the district is that area designated to the group of families headed by an Okimah, and boundary rivers would be a large portion of the drainage, and the groups would be regional bands composed of several hunting groups. Fortunately, as far as the principles of organization are concerned, it probably doesn't matter, since if the family unit was what Gorst intended, tributary rivers would boundary smaller segments of drainage, and the larger group of families would, in all likelihood, have comprised the latter, larger drainage area, alternative.

For the James Bay region, at least, major river drainages apparently defined districts within which regional bands dispersed and aggregated according to seasonal shifts in hunting strategies and probably also for event specific gatherings for feasts after a very successful hunt by one hunting group.

It is probably only within these larger districts that people may say "I can hunt wherever I want to.l" We can take this as a claim to a high level of mutual respect – that is, as a social comment, not a willful ignoring of others’ rights (Preston 1986:14). I believe that it is saying, in effect, “I am known and respected by others as a desirable and dependable co-hunter.” The statement of apparent individual freedom of movement and hunting locale is surely moderated by the traditional hunting ethics, as communicated in the "grave Debates", and any specific claim might have been given a consenting re-statement by the Okimah (see also Honigmann 1956:64). However, if the "wherever I want to" statement is made with reference to another of these large districts, it is possible that the speaker may have been rationalizing his desire to trespass on people less closely related to him.

In times of famine, boundaries are suspended for the sake of survival, and people would be expected to move constantly and for as great a distance as necessary to find food, and with the expectation that no one would oppose them in this search, and the more successful families would take in the needy.

Ethnohistoric evidence: Eighteenth Century

The persuasive influence of the Okimah was adapted fairly quickly to the fur trade, in organizing numbers of familes to proceed as a group to the post, and in negotiating the terms of the trade. The respect due to these leaders was given tangible form in gifts by the trader, which the leader might then redistribute to the men of his group. From Glyndwr Williams (1983:30) we read, "At Albany in 1706 the Indian captain [presumably Okimah] Whatting, who brought down twenty canoes, received one coat, six pounds of tobacco, six knives and a hatchet."

But we must already be cautious as to whether the natives being described are Crees. Bishop found reference to Ottawa Indians trading at Fort Albany as early as 1703 (1971:8) and Ojibwa moving into the area from the 1760's (1971:5) and perhaps much earlier (1984:33-36). Albany and Moose have rich and complex native histories, most of it still not written.

Sometime between 1726 and 1737 the traders at Moose and Albany began extending credit for outfitting equipment, for the humane purpose of aiding families with supplies to survive through the winter, and in a more political sense, for the setting up a reciprocal obligation for the Indians to continue to take their future furs to the trader who had offered the goods in trust of later payment.(Williams 1983:32)

I would like to propose that there was more at stake than we have realized in this credit relationship. The ability and willingness to provide these outfitting goods was also a political act in the sense of establishing, from the Cree point of view, a significant new leadership role. I believe that the trader was, consciously or otherwise, competing with the Okimah. Both were in a position of power in the sense of acting as a good steward, the trader allocating his technological resources, and the Okimah allocating the animal resources of hunting areas, for the success of the families in the coming winter.

Giving credit set up a reciprocal and long-term relationship of inequality. The first gesture is from the trader, and in exchange for his goods he would be given respect and prestige for his willingness to give 'on trust'. That this was viewed by the natives as a personal leadership relationship and not an impersonal business deal is suggested by the report of a credit default.

When Henry Pollexfen took over at Moose in 1757 he found there debts of more than 800 Made Beaver which the Indians concerned seemed to have little intention of settling on the grounds that they were presumed to have lapsed with the departure of the factor who had granted them. (Williams 1983:32)

If we can accept the concept that credit giving was reciprocated by recognition of this act as one of leadership, and add to that the implication in the Okimah's new role in bringing his group to this same person, a trade goods Okimah, at the post, the displacement of leadership seems to be increased. By the act of leading his families to the trader, the traditional Okimah is placing himself in an intermediary and potentially secondary prestige position. The "potentially secondary" implies a hierarchy of rank, regarded by most traders as the proper order of their social world but regarded by most Crees as contrary to their egalitarian ethic. The trader should therefore show equitable respect for this Cree ethic, giving gifts to the Okimah as tangible symbols of reciprocation between equals for these cooperative efforts. If the trader instead acts toward the Cree Okimah as if he has secondary rank, the potential of competitive conflict becomes clearer.

Charles Bishop's account of the Henley House "massacre" in 1743 provides a likely case of the consequences of this competitive conflict. These were not James Bay Cree, but Ojibwa to the west of James Bay. Bishop describes the situation of a trader who, finding the expectations of reciprocity more than he is willing to sustain, makes a rash effort at "pulling rank" on an Okimah, and precipitates an extreme reaction.

Ethnohistoric evidence: Nineteenth Century

There is an exception to the rule of non-killing of humans, and yes, I believe that it proves the rule. It is crucial enough to deserve some detailed telling. By the nineteenth century the fur trade relations between the Crees and the Europeans had become a tradition of its own. In times of hardship, the Crees expected that people who had enough food would share with those that had very little or none. And the Crees might resort to the trading posts in times of great scarcity, for relief. Normally it was provided at the post, even when the provisions were running low. The Crees had been paid to bring in food in the fall and during the winter, and might expect to have some claim to enough to tide them in a desperate situation. To refuse such a request when food was in storage was harsh.

In the winter of 1832 the region around the bottom of James Bay had few food-animals, and people were enduring starvation. Then there was a sudden thaw and refreezing, making a coating of glaze ice, and making movement on the land, and therefore hunting, very difficult for everyone (including other animals). In very poor and starving condition, the hunting group headed by old Quappekay managed to reach the Hudsons Bay Company outpost at Hannah Bay. The manager, old Corrigal, was finishing his undistinguished career as a trader in an outpost. The two old men faced off and Corrigal refused to give relief to Quappekay for his group. The group then left to go back into the bush.

Since the hunting group leader is responsible for successfully guiding their food getting activities, and since he felt that one or more deaths from starvation was very likely, he made a profoundly radical decision. In his extremity he conjured for guidance and was told by the spirit-person to go back to the outpost, overpower Corrigal and seize what they needed.

We will probably never know how violent they anticipated becoming. It is possible that their initial intentions were not murderous - - were determined but controlled. Perhaps, in the heat of the moment, their measured violence “got out of hand” (Cecil Chabot, p.c.). In any event, they killed Corrigal, his Cree wife, their children, and the others except for two that they could not catch.

There was a rumour that they expected that their boldness would stir up a revolt against the Hudson’s Bay Company. It did not happen. Instead most were found and the men and boys summarily executed by a punitive expedition. Other men were given up by Cree relatives to whom they had fled.

The main point to this narrative is that the Hudson’s Bay Company mens’ violence in killing the perpetrators was not reciprocated by the Crees, although we have evidence that strong feelings existed among the relatives of the dead men. The Crees could have revolted against the Company, but instead they were offended by the killings and rejected the option.

The “Hannah Bay Massacre” was recalled by old John Blackned as an example of where the Crees went off the edge of Cree morality, and were given wrong advice by the conjurer’s spirit. The ghost of Thomas Hobbes rises unexpectedly from the muskeg of the eastern Subarctic of Canada, and finds…… that thousands of years of hunting and gathering in small scattered groups has given serious real world challenge to Hobbes’ vision (for that is what it was) of life in a state of nature as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Major river drainage districts, as defined by the Crees, have by now also been identified as appropriate to the regional divisions of the fur trade, and posts or outposts are typically located at the mouths of some of these rivers.

During the 1860's, trespass (constituting disrespect) was reported in terms of these "large river" districts, for which we have documentary evidence for two specific examples from the Albany River district on the west side of James Bay. Note that there has already been a change in designation, from the Cree Okimah district leader to the HBCo factor as the person who is appealed to as the Okimah - translated for me as meaning "governor of the land" (Greg Spence's translation, pers. comm. Feb 1990). This does not necessarily mean a complete displacement of the traditional district leader by the HBCo factor, but it does mean at the very least, that the factor is now regarded not only as the person responsible for outfitting supplies, but also as the person responsible for resolving grievances regarding trespass by persons from other post-districts.

Issac Hardisty complains Apischa[pi?]ish & companions broke into his beaver lodges he had been preserving; they should return the skins to Hardisty.

(HBCA B.3/b/94, Alexander Macdonald to James Anderson (of Moose Factory), 14 March 1864, fo. 44)

"Ootappe or one of his party took a Bl[ac]k Bear, or rather stole it out of a snare set by one of our Indians, please make him give it up"

(HBCA B.3/b/95, Macdonald to Anderson, 27 September 1864, fo. 11)

It would appear that these two men chose to disregard the ethical restraints on hunting anywhere they pleased; in the latter case even to the point of deciding to let another man's hunt satisfy his needs. Whether these trespassers took particular actions against particular other hunters, for specific reasons, or whether they are examples of individuals who had little regard for the ethical norms, we do not know.

When missionaries come on the scene, they give moral and ethical power to help the native people live free from sorcery and with the power of hymns that compare closely, as songs sung to spirit persons, to the power of hunting songs (Preston 1985). Unlike the hunters, for whom songs are privately created, owned, and bequeathed, the missionaries generously give their songs to all who will care to learn and sing them, and in return are given respect and prestige. Here the ethical leadership of the Cree Okimah is faced with competition by a new religious Okimah. It is at about this time, Ellis believes, that the term Okimahkan, with its suffix implying "chief-like" (1960; Rogers, 1965) or diminished chief, is used for native leaders, and Okimah is given to traders, missionaries, and later, to government authorities.

It is also in the 19th century that traders more actively intervene in the old order, by trying to allocate the hunter's harvesting locations and protect them from trespass. Besides trying to get hunters to spread themselves efficiently into fur bearing ranges rather than efficiently into food providing ranges, there is greater emphasis on "Homeguard" families who stay close to the post and make their labour available as required.

Leading up to 20th Century Transformations

Chief Reg Loutit, Attawapiskat, Ontario, speaking at The James Bay Trappers Council's Third Annual Assembly, August 24, 1990, observed that his grandfather signed the treaty, but that the freedom to continue traditional economic harvesting pursuits has not been respected since the treaty.

James Wesley, an elder of Attawapiskat, spoke eloquently of the diminishment of trapping and especially of the ethical principles that guided their actions. He said that, with setting up the schools, it was like cutting the lifeline of trapping as a way of life of the Cree people. "We remember how hard people tried to keep this going... - the people who starved and even died, when the government was not looking after them. I do not want to see the end of trapping. Limiting people to territories caused great hardship. Before the trapline designation came into being, they did much better and respected each others' rights." (emphasis mine)

These concerns for the continuance of freedom in traditional pursuits and the respect for each others’ rights that existed long before government intervention, demands our understanding and support. What follows is an ethnohistoric and ethnographic reconstruction of the culture-historical basis of this individual and concensual respect for rights for land use and harvesting.

During the 20th century we anthropologists developed a prolonged debate on the various definitions of 'hunting and trapping territory' and then used one or more of these definitions as a reference point to compare contemporary practices to their pre-contact antecedents.

Put simply, and focussing on the James Bay region in particular, there is a process of change to be traced back from the present regime of provincially regulated, individually held, boundaried trapline areas, to some distinctly different, antecedent, indigenous 'cultural system' for coordinating the actions of native harvesters. The main contrast that is to be made is between:

1) a Euro-Canadian cultural conception of the designation of uniform and specified rights to a specified material good, that is, allocation of a piece of land -- essentially the rental of some real estate -- for trapping and hunting purposes, and

2) an indigenous cultural system best conceived of in terms of the Cree personalized and fluidly adaptive hunting ethics that normally guided and constrained the respectful activities and locations of harvesters.

Hunting ethics focusses on the right conduct of relationships between people, and between people and animals. This refers to a great deal more than a material good. It includes a culturally patterned, and individually understood mental 'map' of relationships to places, people, and animals:

(1) places: where people would typically have been active in harvesting, through the annual cycle,

(2) people: how they would have respected others in their decisions on where and what to harvest, and

(3) animals: how these decisions and actions would have been accommodated to the different behavioural characteristics, including expectations of respect, of various species of animals and to their fluctuating populations.

20th Century evidence: ethnographic history

In the later 1920's and early 1930's, John M. Cooper obtained detailed accounts from capable informants, for land use patterns extending back in time for three or more generations. His 1932 mapping has been revised recently in the light of data that he obtained in 1933 and 1934, by Flannery and Chambers (1986) who add some very useful ethnographic details and critical discussion. In short, we find that the principles for allocating land areas is very similar to that reported two centuries before by Gorst-Oldmixon. Rivers and their tributary small rivers define the areas. The scale of the areas and the density of the population in the 1870s may or may not be quite different from the situation of the 1670s, but the principles sound very familiar indeed.

Territories centered on a drainage system, often tributaries of the major river systems which were the primary routes of travel. The inland lands were always described by reference to natural features of the terrain, such as river banks, confluences or forks of streams, sides of lakes, rocky points, rapids, and sometimes the distance from a post. The territories of families related by marriage were often contiguous, as in the example of two sets of half-brothers having a common father. To the extent that "edges" of holdings were referred to (although the term "boundaries" was seldom used by Cree respondents), the boundaries of contiguous holdings were reckoned within several miles, by reference almost always to landscape features, and sometimes to the grounds recognized as belonging to someone else. (1986:127-128)

With regard to trespass, Flannery and Chambers summarize the norms and indicate where there was strong agreement, and where unanimity was lacking. They also illustrate with one extreme case of a shooting of a man and his older son (but not the wife and two younger children) of a Moose family, by a more southerly Abitibi Ojibwa Indian man whose territory it was. More normal circumstances included appeals to the trader, who could refuse credit for the stolen furs (1986:129).

What we lack in the Cooper-Flannery-Chambers data is an analysis of the effect of the traders on the allocation of harvesting land. I think it very plausible that the effects would include some individuation in the sense of smaller hunting groups on smaller family territories. Yet this remains to be demonstrated. We have a dramatic comparison case in the coastal territories for Fort George, as a map in Flannery and Chambers (1986: Figure 5) shows, and as Cree elder Geordie Georgekish explained. In the 1970's he told me that, years ago, the HBCo manager had divided these lands, "just like a checker board" into a string of ten miles square territories. (Preston 1981:198)

Interventions on the south and west coasts of James Bay were apparently more subtle, probably more typically a matter of recruiting hunters away from their lands to serve as homeguard Indians, or settling disputes over trespass and perhaps over inheritance. And when some people did appear to just go anywhere, the post managers might try to restore the old order, as they understood it. Whether, in any specific instance, they mis-identified the adaptive flexibility of Cree ethics, or more correctly responded to times when one or many families "gave up" on the traditional ethics, to the distress of their neighbours, has yet to be described.

The extent of family-hunting groups and the extent and locations of their hunting areas in the 1670s can only be guessed at. Recall that Gorst says he has seen 16 or 18 persons as a co-residenial unit. So it is significant that Flannery found evidence for rather large hunting groups, larger than Gorst's 16 or 18 (Nute 1943:287), at a time of plenty. She recorded a maximum of seven commensal groups or "families" as a co-residential group during a winter when there were lots of caribou, about 1885 (1986:125-126). Olaus J. Murie recorded in his journal (but left out of his book) a similarly large group in a large 3-fire wigwam, on the east coast (Swallow's group, north of Eastmain) in the first decade of this century (Murie, n.d.).

The size of the group may be very easily adjusted, not only during changing conditions of the seasonal cycle of aggregation and dispersal, but on the longer terms of named hunting groups as well. It may be that the ratio of human to animal populations is the most effective factor, and the extent of consensus in ethical actions during the immediately preceding seasons may be the second most effective factor in determining whether there will be large co-residential groups on large hunting areas with few concerns over exclusive access. The extent of respect for the leader would be one aspect of this second factor.

Comparative ethnographic evidence

To develop some comparative evidence and hypotheses regarding historical changes in the James Bay concept of hunting ethics, I am also using and supplementing from my own ethnographic data the insights contained in Who Owns the Beaver? Northern Algonquian Land Tenure Reconsidered (Bishop and Marantz 1986), especially regarding two main topics: (1) the adequacy of our concepts and (2) the more precise uses of ethical rules.

In terms of Cree harvesting ethics, the statement, "I Can Trap Anywhere" matches the mote general ethical statement, "Its up to the individual." Yet each autonomous individual is expected to be respectful of the autonomy of other individuals. This “ethic of non-interference” is, ideally and normally, the moderating principle of the free exercise of individual will. "I can go anywhere" is a social (and now, a political) proclamation of one's autonomy. But the social and ecological situation is not random; people do not really just go anywhere, any time they please. To go where one is not welcome is always possible, but is not done often or, even more rarely, without some reason. Others may not take this unwanted presence lightly. And this ethical standard was embodied and taught by the most competent, senior people, the "person who makes decisions well", at the level of each beykodeno (commensal group), and for each cluster of these groups, the headman of the hunting group, and for the summer gathering of the hunting groups of a region, the man who was the traditional Okimah.

There is another variable to add to this, which is the individual differences between individual traders and between traders and other authorities, in their responses to issues regarding land allocation and use. While some traders are on record as trying to salvage the old system of land allocation, which seems to have broken down in the early 20th century, we also have Willy Allen telling Cooper that, after the treaty, when Indians complained to the (treaty party) White authorities about other Indians' trepass, the White said they could hunt "where they pleased".

This report suggests that the Treaty was intended by the Indians to give authority over ethical land allocation and resource allocation to the government, but the authority was not soon accepted, so that territory allocation and respect nearly broke down. This near breakdown ocurred before the Treaty and was a reason for asking for a Treaty. The problem was that it then nearly broke down again, after the Treaty. The Crees intended the Treaty to give the government authority to respond effectively to hardships and threats to environmental and cultural integrity, and when these hardships and threats continued after the Treaty, it appeared to the Crees that the Government was not aware of the responsibility it had taken on. Thus the statement that "the treaty almost broke down."

Briefly, I want to return to some comments at the James Bay Trapper's Council meeting last August.

We had the will and the path in 1905 [the time of the treaty], and we have it today.

Then [after the trapline system was drawn up and enforced] some land in some areas became overtrapped, and they were frustrated to have to stay in that one spot and not move inland. I hear these complaints all over Ontario.

It is important to teach trapping and land skills, and the deep understanding that their ancestors' very lives depended on this. In those days there was nobody to tell us what to do, or where to go, and we did very well.

We should take the road that John Turner has outlined today [for a cooperative corporation to be named the Omushkegowuck Harvesters Association].

Cree management of trapping and other harvesting activities is seen as a contemporary form of self-governance that may be the best possible route to return to a traditional Cree ethical system. The old way may be retrieved to the extent that there can be a return to guidelines for individual autonomy and social responsibility. These guidelines may be formulated on the old model, a model that made good sense and worked more successfully than the colonial, Federal and provincial systems that replaced it.

In the wisdom of hindsight, it seems that, when the HBC trader became the fur trade okimah, and the missionary became the moral okimah, the Crees had over-accommodated to the eagerness for authority that these European agents expected and demonstrated. Cree leadership was weakened, and with the diminishment of Cree okimah roles, we have the diminishment of the exemplars, the teachers, of the Cree system of hunting ethics. Now, the strengthening of Cree leadership and ethics is wanted. And it appears in an unexpected place.

Twenty-first Century Politics of Respect

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 Cree townspeople’s statements and interactional strategies, from global media, and from school. These several replacements have been radical. What kind of Cree autonomy emerges from these encounters? Not an individualistic autonomy, but an autonomy that is performed, shared and respected in local groups or personal communities within larger groups, and sometimes with non-Cree groups. In my opinion, this is not an imposition of modernity, and may prove to be part of a larger, globalizing process of Indigenous spirituality.

Political autonomy is typically the secular opposite of personal community spiritual autonomy. Secular political autonomy makes sense as a goal 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 1970’s. 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 internal formation and nurturing of community. We saw this in the exclusionary 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 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.

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 political leaders. The nature and scope of the vision portrayed is often essentially spiritual, and we might usefully look for the roots of this vision in traditional hunting spirituality. In the statement that follows, the theme of hope is given central, spiritual prominence.

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. (Jevne 2004:2:6-1)

I find that the political stance of Cree leaders has sometimes very effectively emphasized the morality of personal autonomy, placing hope at the front and trying to expand public awareness, in preference to protesting the politics of minority group identity in opposition to hegemonic national identities. The goal is to maintain respect relations, even when they are nor reciprocated. In a fashion reminiscent of Gandhi, the hope is that respect will eventually be reciprocated. Some professionals in the area of Indigenous politics say that the Crees are the leading edge of developments of this sort. It appears to me that the respect and hope aspects of hunting spirituality have been transformed into political ideology. In negotiation of the 2002 Paix des breves this has succeeded to the point of the Quebec Crees being formally recognized as a nation, and where the economic benefits of a very large hydroelectric development includes, for the Quebec Crees, a percentage of the profits, over the years. From the outside, it looked like a very unequal contest, but the neo-liberal ideology of the developing corporations and the Quebec government posed no insurmountable obstacle to negotiation with the Cree leadership.


Bishop, Charles A.



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