The Cree Indians of the James Bay area of northern Quebec belong to the Algonquian linguistic group. They call their territory ‘Iiyiyuuschii’ (land of the people). Their ancestors first settled on the East side of James Bay about 4000 years ago. These early settlers lived as nomads eking out an existence from the resources that the taiga had to offer by hunting, trapping and fishing.
The 17 th Century brought the first European explorers to this area, when Henry Hudson who arrived in 1610. They were followed by traders who were keen to exploit the furs that the region had to offer. These traders relied on close collaboration with the Cree. The traders would have found it very difficult to survive without help from the Cree who knew the land and were excellent hunters and trappers. Both sides benefitted from the relationship. The fur traders introduced guns, metal objects and string which were useful to the Cree, while they were quick to adopt certain Cree technology like snowshoes and canoes.
Small settlements were established, mainly along the coast of James Bay, which gradually became the permanent homes of the Cree. Their livelihood, however, remained in the 'bush' where they hunted, trapped and fished far into the interior. The animals most highly valued by Cree hunters were moose, caribou and wild geese.
Today, there are around 13,000 Cree in the James Bay area living in nine main communities. Their territory is vast, about 75% of the size of France and it is consists of largely of boreal forest and coast that stretches from Whapmagoostui (formerly 'Great Whale') in the North to Waswanipi in the South. Most Cree live close to the coast of James Bay but there are also several inland communities.
For years the Cree could do little but watch, as mining, forestry and hydro electric schemes encroached into their land, but when In 1971, Quebec's Prime Minister Bourassa announced a vast hydro-electric project that entailed flooding 176,000 square kilometres of Northern Quebec's Boreal forest and tundra. The Cree decided to take action and successfully defended their traditional lands by opposing the scheme in the courts. The issue was settled by negotiation which culminated in the signing of the ' James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement' in 1975. Under this agreement the Cree and most of Quebec's Inuit relinquished their claims to the Province's northern lands in return for 225 million Canadian Dollars and 14,000 square kilometres (5,400 square miles) of native land reserves, as well as exclusive hunting fishing and trapping rights to a further 156,000 square kilometres.
The Cree language belongs to the Algonquin group of languages that includes Ojibwa and Micmac. The Cree of James Bay speak a branch of Cree known as ‘East Cree’ or ‘Montagnais’ which they share with two other native peoples, the Montagnais from Eastern Quebec and the Innu of Labrador. In the James Bay region the language has two dialects, the northern dialect that is spoken in coastal & northern communities and the ‘southern dialect’ that is spoken inland and in the more southerly communities.
The hunting, trapping and fishing activities of the Cree can be divided into two main groups, the communities that live on the coast of James Bay and those that live in the interior. The coastal Cree are heavily dependant on the geese that migrate through their territory each spring and fall. It's estimated these goose hunts provide the coastal communities with four months supply of meat each year. While the coastal Cree also have their hunting grounds relatively close to their villages, the Cree communities in the interior are more dependant on big game like moose and caribou and their hunting grounds are often far away from their communities.
Both full and part time hunters follow the annual cycle determined by the movements of the animals and the land, but it is only the full time hunters who leave their villages each fall for the winter hunting and trapping season which can last from six to nine months. This seasonal cycle originated in former times but was adapted to accommodate the needs of the fur trade. Nevertheless it is thought of as traditional and still underpins the economic life of the Cree today.
During this winter hunting period the Cree are dispersed over 170,000 square kilometres of the James Bay territory. The whole region is divided up into areas that are used by each of the Cree bands and then sub divided into individual or family hunting areas. These areas, known as trap lines vary in size between 100 and 1,500 square miles. They are owned by an individual but are often used by a small group of hunters, with family or friendship ties, with the owner acting as the group's leader
The territory of the James Bay Cree is rich in game and the Cree have always depended on the animals they hunt for food. Beaver is perhaps the most common meat but they also eat moose, caribou, otter, porcupine, ducks, geese and a whole variety of fish. In the summer they collect berries and edible plants. Nowadays all the communities have modern stores with a wide range of North American foods but ‘bush food’ remains very popular.
The most important form of transport for the Cree was the canoe. They used to be made of birch bark but now modern materials like fibre glass are used. It was common for them to make long journeys to their hunting and trapping grounds by canoe travelling on rivers, streams and lakes. Until the arrival of the snowmobile the Cree travelled on foot in the winter time using snow shoes. They had different types of snow shoes for different uses. They used birch toboggans for carrying their equipment and supplies.
Traditionally, the Cree lived in an animate spirit world. They perceive animals as being like man in that they have intelligence, character, and most have souls and spirits the same way that people do. The hunters believe that the animals they catch are a gift from ‘Chuetenshu’, the North Wind and lord of the animals, and from the animals themselves. They believe that most animals willingly give themselves to the hunter. These 'gifts' place a hunter under an obligation to cause the animal no unnecessary suffering and to observe set procedures for retrieving, butchering and disposing of the animal and to completely utilise the flesh and other useful parts. With certain prey that the Cree hunt like bear, beaver, otter and porcupine there are restrictions on the eating of the meat. There are certain parts of the animal that must only be eaten by men and other parts only by women. Failing to observe these procedures, the hunters believe will result in punishment by either the North Wind that can freeze you, or by the animals that will no longer allow themselves to be caught. There have been missionaries in Cree communities for many years and nowadays most Cree are Christians.
Most Cree now wear modern clothing and when they go hunting in the winter they are likely to wear store bought mass produced cold weather clothing like parkas, earflap hats and skidoo suits. Some do still prepare and tan their own moose and caribou hides and make some of their own hunting clothes like Moccasins and mittens.
In most James Bay Cree communities social problems have seen a sharp increase over the past
30 years, mainly domestic violence, child neglect, juvenile delinquency and suicide attempts.
These problems are largely the result of changes to the Cree culture, acculturation, unemployment, and alcohol and other substance abuse. In fact, public health officials and many Cree themselves believe that alcohol consumption is responsible for the majority of the problems in the community.
Text © B & C Alexander