Aerial view of Eastmain in the 1970s.
Women getting boughs
Located at the mouth of the Eastmain River, Eastmain - population 7001 - is one of the smallest Cree communities. It is also one of the oldest:2 The trading post at Eastmain was the second opened by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) on the east coast of James Bay. For about 100 years – from the early 1700s until 1820 – it was the most important trading centre in the region. All inland exploration and all the expeditions up the coast in search of suitable places to build other HBC trading posts were organized from Eastmain. While whaling activities and prospecting surveys, both conducted further north, were coordinated from here, fur trading was the principal concern. Of particular interest to the fur traders were the beaver-rich lands of our ancestors.
The late Noah Mamianskum told a story about northern Iiyiyuu coming to Eastmain to trade in the days when Eastmain was the only post on the coast:
Going to Eastmain
This story took place when Eastmain was the only post on this side of the coast. In those days the Iiyiyuu had to go a long way to get supplies for there was no other post. Some of the people would travel from Eastmain, up past Whapmagoostui to Richmond Gulf and on to Nipiischii [Lake Minto] to spend freeze-up on the tundra. Heading southward on the land, a few even returned to Eastmain during the winter to trade. On those trips to the post, one of the people was designated leader. Everyone did what the leader said. One time when a group was returning from the post and while they were still a long way from home, they realized they would probably not make it back before break-up. There had been an extremely warm spring thaw that year. They moved quickly with their toboggans but they knew they would have to stop somewhere along the way to make canoes. Canoes were made with birchbark in those days. I guess they had bought birchbark at the post. Birchbark was one of the things sold there.
The days got warmer. With the group was an old man, a wise man. As was the custom a long time ago, the old man was the last one on the trail as they travelled along. One time, as they were resting on the ice waiting for him to catch up, the leader of the group discussed the possibility they wouldn't make it home before break-up. “I guess we'll go as far as we can and stop when we have to,” he said. “Maybe I will tease our grandfather when he catches up to us. I'll ask him to make the weather cold so that the snow will freeze again.”
When the old man caught up, he said to the group, “I feel sorry for you my grandchildren because the going is not very easy, and we still have a long way to go.”
“Well, Grandfather,” the leader responded, “I want to tease you a little bit. I would like to ask you to make the weather cold so that we can walk more easily.”
“I've never had a job like that before!” the old man exclaimed.
In those days alcohol was one of the things the Hudson's Bay Company stocked in their store. It was sold in big barrels. Some was being carried home on this trip. It belonged to the leader of the group. The leader undid his load and poured a drink for the old man. Handing the drink to the old man, he said, “Here Grandfather, have a drink. You must be tired.”
“I'm grateful for the drink, Grandchild,” the old man responded. When he had finished, the leader gave him more. He was beginning to feel it! After he had finished, the leader instructed the people to continue on their way. They overheard the old man chanting away as they walked along. The day was warm and clear, the snow slushy. Before long they could hear the old man singing. He was feeling very good by then!
“Grandchildren, look for me to the north,” he said. To the north they could see dark clouds, dark clouds being blown about fast by the wind. “By the looks of things the snow will freeze good and hard,” commented the old man. He burst into song.
The leader told the people to go ashore and make a big fire to dry their soggy footwear. In those days the Iiyiyuu didn't have much in the way of waterproof footwear. “Dry your footwear,” he said, “for it looks like it's going to be very cold. Let's walk as far as we can while it's cold.”
They made a huge fire on ground that was already exposed. By then, there were large patches of exposed ground where the snow had melted away. They kept testing the snow. When the snow was hard enough so that their snowshoes wouldn't sink through, they continued their trek. By sundown they didn't need snowshoes at all. The snow was frozen so solidly they could walk quickly. They walked through the night not stopping to sleep. With the going so easy, they reached their camp before the snow started to melt again. They certainly put their old man to good use!
Storyteller: Noah Mamianskum
In recent years, the effects of two hydroelectric development projects have been of great concern to us: The first, which involved diverting the waters from the lower Eastmain River into the LaGrande River system, reduced the river at Eastmain to a trickle.3 The second resulted in the flooding of the middle part of the Eastmain River and the destruction of the hunting lands in the vicinity of the flooding. Our people were deeply troubled about both projects, but in the end reluctantly accepted the second because of the benefits that could accrue to our youth.4
As part of a large salvage archaeology project conducted prior to the flooding, hours of interviews were conducted with people about how and where they lived in the area. The following is about the gatherings the late David Moses held at Wiishaakuushiiuu Saakihiikan at Christmas time. Gatherings such as these “were one of the ways people helped each other,” said one of the elders.5
Christmas at Wiishaakuushiiuu Saakihiikan
The late David Moses had a custom of inviting people for a feast when he had a lot of traditional and non-traditional food. He would invite us to his land, his birthplace, which he loved to share. He hunted in this area, while our family hunted east of here where my father's hunting grounds were. They would often encounter each other on the land and the late David Moses would invite us to his camp for Christmas. This is where we would wait for Santa Claus. We were slowly being introduced to non-traditional food and the Christmas custom of gift giving.
We would arrive at the camp a few days before Christmas. It was fun in those days when we were living here. We were young at the time, young teenagers having fun and full of Christmas cheer! We would follow the trails around and take the sleds to go sliding. But then our mothers would call us in to help with the work inside the camp. They were cooking and wanted us to help with the jobs that needed to be done. They would prepare all the food for a feast.
On Christmas Eve, we hung up our bags for Santa to fill. We would get sweets and clothing. The men and women would dress in their finest. The women would dress in their finest and comb their hair. They couldn't curl it! Then we would have a big feast, consisting of beaver cooked different ways. Bear meat was boiled and the grease was distributed to everyone, and puutin and bannock were made.
We would stay at the Moses camp for a few days into the new year and then move back to our camps. This was an annual event for us in those days. That was the way people treated each other. If someone had a lot of food to share, he invited the nearby camps over for a Christmas feast. This camp spot held many a feast in its day. There was a lot of good food shared here.
Storytellers: Sarah (Mettaweskum) Wapachee and Hattie (Mettaweskum) Moses
Visit our website: Cree Nation of Eastmain
- 1. Source: Statistics Canada 2006.
- 2. The first trading post in the region was at Waskaganish, but it was only open for a few years: The Hudson's Bay Company established a post at Waskaganish in 1670. It was sacked by the French in 1686 and its occupants were forced to flee.
- 3. The Crees contested phase I of the James Bay hydroelectric project. Negotiations between the Crees, and the federal and provincial governments eventually culminated in the historic James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
- 4. The terms of the agreement permitting this project were spelled out in what is now known as the “Paix des Braves.”
- 5. A grandson of David Moses, Grand Chief Ted Moses, negotiated the Paix des Braves on behalf of the Crees.