Mistissini - population about 3,0001 - is located at the south end of Lake Mistassini. Our name means, Big Rock, referring to the immense boulder near the discharge of Lake Mistassini into the Rupert River. For more than 5,000 years, our area was known for another kind of rock: Mistassini quartzite or wiianwapsk. In the days when tools were made from stone and bone, wiianwapsk was the pre-eminent stone used by our ancestors.
Wiianwapsk was also favoured by native people from other areas. It has shown up in archaeological sites from Mistissini to the LaGrande and Caniapiscau River drainage basins and, in the other direction, south to the St. Lawrence River, the Ottawa River and New England. The most important source of wiianwapsk is the Colline Blanche, an outcrop of fine-grained white chert, deep in the heart of Mistissini territory.2
Use of wiianwapsk gradually diminished as our ancestors became acquainted with European trade goods. At first our main suppliers of European goods were the Montagnais, some of whom our ancestors met at large summer gatherings at Lac Saint-Jean and Lac Nicabau.
These gatherings were interrupted in the mid-1600s by bands of Iroquois – Naataweuch - warriors who were steadily pushing their way northwards, terrorizing everyone in their path. They reached the Mistissini area in 1665. Afraid of encountering Naataweuch on our trips south for supplies, our ancestors temporarily turned their attention to the new English trading post at Waskaganish.3
Mistissini elder, George Cannashish, talked about Kaaiinuukinuuhch (meaning, Human Bones Rapids), a place on his trapline identified with the Naataweuch:
“Long ago when the Naataweuch were still killing Cree people, a Naataweuch canoe must have tipped over near Kaaiinuukinuuhch, where we made a fire. That's where they found the bones. They probably thought it was safe to go down, but their canoe must have tipped and they drowned.”
Many years later, access to supplies was once again impeded, this time by the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The resulting collapse in fur prices coincided with a decline in game animals. Life was very difficult for the people at this time:
“I grew up here in Mistissini. I saw the time when it was really hard to survive. I can still recall when people went into the bush with nothing. I saw this happen often, people not taking anything with them to the bush except for their clothes. People called flour, oats, sugar and lard, “whiteman's” food. That is what they didn't have. They survived all year-round on fish,” said a Mistissini elder.
“In the past, a person would only have his canoe, blanket and some cookware with him when he went to his hunting grounds. Some people didn't even have a box of food,” a Mistissini elder recounted.
“There were no partridges or rabbit in those days. And fish was very scarce too. Even when we hunted, we didn't kill anything. One day when we didn't have anything left to eat my dad and I went out hunting. We walked all day and managed to kill two partridges for our lunch, but the rest of the family at home had nothing to eat. Then, as we continued walking, we came upon moose tracks. We followed them and found the moose and my father killed it. I was so thankful. It was really hard in those days,” remembered a Mistissini elder.
With the opening of the Mistassini beaver preserve in the early 1950s, people finally had food to eat and pelts to sell.4 “Then,” as Charlotte Husky Swallow says in the story below, “the fun started.”
After the Opening of the Beaver Preserve
“People definitely suffered in those days. Beaver pelts had been our main source of income. Without them we didn't have much fur to sell, especially when mink was about all we could trap. There was no moose in our area at the time, none at all. Once the beaver population had grown, we were allowed to trap them,” said Johnny.
“Then the fun started! There were beaver piled up in the tents,” Charlotte exclaimed.
“At the beginning, my grandfather and I were each given a quota of 75 beaver to trap on his trapline. I imagine it was the same for everyone. I was given a quota of 100 after I was married. My grandfather received the same thing,” said Johnny.
He continued, “When I was young I always dreamed of living here [Chiipaii Pachistwakan, on trapline M25], so as soon as we got married it's the first place we camped. It was full of dry firewood, especially tamarack. Charlotte and I went into the bush by canoe the first year we were married. We paddled to Chiipaii Pachistwakan from Mistissini. But first we paddled to Chibougamau to get supplies because it was cheaper. We had enough money to purchase the essentials for the winter. We had enough for the whole winter.
“We hunted along the way. This was my first trip inland with Charlotte so I took my time,” Johnny joked.
“He would shoot geese along the way. Sometimes he would go after them even though it was getting dark,” Charlotte added.
Johnny continued, “The walk through the bush was quite brutal. We weren't following a portage, we were taking a short-cut. I took my woman all over the place that year. I tried to make her life as easy as possible, but I guess I didn't with all the walking I made her do.
“During the winter months we often travelled from place to place in search of beaver houses. One time I found two houses. I didn't set any traps there because I had made up my mind to escheu.5 I told Charlotte we would escheu the next day because the lodges looked good for that technique. We left early next morning. By noon we had killed the adult beaver from one of the houses. We went on to the next lodge and, by the end of the day, killed the adult beaver there. This was earlier in the winter, before there was too much snow and the ice wasn't too thick. I enjoyed this time of the year. It was a good time to use this method of trapping.”
“Sometimes we used a gill net to catch the beaver when we were using the escheu method. We set it up at the exit of the beaver lodge. The net was held with a string that was attached to a pole. The string holding the net wasn't very strong. It was made to break as the beaver swam out of the exit while it was still caught in the net. Then the beaver was retrieved. It was fun catching beaver this way. I noticed we didn't catch many young beaver this way,” said Charlotte.
“No, the smaller beaver weren't strong enough to swim away with the net. The size of the net was made to fit an adult beaver,” Johnny explained.
“Akwaawaan [thinly-cut, deboned beaver that is hung to dry] was made in the spring. The meat was put on a pakutwaawaan [rack used to smoke-dry meat and fish]. Ducks, geese and loon were processed this way, too. This process made the meat last longer and it was lighter for the trip back to the community in late spring,”said Charlotte.6
“Before going back into the bush [the following] fall, I bought a twenty-foot canoe and a ten-horsepower outboard motor so we wouldn't have to paddle.7 We brought enough gasoline to get us into the bush in the fall and back to Mistissini in the spring,” Johnny added.
Storytellers: Johnny and Charlotte Husky Swallow
Visit our website at: Cree Nation of Mistissini
- 1. Source: Statistics Canada 2006.
- 2. Source: Denton, David 1998 “From the Source to the Margins and Back – Notes on Mistassini Quartzite and Archaeology in the Area of the Colline Blanche.” In L'eveilleur et l'ambassadeur: essais archéologiques et ethnohistoriques en hommage à Charles Martijn. Roland Tremblay, editor. Recherches amérindiennes au Québec. Collection Paléo-Québec. No.27. Pp:17-32.
- 3. Trading at Waskaganish on behalf of the English began in 1668. The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) established a post in 1670, but it closed in 1686 when the French attacked the post and chased the English away. In 1719, the HBC established another post on the east side of James Bay, this time at Eastmain. Because they were treated better by traders “from Canada,” our ancestors probably didn't really resume trading with the HBC until the end of the 1700s.
- 4. On-going requests, the most recent from David Neeposh, who represented the Neoskweskau people, and from Chief Isaac Shecapio, finally resulted in the creation of the Mistassini beaver preserve in 1948. This was the culmination of an effort begun more than 10 years earlier when Isaac's brother, Matthew Shecapio, went to Quebec to bring the plight of the people to the attention of government officials.
- 5. Escheu: “This was a way to trap beaver. Instead of setting traps overnight, they blocked the exit holes from the lodge and caught all the beaver in the lodge in one day. They caught the beaver by hand, or by setting a gill net or traps at the exit holes,” explained John Bosum.
- 6. Bringing food back to the community was important because people didn't have much money and there weren't many opportunities for employment.
- 7. In the 1940s, the Indian agent felt that because of the high rate of tuberculosis at Mistissini and because of the effort involved in paddling and portaging long distances, the people were becoming run down. For most people, however, it wasn't until after the opening of the beaver preserve that income from trapping was sufficient to permit the purchase of a boat and motor.