Waskaganish - population 1,8641 - is located at the mouth of the Rupert River. Here, in 1668, emissaries sponsored by the English Crown established a small settlement to explore the region's potential for commercial ventures. Positive response from the Iiyiyuu resulted in the 1670 charter that created both Rupert's Land and the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). The original settlement was immediately expanded to become the HBC's centre for trade and mineral exploration, with a governor in residence. After being sacked by a French military expedition, in 1686, the settlement was abandoned. Ninety years later, in 1776, it was reopened as a small satellite of Eastmain House.2 The name “Waskaganish” - meaning, Little House - might have originated at this time.
Waskaganish replaced Eastmain as the shipping and trading centre of the region, in the early1800s, after the HBC realized it was easier to supply its inland posts along the Rupert River than along the Eastmain. With the switch to Waskaganish came the “birth” of the historic Rupert River canoe brigades, a tradition that lasted more than 120 years: In the early days, each summer convoys of canoes piled high with packs of furs and hides, with dried castoreum, rolls of birchbark and, sometimes, isinglass3 paddled to Waskaganish from the inland posts; then home again with the outfit for the upcoming year.
The summer population at Waskaganish soared after it became the trading centre of the region because many inlanders formerly associated with Eastmain, Lake Nemiscau and Neoskweskau transferred here.4 Then, in the early twentieth century, the number of people “belonging” to Waskaganish plummeted: Revillon Frères had arrived in the region. Competition from the French company forced the HBC to reopen at Nemaska and Neoskweskau, and to improve its terms of trade. As a result, descendants of people who had transferred to Waskaganish in the early 1800s abandoned Waskaganish for trading posts that were more conveniently located, closer to their hunting grounds.
The first story below took place after Revillon Frères arrived in the region. It is about Old Man Whiskeychan, Moses Pekatao and his son, David Moses. David's branch of the Moses family is now considered to be from Eastmain, but, at the time of the story, the family was still associated with Waskaganish. The story was told within the context of the massive cultural heritage and archaeology project that was conducted prior to the flooding and diversion of the Eastmain and Rupert rivers for the production of hydroelectricity. As with the other Cree communities, issues related to hydroelectric development in James Bay have been a major concern to our people.
Old Man Whiskeychan and Moses Pekatao
Sometimes the Eastmain River was too high and would only be accessible at the end of June when the water level receded. If people couldn't wait, they would take a detour through Mihiaapiskaauu [a tributary of the Eastmain River]. Some of the people, like my late grandfathers Moses Pekatao and Jacob Blackned, were from Waskaganish. At times Moses would go via Chinusheu Siipuuu [Pike River] to get to Wiishaakuushiiuu Saakihiikan [Lac Pivert]. Wiishaakuushiiuu Saakihiikan was one of the best spots, a prime hunting and trapping area. There was plenty of big game like moose and bear. Whoever lived here would always invite his friends to hunt with him in this area.
My grandfather [Moses Pekatao] and Old Man Whiskeychan often travelled together. One time in the early spring, my grandfather met Whiskeychan's group as they were venturing into the area. Whiskeychan had stopped somewhere else because he thought our area was already trapped out. My grandfather's group walked the area where my grandfather was camped and found eight beaver houses. My grandfather told Whiskeychan that since he hadn't had much luck that winter, he would give him the lodges to trap. But Whiskeychan said he would wait until the following winter since he was heading for the coast.
My grandfather asked what Whiskeychan thought of leaving his sons behind to trap the beaver with my grandfather's group. David Moses was in his prime at the time. My father [Alfred Moses] went with him [David Moses], along with one of Whiskeychan's sons. The others went to the other beaver houses. My father's group killed four beaver, two adult, two children. They waited for the other group. Meanwhile, their wives and children had already made the long trek to the coast. David asked someone to cook one of the young beaver for supper. The following morning they went to another beaver house where they killed one adult and four young. They had beaver entrails for breakfast the following morning. They went to another beaver house and killed one more beaver, giving them a total of twelve beaver.
They decided to make the trek to the coast. The other group was still out on their beaver trapping trip. Along the way, they came across muskeg and noticed an opening in the hills ahead. With Moses leading the way, they decided to go through the hills. When they reached the top, they noticed two fresh tree blazes with a package hanging on one of the trees. Moses opened it and found a roll and a half of tobacco. He divided it amongst the men. They enjoyed a smoke!
They continued on until they reached Whiskeychan's group. They presented him with the beaver. Later that evening, the group that had gone the other way arrived with more beaver, and Whiskeychan was given them too. He received twenty beaver in all. The next morning beaver was cooked for a feast. When everything was ready, they sat down to eat and Whiskeychan started to speak. He said he always hung tobacco at the pass between the hills as an offering for the blessings he received from the land. Little did he know that Moses and his group had taken it and smoked it! It was an offering to the land, but Moses's group hadn't known.
When all the beavers were dried and smoked, everyone headed home to the coast.
Storyteller: Sinclair Moses
The second story is about the late-spring activities of Charles Whiskeychan from Waskaganish and brothers Alfred and David Moses of Eastmain. It illustrates how peoples' association with the “new” settlements did not undermine their close ties with friends from Waskaganish, ties reinforced through contact on the land:
Late Spring on the Eastmain River
My late father [Alfred Moses] talked about paddling on the Eastmain River in the spring with a man named Charles Whiskeychan. They had spent the winter together. Charles was from Wiinipekw [the James Bay coast]. My father was travelling with his brother David Moses and Charles on their spring hunt. They were travelling on the river by canoe to hunt for fur. It was easier for people to travel this way because they could bring others along.
They managed to kill some beaver along the way. David also killed a bear so they made camp and took care of the bear and beaver meat, and dried the beaver skins. After this they paddled back to the main camp. My mother's grandfather was also living with them. He had been hunting to the east of the camp while they were gone, but they were back at camp by the time my father's group arrived. They already had many beaver skins hanging out to dry and the smoker had plenty of akwaawaan [thinly-cut, de-boned beaver meat] on it. After the feast, the people prepared for their trip to the coast. They built teshipitaakan [cache platforms] to leave their winter equipment such as snowshoes, toboggans, sleds, snow-shovels and traps. Once this was done, they were on their way.
Storyteller: Sinclair Moses
Visit our website: Waskaganish First Nation
- 1. Source: Statistics Canada 2006.
- 2. The HBC had resumed trading on the east coast of James Bay in the early 1700s, but at Eastmain rather than Waskaganish.
- 3. Isinglass: A transparent gelatin made from the air bladders of sturgeon.
- 4. Neoskweskau had closed in 1821 and the post at Lake Nemiscau a few years before that.