With a population of about 1,500 people,1 Waswanipi - located on Highway 113 at the confluence of the Waswanipi and Chibougamau rivers - is the southern most Cree community. After Old Waswanipi Post closed in 1965, our people dispersed to little settlements at Miquelon and Matagami, and to camps scattered along the road. We moved here in 1976. “It is where our ancestors met historically,” explained Diane Cooper, cultural coordinator.
Our name means, Torch Lit Water, referring to how our ancestors used birchbark torches to see while spearing sturgeon and scooping up fish, at night, in the spring. “We had a high regard for birch,” an Elder said. “The bark and the wood were used for everything”: In the days when canoes were the principal means of summer travel, birchbark was one of the most important materials used by our people. Because it preserved food well, it was a preferred material for containers as well. We also considered birch wood a great building material and birch sap a wonderful treat.
“We still have a lot of respect for trees,” said a Waswanipi community member. “Even today we make medicine for diabetes from birch bark and, in the spring, from birch sap.”
“Collecting the wood was done easily: In the past, people noticed material to make things from. If they spotted a good tree ahead of time, they simply went back to get it. So if a man was walking around and he saw a good tree for making snowshoes, when the time came to make snowshoes he went back [and prayed] to that specific tree. He didn't waste time looking,” an Elder said.
“We used it for snowshoe frames, axe handles and wooden spoons. The frames for stretching beaver skins were made from birch. Birch was used for toboggans. That's how they hauled their belongings in the winter, ” commented an Elder.
“When they made snow shovels, snow scoops and beaver lodge probes, they used birch. They used it to make plates and bowls. My grandfather used birch to make a long platter, then he used alder as a dye to make the platter red,” an Elder explained.
“They used birch to make cooking pots. The wood was carved to hollow it out. Then willows, which had been scraped and soaked in water, were rubbed inside the pot, just like staining a spoon,” said an Elder.
“During the cold weather, when people walked around hunting, they collected birchbark and put it in their packsacks. They pulled it off the trees and took it home. The hunter took it back to his main camp to make the fire. They rolled it in bear grease to make a fire because they didn't have candles then. They used it to cover their lodges. You need good bark for this, not rotten. First a line was cut, then the bark was peeled and removed. Bark from live trees was very good for cleaning raw meat on. Birch was used to make containers, which were filled with smoked fish. When my father wanted to leave behind his winter tools, he collected birchbark by peeling the trees. He put his belongings on the bark and covered them. Flat bark is best. He also used black spruce,” explained an Elder.
“A large sheet like this was used as a tray for moose meat. After being used, it was wiped and rolled up and taken during the winter migrations. And dried meat, like moose and bear, was wrapped and tied in birchbark,” an Elder commented.
“It's how we made our canoes. In the old days when the builder had finished making a canoe, he held a feast for it. The meal was held outdoors beside the canoe. He would walk around the canoe singing about the benefits he would receive from it. It was a song of thanks for having a place to sit on the water,” an Elder recounted.
“When we were young we didn't have any candies. But then we discovered something sweet to drink: In the spring, when the tree is full of sap, you make a cut in the tree and the sap leaks out. We would collect the sap in birchbark baskets, then pour the sweet liquid into a larger container. It was very sweet. Our parents told us it was sweeter after it had been boiled for awhile, when it became thicker - like a syrup. But it never made it to that stage because we would end up drinking it all before! We only did this in the spring because by mid-summer the sap isn't as good,” said an Elder.
From the time of its arrival in James Bay, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) had an enormous appetite for birchbark. It was crucial to the success of its business: Thinner and more supple than other barks, it was the material of choice for covering their buildings. But more importantly, huge quantities of birchbark were required for building canoes - the main means of accessing the fur-rich lands of our ancestors. Each year, rolls and rolls of birchbark were needed for the large canoes used by the canoe brigades and for the smaller canoes used in the maintenance of the various posts, as well as to sell to northern Iiyiyuuch who didn't have access to much birchbark. Postmasters were frantic when they couldn't obtain the amount of birchbark they needed.
Demand for birchbark from the Waswanipi region increased after 1835. Until then, Moose Factory had been the main supplier for the HBC's posts at Eastmain and Waskaganish,2 but the stands of good quality birch in the Moose Factory area had been exhausted, over-harvested. The HBC turned its gaze inland: “The country around Waswanipi abounds with excellent bark. I have therefore to request that you will procure for us annually all the bark you possibly can,” the postmaster at Waswanipi was instructed by his superiors.3 Our ancestors were told to “raise bark.” The bark they collected was measured, rolled and tied into parcels sized to fit the canoes, and shipped with the packs of furs to Waskaganish.
Other forestry products from the Waswanipi area were also in demand: “You will absolutely have to send down [to Waskaganish] two new canoes here as usual for the use of Nitchiquon, and gum, and bark for this place and also six pairs of snowshoe frames and birch boards enough to make two large, flat dog sleds,” the HBC advised the postmaster at Waswanipi.4
There was a limit to how long the local supplies would last. Before long, birchbark had to be brought to Waswanipi from further away, from its outposts at Pike Lake and Migiskan.
More recently, our traplines have been negatively impacted by intensive logging. For, having depleted the forests in the south, forestry companies have expanded northwards.
In addition, our people now see the forestry sector as a potential area for economic development, and have established a logging company, Waswanipi Mishtuk Company Inc. In partnership with Domtar, we have also established Nabakatuk Forest Products Inc., a sawmill. Initially, Mishtuk used the same clear-cutting practises as other logging companies. But tensions developed between our trappers and those in the community who relied on forestry for jobs. The problem was resolved by Mishtuk adopting a checkerboard-cutting pattern, the first use of this approach in the region.5
Our commitment to forestry management practices that integrate traditional knowledge and use of the land has now resulted in the creation of the Waswanipi Cree Model Forest, one of eleven model forests in Canada, and the first aboriginal model forest.
Visit our website at Waswanipi Cree First Nation
- 1. Statistics Canada 2006.
- 2. Both were the trading centres of our district, but at different times: Eastmain from 1719 to 1820 and Wakaganish after 1820.
- 3. Source: Hudson's Bay Company journal (Rupert House): B.186/b/29 1835/36.
- 4. Source: Ibid: B.186/b/70 1860/70.
- 5. Source: National Aboriginal Forestry Association website.