Wemindji – meaning, Red Ochre Mountain - is located at the mouth of the Maquatua River. The population of Wemindji is 1,215.1 Our people relocated here in 1958 after we had to abandon our settlement in Old Factory Bay, about 25 kilometres away. “The land was growing,” explained a Wemindji elder, “making it difficult for supply boats to access the site.” 2
We chose Wemindji because it was located in the centre of our hunting grounds. “Before that, the Iiyiyuu who live in Wemindji had their homes in Old Factory,” said the late Wemindji elder Jacob Georgekish. With its wealth of food resources, Old Factory Bay was an ideal summer meeting place: The fishing was excellent, as was the goose hunting, making it a popular spot from spring through to fall.
North of Old Factory Bay is Aaskwaapisuaanuuts. “A lot of people knew about this place because there was lots of game,” said Sam Hughboy, thinking of the fish, geese and other food resources in the area.3 At different times our ancestors also sought refuge here from intruders: “They were hiding from the kichiipwaat. (Pwaat generally means, enemy; kichiipwaat means, great enemy.) This is where they lived when they had the battle on the Naataawaau (naataawaauch is generally understood to mean Iroquois or Mohawk) portage,” said Wemindji elder Frankie Asquabaneskum.4
The Battle at Naataawaau Kipitakin
The battle took place at that spot called Naataawaau Kipitakin. Someone at the Iiyiyuu camp knew the Naataawaauch were planning to kill them. The Naataawaauch were always trying to kill other tribes of Iiyiyuu whenever they located any. I guess other groups were strange to them. But the Iiyiyuu were not like that. They fought only when they had to.
The people who lived around here knew ahead of time when the Naataawaauch were going to come, as if by magic. I don't know where their camps were located. This is where the Iiyiyuu ambushed them, about half-way along the portage. The Naataawaauch had guns and the Iiyiyuu most likely only had bows and arrows. That's where the Iiyiyuu waited for them. I guess they waited on both sides of the trail. The canoe the Naataawaauch were using was large, with nine thwarts. A lot of them were carrying the canoe because it was so large. When they got a little ways past the Iiyiyuu, the Iiyiyuu shot them all dead.
Storyteller: Harry Hughboy
People lived here in the mid-1700s as well, a time when another group spread terror through the land: Indians from the Moose Factory and Albany Fort areas who went north in the summer to hunt Inuit. If they couldn't find any Inuit, they attacked, scalped and killed the Iiyiyuu. Terrified, Iiyiyuu from Eastmain to Whapmagoostui did their best to avoid them.
In the meantime, non-natives arrived on our shores: One of our trappers, George Stewart, led archaeologists to the oldest known non-native site in Old Factory Bay: In 1692, as part of the struggle between the French and English for control over James Bay, the English sent a military force of three ships and 123 people, under the command of James Knight. Captain Knight and company wintered on Frenchman's Island in Old Factory Bay, where our ancestors provided them with snowshoes, sleds, canoes and, no doubt, food.
Some people tell stories about our first contact with non-native traders:
This is an old story that goes all the way back to the time before the first white man came to this land. There was a certain man living at that time who could conjure using the shaking tent. He had the ability to know what would happen in the future with the help of a mishtaapaau [spirit helper].
[The narrator takes the voice of the mishtaapaau, who is seeing into the future for the man:] “I see someone out in the ocean. He is standing in the water. He looks like a huge person in the form of a white spruce.” The strange person was just standing there. After a while the mishtaapaau spoke to the man again: “Remember what I saw in the ocean? I told you it was a huge person in the form of a white spruce. It is not a person. It is called a ship.” He looked around and it was just standing there. He spoke to the man once again: “He might find you, but don't be afraid. You can go to the ship.”
The people saw the ship. The man wanted to paddle over, but none of the men wanted to go with him. His wife was the only one who would paddle to the ship with him. Soon he was on his way and, shortly, he arrived. Their jackets were made of fur from animals he had trapped. The people on the ship gave them some other clothes to wear. “Take your clothes off,” they were told. They understood what they were told. They went home wearing the clothes that the people from the ship had given them.
As for the other people who hadn't wanted to go to the ship, they paddled over and were also given some clothes by the people on the ship. That's when the first white men came to the Iiyiyuu, in a place called Paakumshumwaashtikw [Old Factory].6
Storyteller: Geordie Georgekish
The first trading post in the area was also on Frenchman's Island in Old Factory Bay. It was established in 1804 by the North West Company, which was based in Montreal. As the late Wemindji elder Jacob Hughboy said, “The French were the first to come to the Iiyiyuu.” They are remembered for having cheated the Iiyiyuu: “When they returned from trapping, they headed straight to Frenchman's Island. The Frenchman runs towards them and, when he reaches them, he unfastens their dogsleds and takes all the fur they wanted to sell to him. But they get nothing from him,” said Geordie Georgekish.
Geordie recounted the response of Chisaawaamishtikushiiyuu7 to the mistreatment: “Well, if I have the chance to return to where I come from [England], I could show the Frenchman something he wouldn't like.” Chisaawaamishtikushiiyuu's defense of the interests of the Iiyiyuu also put a strain on his relations with the Hudson's Bay Company.
After the North West Company post in Old Factory Bay closed in 1806, there were no other trading posts in the immediate vicinity until the independent trader Jack Palmquist arrived in 1934. His presence prompted the Hudson's Bay Company to open a trading post nearby in 1936. Shortly after a Roman Catholic mission was established, which, in turn, inspired the founding of the Anglican mission. This formed the nucleus of the little tent settlement that spring up each summer when our ancestors came in for supplies after a winter of hunting and trapping.8
Visit our website: Cree Nation of Wemindji
- 1. Source: Statistics Canada 2006.
- 2. Having been pressed down for thousands of years by the weight of glacial ice, the earth was rebounding, shorelines changing. The water became too shallow to accommodate the supply boats.
- 3. Aaskwaapisuaanuuts, meaning, Where One Waits for the Whistling Swans, refers to how people in the area used to hunt swans on the birds' annual migration.
- 4. The battle Frankie is referring to probably took place about 350 years ago when marauding bands of Iroquois raiders were terrorizing people in James Bay.
- 5. Story told to Colin Scott in 1979.
- 6. In the early 1700s, the Hudson's Bay Company sent a ship each year to Eastmain. Before the trading post was built at Eastmain in 1719, the boat usually wintered at the mouth of the Eastmain River. On occasion – in 1702/03 and 1705/06, for example – the ship moored at the mouth of the Old Factory River for the winter.
- 7. Literally, old whiteman. In this case, the Iiyiyuu name for the well-known Métis Hudson's Bay Company trader who married an Iiyiyuu woman and spent most of his retirement in the area.
- 8. Most of the information here about Wemindji is from: Denton, David 2001 A Visit in Time – Ancient Places, Archaeology, and Stories from the Elders of Wemindji. Nemaska, Quebec: Cree Regional Authority.