For the past few days I have been enjoying the beginning of summer and its long days of sunshine and warm weather. It feels good to be outside and to be able to sit in the sun and enjoy the outdoors. Unfortunately, I have also been reminded that insects like warm weather too. While working outside the other day, in a T-shirt that exposed my arms, I toiled into the evening. Dusk, I was reminded, is the worst time for mosquitoes and those nasty little sand flies. By the time I had finished my work, my arms were covered with mosquito bites that later turned into welts. This experience reminded me of summer back up the coast in Attawapiskat where the mosquitoes are big and plentiful.
In my home community of Attawapiskat, on the James Bay coast, mosquitoes, black flies and other biting insects are a big part of our environment over the summer months. My people have grown accustomed to these little pests over centuries on the land. These insects are considered no more trouble than the biting cold during the winter. One of the ways we deal with mosquitoes and other insects is to cover as much of the body as possible. As a matter of fact, I find old habits die hard. Even here, where the bugs aren’t so bad, I find myself dressing in long pants and long sleeved shirts most of the time as a matter of conditioning. While most people are walking around in shorts and T-shirts I am dressed from toe to head most of the time. I recall that when I was just a young boy in Attawapiskat few people wore T-shirts and shorts during the summer. Now and then, a non-Native person from outside the community would fly into town with shorts and a T-shirt on. This was considered odd and people found it funny to see someone so vulnerable to the environment.
When I first came south to go to school I had no shorts and few T-shirts. Even on hot days in early September, I noticed that all of the Native students were dressed in warm pants, shirts and sweaters while the non-Native students wore only shorts and T-shirts.
In addition to coping with biting insects by dressing well, Native people in the far north deal with this seasonal challenge in many innovative ways. When we are out on the land we always have a campfire going to produce a lot of smoke which keeps the mosquitoes and other bugs away. If the bugs are really bad, people set up the campfires right in front of the tent doors and build them so that the wind carries the smoke
up and around the front of the tent.
Most people have never experienced the real horror of the legendary northern mosquito. These critters are huge and come in millions. They thrive on the standing water in the mushkego country and sometimes, even with the help of smoke and heavy protective clothing, life becomes difficult on the land. However, somehow we Mushkego Cree have become almost immune to these insects. We go about our work and our living on the land with an acceptance of these blood sucking pests. It is as though we somehow tune them out. This is very convenient as otherwise these buggy conditions would certainly drive us all mad.
The mosquitoes, black flies and other insects also make life hard for a lot of the animals on the land. Up north in the remote wilderness most of them deal with this by heading out of the dense forest areas to the marsh land and shores of the great James Bay. Here the strong winds keep the insects away. Further to the south, in the more populated areas where there are roads, the insects make life dangerous for animais. It is common to see many animals including moose dead on the side highways in northern Ontario. The animals are driven to the roads as an escape from the insect infested wilderness where they all too frequently meet a tragic end.
One of the few times of the year that I am comfortable in big cities is the summer season. There is nothing I like better than to sit outside while sipping on a tea and chatting with friends without the bother of mosquitoes and black flies. I find this part of the assimilation process rather enjoyable.