I often imagine what my native home on the James Bay coast was like before contact with European people. It must have been a special existence that was simple and followed ancient customs and traditions that have helped my people survive for centuries. At the same time it was probably a difficult life for my ancestors who had to rely on prehistoric methods of hunting, trapping and fishing to obtain enough food to survive. Some of this ancient knowledge has been passed on through our elders and hunters in the community. They have learned the skills and customs of our ancestors through the generations, with stories and traditions that have been handed down from parent to child through oral teachings.
There was a time when many other indigenous peoples lived on the land in North and South America. There were more organized groups and communities in southern Canada such as the Mohawk and Huron people who built long houses. They were agricultural people and had learned how to grow their own food. In the Canadian west, there were the West Coast people who were grouped into several different and distinct cultures and communities. There were also highly organized and developed societies of Aboriginal people like the Aztecs and Mayans of Central America. These people built great cities with temples and palaces. These cultures shared a spiritual belief in something greater than themselves.
The Native people who lived in the warmer climates in Central America had a highly developed sense of spirituality that was connected with the movement of the stars, the sun and the moon. They built great temples and places of worship where they could commune with gods of the celestial objects like the sun, moon and stars. They were also highly organized and developed a very accurate calendar system that measured the movement of the sun and the moon.
The Cree people of the north along the James Bay coast had a spirituality based on the close interaction with the land and wildlife. We nomadic Cree moved on the land to survive. There was an acknowledgment of the movement of the sun and moon. One example survives in a natural phenomenon that my dad, Marius, pointed out one winter. He took time out one evening while we were out on the land and showed me the crescent moon in the night sky near Attawapiskat. The moon’s crescent shape of the letter ‘C was tilted and it looked more like a letter ‘U’ or a bowl shape. Dad explained that when the crescent moon took this orientation it meant that it was the coldest time of the year. Once it started to revert back to its upright position, it meant that spring was on its way.
The Cree people didn’t build communities or great buildings for worship or gathering. Instead our spirituality was based on our connection with the land. Our temple was the living world around us. We were a nomadic people and because of our closeness with the land we developed a spirituality that was based on a positive interaction with our world. The forests, the tundra, the rivers and the salt-water bay provided our nourishment, nutrition and shelter. This relationship developed a high respect for Mother Earth. Everything we did revolved around our connection with the land. Our lives were immediately impacted by what we did. There was a daily and regular routine of hunting, fishing and gathering to survive and the land provided for everything we needed in food, tools, equipment and building material. This also meant that our actions were directly connected to our lives. Any negative action was felt right away. We understood that we had to give back to the land when we took what we needed. It was also understood that we could only take what we needed to survive and no more. There was a great need for peace and balance in our lives because this was the basis of our survival.
The similarity with pre-European cultures in North and South America was that everything was viewed as connected in some way. Anything that was done affected everything and everyone. It was understood that our lives were dependent on the land and that we had to give back in order to maintain a balance. Today we live in a world where we are not as connected to the land or each other. Many world leaders seem to think they can control the land and its peoples. They have not been immediately affected. However, I think we can all understand that we are living in a time when our disrespect for the land and other peoples has come home to haunt us. Perhaps it is time to return to an awareness that my ancestors lived by… respect for one another and the land.