It is 1930 on the James Bay coast and spring has arrived on the frozen tundra. After weeks of warm weather, the Niska, the Cree word for geese, have finally arrived after a long hard winter. The Cree of the James Bay coast are leading their nomadic and self-sufficient lifestyle as they have for thousands of years. They roam the land in rhythm to the movement of the migrating animals that come and go with the seasons.
With spring the hunters and their families are making their way to the hunting grounds on the shores of James Bay, inland waterways, the open areas of the mushkeg and the northern tundra on the coast of Hudson Bay. The more successful families that have survived the winter move over the land with a dog team to pull their sleds while the less fortunate ones resort to walking great distances to get to their destinations.
The weather has turned bitterly cold and there is a bone-chilling wind blowing across the frozen land. A hunter and his family are walking over the jagged ice and snow to their goose-hunting grounds at the edge of the tundra. They have on an odd assortment of dark-coloured clothing that includes old thin parkas, fur-lined hats, thick wool pants and moccasins that bind their feet tightly in warm layers of cloth and hide.
The adults are pulling heavy toboggans and young children are working hard to keep up with the group. It is mid-April and the Niska should be flying overhead to give relief to the families that can no longer access their inland trapping grounds due to the melting ice and snow. The cold has stopped the Niska migration and the people are hungry.
As the group walks across a snow-covered expanse of familiar tundra marsh, they discover several small round dark-coloured humps nearly hidden by the drifting snow. On closer examination, the round humps are actually the grey-and-brown feathers of a Canada goose or Niska.
The family is surprised to find a frozen goose that had been caught by the sudden cold snap and succumbed to the freezing weather. As the family looks further, they discover that they have happened on an entire flock of frozen migrating Niska that have been trapped by the sudden arrival of a late winter storm.
Amazingly they find a field of frozen Niska hidden under a light dusting of snow. They will not be relying on the skilled use and the luck of a shotgun to bring them their food this spring. By the good grace of Mother Earth they will survive the next few months on the unexpected gift of a bounty of frozen Niska that was given to them by the land.
This springtime story has been passed down in our family and I have heard it many times from my uncles and from my father Marius. The group described in this story is none other than my own ancestors in the form of my grandfather James Kataquapit and his family.
At first glance it is a story that celebrates the gift of food at a very critical moment and a family that was grateful to receive the Niska just in the nick of time as they trekked near Winisk on Hudson Bay.
However, another lesson was provided in this story and it was one that every traditional person respects while travelling on the land at any time of the year. It is a lesson that shows that we are all held at the mercy of Mother Earth. Even during a time when the seasons have changed and warmth has arrived, there is still the possibility and danger that cold weather can come to devastate those who are unprepared and unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This story is one example of why my dad and all the old hunters still pack a toboggan full of cold-weather gear as if it were the middle of February for a goose-hunting expedition they take in the middle of spring thaw in April.
Those Niska that froze in the ice were indeed surprised by Mother Earth. Although these birds normally read the weather extremely well they do get caught from time to time.
In a way as humans we are experiencing a similar surprise ourselves. Although we should have been able to see global warming many years ago we were ignorant to the signs from our planet that our pollution was affecting the entire globe. Still, even though the weather and life on earth as we know it is changing rapidly before our eyes, to a great degree we are ignoring the real danger of what our careless activities are doing to our environment.
There is a third lesson in the story of the trapped-and-frozen Niska. Niska are smart enough to flee a cold-weather front even if it is days away from them. Sometimes they are not capable of moving fast enough from an oncoming storm and they are trapped.
We humans can see ominous clouds of bad weather that signal global warming on our horizon but we for some reason are not quick to act. If we are not careful then we will be frozen in our tracks like the Niska my grandfather collected on the tundra flats of Hudson Bay in 1930.