Do you remember that old song by Willie Dunn? Went something like this: “Here come the anthro’s…” It is a song on how those people have left a bitterness with how they conducted themselves and what they did. Today, however, a different picture is seen by Indians across the landscape of North America, after the onslaught of “progress” that left a lot of the nations in ruin. With the languages dying out along with the knowledge, the anthropologists and archaeologists seem to be playing an important part in the revival of certain aspects of culture. For instance the Lil’wat Nation in B.C. almost forgot their songs. They went to the recordings made by anthropologists and relearned their songs. The anthropologists and archaeologists are increasingly sought by Native people. They give an insight into the past of the ancestors. As oral tradition dies out as the main way to impart knowledge, some are wondering what’s been lost. Others though are wondering what’s left.
Both are needed, the protectors, so to speak, and the searchers. The protectors to ensure that the traditions don’t die out and become a thing of the past. The searchers to look at what is there and to find out if something that we have thought that we lost is indeed not so. Cathy Oberholtzer is one such searcher. She is not Cree but has spent the past 12 years traveling to 60 cities looking at Cree historical materials. Things that Crees wore, used and made when first contacted by Europeans. Through the collection of slides and photos she brings alive a past only the Elders can remember.
In those photos and slides is part of the legacy of all the Crees. One cannot help but feel the past is alive in what is done today but the searcher has found something that was thought lost.
Cathy, what would you call your field?
Well, sometimes Native art, sometimes historic ethnography, material culture. It falls under a lot of different categories and terms depending on who’s doing what. I started out as an archaeologist but I was interested in the symbolism and meaning of the artifacts. At that time archaeologists weren’t interested in that sort of thing and that’s why I changed.
Does that mean you’re one of the forerunners in your field?
To some extent. There are others who have done similar work but not too many.
How many cities have you go to looking for Cree artifacts?
Well, at least 60. You should have told me what you were going to ask me so I could figure this out. (laughter) We did 41 museums in Europe and England. I’ve done quite a few in the United States and Canada too.
What differences do you see with the Crees as compared to another culture?
Well, no one has looked at their material culture before. That’s what’s different. Skinner did a bit when he was collecting material. Specks did a bit when he was working from the other end. But no one has looked at the material culture and what it means in the culture.
I remember when you gave the lecture you said there were unique patterns on the Crees men’s hunting leggings. Did other cultures do that?
Well, they did some and I think because the Crees wore them longer that we have more evidence. Certainly, the Iroquois did, and though the beadwork is very fine on the Iroquois, it’s just usually white on a coloured background. The use of the colours are quite unique to the Crees. You can get into the area of the Micmac and they are also using some colour, but I don’t know that there are as elaborate leggings for men and women in the later periods.
Some Cree women wore the leggings too. What were the differences?
Yes, they had a different shapes when it was in cloth. I think that when it was in caribou hide it was one shape, one cut. When it’s cloth the men have a pointed area near the ankle and the woman’s was rounded.
So what would the significance of that be?
Now you’re bailing me. (laughter)… Well, it signifies to the caribou which of the people is the hunter and who is the hunter’s wife so that the caribou doesn’t inadvertently give herself to the hunter’s wife.
Now about the hoods? What type of work went into those, the women’s hoods?
The styles as far as I see it replicate the cosmology of the Cree world view with three panels, but there’s also the overlap. The flowers representing the earth element. Certainly, I think the flowers are the imbedded symbolism that the Europeans recognized as the hoods being very beautiful and very Victorian. A feminine expression. I think that was one of the reasons that the women could wear the hoods for so long. The women themselves, I believe, continued to use their own symbols imbedded in their work. To express their own Cree values.
There’s been some talk of having you do a tour into the Cree communities. What do you hope to get out of that?
Me? I hope to share the slides and photographs of the material that’s in museums.
Would you like to find out more about the material going around in this way?
Well, I’d love to but the purpose is to really let people know what’s there. Mind you, we have to make sure that people understand that there is no specific identification to either east or west Cree or even to specific communities. It’s Cree material but actually where it comes from is very difficult to determine.
Do you see this as a problem if there are attempts to repatriate?
Very much so.
With what you are learning, do you see a time when it will be possible to tell where it came from?
I certainly hope so.
You’ve implied that this is a relatively new way to look at a culture?
Yes, it has been done in other areas in Africa and even in parts of the United States. But as far as actually pinpointing the material as far as the Cree, because a lot of the material was collected very early and documentation wasn’t recorded at the time, we really don’t know where a piece came from. In other parts of North America pieces collected at a later time don’t always – but sometimes do – have documentation as to where they were collected and when. Even sometimes as to who made them.
The more we know about the materials and about motifs that were used in certain areas, then the closer we’ll get to pinpointing where actual pieces came from.
Looking at the patterns, will you be asking people if they remember anything about them?
More or less. I would like a sort of open-ended discussion. Sometimes people will talk about something that appears not to have any relevence but in the longterm I think it starts people to thinking, pondering about the things that their grandmother showed them or told them.
On page 13 there are some patterns and it is hoped that you will ask the Elders if there is any meaning to them. In this way we can help to preserve the past for the future, the Cree future where many questions will remain to be asked. If in some small way we can contribute to keeping alive the traditions and culture that make the James Bay Cree what we are then it is something that our children and their children will remember us for. If you have any information you can forward it to: William Nicholls, at The Nation. For address and phone/fax numbers, see page 4. Or you can contact Kenny Mianscum, at the Ouje-Bougoumou Band Council, Ouje-Bougoumou, Quebec GOW 1C0. Phone: 418-745-3911, fax: 418-745-3426.