Before the Europeans arrived, Native people (including the Eeyouch) were busy trading amongst themselves. The old economy was based on the land, birds, fish, animals, raw materials from the forest, hand made utensils and some minerals. In essence, Native culture was very businesslike. Culture and economy cannot be separated, they need each other, they are one. It was a strong economy back then, not one of dollars but one of resources.
Then our Eeyouch ancestors established contact with the Europeans and fur traders. These visitors greatly desired the furs, so as a people the Eeyouch adapted. They changed to meet the new economy that was in front of them. As time passed, Eeyouch acquired guns, axes, knives, pots and pans and all of the new European things they saw. Eeyouch adapted and rose to the new challenge. The Eeyou economy until recently continued to be the fur trade which the Eeyouch loved. They related it to the land, the animals, the birds and the fishes, and as an opportunity to continue to use the resources of their great land. They were living a life that inspired them.
My parents were trappers and they contributed to this economy, as did many of the elders who are still here today. My uncle and aunt are perfect examples, although they are older now and don’t trap anymore. This trapping economy made our people strong and helped them go through tough times. This is where our economic identity as a people came from. I experienced this as a child. I remember and it is in my heart.
Now the fur trade has vanished. Furs have little value and we cannot make an income from this anymore. I can understand why our elders say that we are losing a way of life. Their purpose was to pass on their knowledge of our culture and economy identity with the land to the next generation. Now our elders feel that they lost their life’s purpose, as things are not the same. They are sad.
Once our people were strong from this way of life physically, mentally and spiritually. They were able to endure all of the challenges that faced them. There have been social issues since humans were first created, but in the past our people were not as affected because the traditional culture sustained them.
Today we still like to live on the land but what we get now from the land is our native food, and when we go out on the land it feels like our strength as a people comes back. Now we have different obligations, most of us have employment in town. Our children are going to school and learning different ways of being. Many people are going to schools in the south. Satellite, Internet and cable television are changing what we do with our lives. Despite all of these changes we still feel the pull of the land. Our deepest strength continues to be our connection to the land, no other people I personally know have such a strong connection to the land.
Now that the fur economy no longer sustains our people, we must adapt again and re-examine other ways to take care of ourselves. As a people we have always adapted. We adapted to the gun, axes, pots and pans, the snowmobile and more recently the cars and trucks and bush radios and now satellite and cellular phones. We are an adapting people. Today we could make eco-tourism one of our great strengths as it relates to what we love the most, the land. As we unveil and demonstrate our traditional knowledge, our land and our uniqueness, other cultures cannot help but to be fascinated with us. As a result we strengthen our own culture. You cannot show and share with others, what you do not know or feel yourself. Only us Eeyouch can show others the Eeyou traditions, knowledge, along with the deeply rooted understanding of our land and culture. Nobody else can. Eco-tourism would be a different way of creating our wealth but it would still be attached to our great love of the land. It would allow us to protect the land at the same time. It is proven by many other countries that culture is made stronger through eco-tourism.
I believe our strength comes from our people. The land is important but the people (Eeyouch), our human resources make us a great nation. The people are even more important than the land is to our culture. There would be no culture without the people. In my view, the survival of our Eeyou Nation is in our strength as a people. Strong individuals make strong families which in turn make strong communities and ultimately make strong nations. We must believe in our people’s capabilities and support them to train and educate themselves. We will then be able to take over our educational system, our health system, our political system, business and social development.
To strengthen our economic system, we must run our own businesses. We must also provide skills to those who wish to live off the land and the resources that the land provides. We must be the managers of our own land. Training and education to upgrade our skills and knowledge is the key to our future prosperity. If we make this our common goal and accomplish it, we will be able to deal proudly with other people in the world on a nation-to-nation basis. Our abundance will come from our own people and our own lands, not from foreign political systems or from the sale of our resources to others. Why don’t we strive for this? Why don’t we make it our common vision to strengthen and believe in our people? We need an intense attitude adjustment! Why not see our people and especially our youth as our greatest resource? It is said that whatever you focus on and whatever your intent is, becomes your reality. We have adapted in the past and we can continue to adapt now and in the future in order to take charge of our own destiny. The world is indeed knocking at our door. We can show the world that we can protect our environment while enriching ourselves culturally and economically. The world will love our Eeyou culture and heritage. We will be enriched as a consequence of our courage to be who we truly are. Let us proudly unveil our unique way of life! Let us empower ourselves. Let’s share! Let’s become global, not isolationists. Isolating ourselves is not working. Change is good! If we are afraid and don’t even try, we will only have ourselves to blame.
By Jimmy R. Fireman and Jimmy A. Fireman Economic Development, Chisasibi