Hearing the Cree legend of the giant skunk and the wolverine, many listeners might think the story is really about its conclusions: “and that’s why skunks are so small today,” or “that’s why James Bay has salt water.” But really, the story is about context. On September 4, the Bureau des Audiences Publiques sur l’Environment’s (BAPE) held its first of three hearings on uranium in Mistissini, and Eastmain’s culture coordinator Jamie Moses addressed the panel by recounting the legend.
At its core, the legend tells of a giant skunk that terrorizes a village. After the skunk kills his sister, the wolverine is brave enough to attack it and sink its teeth into the skunk’s hind-quarters, helping the others overpower and kill it. Once the skunk was dead, they cut it into pieces, which is the reason why skunks are so small today.
However, the wolverine was blinded by the giant skunk’s poisonous spray. Rather than wash the poison out of his eyes in his home community, he wandered blind into the forest and asked the trees to tell him what kind of tree they are. Using that information he carefully followed the inland trees to the coastal trees, to the brushes at the edge of James Bay. There, he washed the poison out of his eyes, leaving the water in the bay unsafe to drink.
In his presentation to the BAPE, Moses didn’t mention uranium once, but he took his time retelling the legend of the giant skunk and the wolverine. Because of that, it was easy to hear the other themes in the story: the wolverine who’s willing to risk his own safety to save his community from the danger of the giant skunk. The desire, once having defeated his enemy, not to pollute his community by washing poison out of his eyes close to home. And, of course, listening to the wisdom of the land and following directions from the trees themselves to get to a safe place where he can finally use the riches of the earth to help him see again.
It was another kind of statement against the proposed Matoush uranium project. In today’s terms, the Grand Council of the Crees issued a statement reiterating its total opposition to uranium exploitation in Eeyou Istchee.
“The profits from uranium mining are short-lived, but the tonnes of tailings that will inevitably be left behind will remain toxic and radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years,” said Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come. “Eeyou Istchee is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, and these provide immense opportunities for cooperative and sustainable development, without mining uranium.”
Meanwhile, speaking in Iqaluit, Abitibi-James Bay-Nunavik-Eeyou MP Romeo Saganash told the Nunatsiaq News that a majority of Crees were opposed to the project.
“There is no social acceptance of that project, either from the Cree or from the non-Native population in the region, so that is something we have to take into consideration,” added Saganash.
But Moses was less direct in his BAPE intervention. Instead, he talked about the long history of his relationship with the land, which began when he was too young to work and watched his grandfather cut and carry wood. It continues today: because his grandfather is too old to do the work himself, it’s now Moses who cuts and carries the wood for him.
“I never did drugs in my life, and I never had problems with alcohol, because I was out on the land,” he told the BAPE panel. “My grandfather took me out in the weekends. I was out late, busy with my grandfather.”
A good relationship with the land is personal, emotional and builds confidence, said Moses. But the modern lifestyle discourages young people from building a sustained and complex relationship with the land. For that reason, he organizes two-week, three-week and month-long trips with young people from his community to pass on the teachings he received from his grandfather.
However, Moses said that his experience on the land showed that the development of dams and turbines was a threat to more than just the terrain that ended up under water. Working on the Eastmain River prior to the Paix des Braves, Moses heard only the Cree names for locations on the rivers – and he was surprised afterward to hear members of the Hydro-Québec team refer to locations with a kilometre number.
“I want my children to inherit the same hunting rights, the same privileges I have to go out and fish any time I want, the same privilege to get berries at this time of year. I want them to have the same excitement that I have right now knowing that moose hunt is about to start. And […] I want them to refer to locations using the Cree names and express themselves using our language.”
The continued existence of the land is central to all of that, Moses told the BAPE, and it is the thread that ties all of Cree history together. “I’ve seen locations where people were buried and locations where people were born. I’ve been to portages where people portaged long ago. I paddled the same rivers they paddled. I walked on snowshoes in the same areas. I witnessed children put their first snowshoes on.”
Though he’s studied in French and speaks three languages, Moses has turned down opportunities to go to college in favour of staying home close to the land.
“I choose to be at home and learn my heritage,” he said. “Set footprints on the snow each winter, [use] my traditional paddle on the rivers and the lakes, and scoop water from the rivers and the lakes and drink it fresh from the cup.”
In closing his statement to the BAPE, Moses said, “If I wasn’t here in Mistissini, I’d be out at a camp, berry picking or looking for my first moose. There’s plenty of young people my age and even younger doing this today. I hope we’ll continue doing this for the next generation as well.”