My parents were visiting recently this spring. My dad Marius wanted to buy sunglasses in the worst way. He was considering some fashion glasses that were expensive and I convinced him to head to a dollar store. He took advantage of the good deal and bought many sunglasses. You might wonder why my dad would be needing sunglasses while it is still cold and there is snow on the ground here in northern Ontario and back in Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast.
Sunglasses are necessary this time of year for people who head out onto the land. The spring is a time of the goose hunt and most of the people, especially the older traditional hunters, head out to their hunting grounds. The sun is very bright at this time and the days are longer. There is also a blanket of white snow that acts like a reflector and that intensifies the light.
When the hunters head out on their snowmobiles and snowshoes they spend countless hours riding in the blinding sunlight that reflects off the snow and ice on the coast and on the James Bay. It doesn’t take long for snow blindness to affect a person out on that white light.
I have had bouts of snow blindness out on the land at this time of the year. Due to the fact that I wear glasses, I have always been reluctant to wear sunglasses as I considered it a hassle. However, often I paid for not heeding my Elders and I ended up with acute pain in my eyes.
I recall at one point while I was riding a snowmobile as a member of our hunting party I ended up with snow blindness. At first my eyes were itchy and irritated as I rode my machine in the midst of an all encompassing white light. It didn’t take long before I felt a terrible pain in my eyes and I began to squint in order to keep riding and see my way. Finally the pain was just too much and I could not keep my eyes open at all, so I let my brother Joe take over and I sat behind him on the snowmobile.
For the rest of the day I more or less had to keep my eyes shut because I just could not take the bright light anymore. It took about two days before I felt normal again. After that experience I figured out that the Elders knew what they were talking about and I accepted the fact that sunglasses were a must when travelling out on the land surrounded by snow and ice under a bright fiery sun.
Actually, at times the wearing of sunglasses by all the hunters up and down the coast turns into a bit of a weird fashion show. You see, when these big tough guys are out on the land roughing it, their glasses take a beating and are damaged or sometimes get lost. By the end of the hunt, it can get very humorous.
I remember seeing big, burly six-foot-tall men parading around in all types of strange sunglasses that they would never be caught dead in at any other time in their life. However, out there on the land, in the midst of the blinding, white light when a guy needed a pair of sunglasses, he might end up borrowing one of his wife’s, grandmother’s or daughter’s sunglasses, in their pointed, pink-coloured or zebra-styled fashion.
I recall how difficult it was for me not to burst out laughing while I tried to have a serious conversation about some little project out on the land while talking to a traditional hunter with Mickey Mouse sunglasses on.
The sunglasses period stays with the hunters long after the hunt has finished. It is very easy to spot those who have been out on the land in the bright light, as they look like raccoons. Due to the fact that they were wearing these sunglasses under the bright sun for so many days, they ended up with tanned dark faces except for patches of light skin where the sunglasses protected their eyes.
It is hard to believe that spring is finally here after such a cold and hard winter. It is satisfying to see the snow melt and the water begin to run as spring warms us up. It is the time of the sunglasses and of snow blindness and of long days on great vistas of bright-white snow reflecting the sun in a deep-blue sky. It is the time of the Niska, or the Canada goose, as they return to the north as they have been for thousands of years.
My favourite bird will soon be back and I will hear him chirping from a tree “Neepin, Neepin”, which is, interestingly enough, also the Cree word for spring.