I had the chance to spend some time with my older brother Anthony this week. He is the traditional person in our family and every time I visit him I learn a little bit more about the traditional Cree way of life. It doesn’t matter where I meet my brother, whenever I am around him I feel like I am connecting with an old part of our Cree culture and the Elders he has spent time with. He is far more connected to the land and the wilderness than anyone I know. No matter where we are, whenever we start talking, we may as well be sitting in the middle of the wilderness at a campfire surrounded by tall pines on the shores of a quiet northern river.
Many of his stories share a common thread of knowledge or ideas. They reinforce the belief that we are connected to the land and that we should show respect and thankfulness for everything that Mother Earth provides for us.
One tragic story that Anthony related as a lesson in respect was the legend of a proud young boy who thought he was faster and stronger than the animals he hunted. This story was passed on by an Elder. This young boy lived about a hundred years ago during a time when our people followed a traditional and nomadic way of life without the benefit of motorized snowmobiles or outboard engines. He lived with his parents and siblings and they followed the animals throughout the year. Every time they passed through the lowlands and tundra of the James Bay coast, the boy would run after what he thought were timid polar bears.
Normally polar bears are respectful creatures that are bold enough to venture near people but cautious in keeping their distance. Most hunters know that these animals are just as fearful of us as we are of them. A single bear has reason to fear a group of strange upright animals that walk on two legs.
This boy’s parents warned him many times to leave the animals alone and Elders repeated the same warning to show respect for every creature great and small. However, the boy continued his habit of chasing the bears. After all, he thought he was smarter than them and it pleased him to scare them. He boasted that he had no reason to fear these powerful predators because he was young and he would be able to use his strength and ability to dodge any attack and run back to safety.
He continued his bear chasing on many occasions. One spring day when his family landed their canoes on the shores of a creek on the southern portion of what is now Polar Bear Provincial Park, they sighted a polar bear. As the parents handled theircanoes, the boy could not resist this bear and he gave chase on the hard-packed soil of the coastal tundra. He had great stamina, strength and speed. The boy chased the lumbering bear away from the canoes. His father cried out for him to stop this obsession and to quit for his own safety but they watched as the bear and the boy moved away from them. The land goes on for miles without any features on the James Bay coast and soon the two were just mere specks on the horizon.
The family looked on with fear, as they had many times before and followed as best they could. This time the chase was different. At one point, the silhouette of the boy was of him waving his arms and they could hear him crying out in fear. The bear had turned and it was now attacking the boy. The bear had run to avoid an unexpected chase and at one point saw that there was only one small person behind and giving chase. In what must have been a terrible turn of events, the bear stopped and assessed the situation. The bear realized that the boy was far from the protection of the others so the chase turned immediately.
The story tellers say that the boy did his best to run from the bear. His speed carried him for some time but the great polar bear is a strong, powerful and swift creature. Polar bears run at speeds much faster than a human. The boy never had a chance by himself.
As the family approached they found the boy’s entire spine had been ripped out of his body. They wailed in anguish at this brutal attack as the polar bear watched from a distance. They realized at one point that this was not a normal bear kill but one that was meant to leave a message for the human hunters. This became the warning legend of “The boy who chased the polar bear.” From that time on Cree families took this story forward and shared it with the young people to reinforce the idea of respect for other animals and creatures on the land.
This is only one Cree story from countless tales of how people can bring misfortune onto themselves through their disrespect for the land, the animals and other people. My people in the north understand that every negative act against the land or its creatures will come back to haunt them. When you live so close to the land and you need everything around you to survive you had better be appreciating your connection because your life depends on it. It makes you think about our own situation today. What have we done to produce global warming? I think we all know the answer. It is time to stop chasing the bears.