Not long ago while visiting a friend outside of Eeyou Istchee, I was looking through her pile of magazines and noticed a book nestled in among her many copies of People and Vogue. The words on the cover immediately drew my attention: “The Eastern James Bay Cree.” I said, “that’s me,” I guess to myself as no one else was in the room. This book, published by the United Nations, started out by describing the Eastern James Bay Cree, or as we prefer, the Eeyou of Eeyou Istchee, as the largest remaining group of traditional hunters left in the world.
I stopped and thought. I had never realized that we held such a role or position in the world. We are the largest identifiable group on the planet that still holds fast to our traditions, culture and way of life. It is a big responsibility for our people to hold. I thought, maybe this is why we have special status in the United Nations and are regularly invited to visit the Vatican. In a world of fragile cultures, we stand out. I thought about the many other Indigenous peoples out there that outnumber us and yet have not been able to keep traditions to the extent we have, and I became saddened. I thought of the many hardships they must have gone through. Then I thought of the ones we have gone through and remembered that the Grand Council of the Crees says there are only about 48% of us still on the land practicing our traditional lifestyles. That is not much.
When will the day arrive when our status diminishes so much that we are no longer the largest group? I thought of the impact that developments over the years have had on our hunting and traditional harvesting. Then, I became worried as there is talk of more development on the land. There is talk of private companies moving into our hunting grounds, of truck-loads of caribou and game being killed by recreational hunters that we have no control over, of more clear-cutting and more mining. Then I wondered, is it already too late? If not, what can we do to save our status, because if we lose that position in the eyes of the world, will they listen when we come before them speaking of culture and needing help preserving our ways? Will we be like so many other groups in the world where governments argue that their culture no longer exists so there is no need for any special protection or treatment? So, what can I do?
I thought, it would be good to do as much as I can to support those who follow our traditional ways on the land. It would be good for me to spend more time on the land learning those ways and contributing to the preservation of Cree culture and traditions. I know that development is necessary for jobs, growth, and education, and I am not against it, but it is only good if along the way we never forget the importance of being Cree.