There is a reason why my people are called the Mushkego Cree. We reside on the James Bay lowlands, a region that starts about 100 kilometres from the western coast of James Bay. This region stretches from Hudson Bay in the north and down to the southern tip of James Bay. This western area is mainly flat land with few high points or rock outcroppings. We consider it special to be able to find an area of sand or rock anywhere along this part of the James Bay coast. The eastern portion of the bay is more rugged and filled with hills, rock and sand.
The name mushkeg is a traditional Cree word describing the geological conditions of the area. When we head out to Mushkegok, it generally means we are heading out on the land amongst the woods and wetlands. Other Cree words are used to describe when one is going out to the tundra, the bay shorelines or a major river.
We recognize ourselves from the James Bay coast as the people of the Mushkeg. We translate this as Mushkegowuk, a contraction of sorts that combines the words Mushkeg and Ininiwuk (the people). A short form of Mushkegowuk that is common is Mushkego. There are variations to the word. Many traditionalists use the word Omushkego instead of Mushkego. Omushkego comes from an older form of the Cree language that was used generations ago.
The western James Bay lowland is a unique geological area in that it is mostly composed of bog or peat moss. In geological terms, Mushkeg is a soil type that is only found in arctic and boreal areas. This type of soil is also known as peatland or what is known as bog. This soil is made up of dead plants in differing stages of decomposition ranging from healthy moss to peat to decomposed muck. Some of this soil is made up of buried tree branches in decomposition. Mushkeg normally has a water table that is near the surface so it tends to be wet. In addition, types of moss can hold 15 to 30 times its own weight in water.
Mushkegs need abundant rain and cool summers to develop. Normally when a dead plant falls on dry soil, it is immediately decomposed by the actions of bacteria and fungi. If a dead plant lands in water or on saturated soil, air can’t get to it and bacteria and fungi do not work as quickly. The cooler temperatures slow the decomposition down further. Eventually, plant debris accumulates to form peat and in the end, mushkeg. Depending on several factors and location, mushkeg can reach a depth of up to 30 metres (100 feet) or more.
Although this geographic surface can be an impediment to transportation, in the winter it becomes a perfect base for travelling. Imagine a giant sponge a few meters deep, a hundred kilometres across and 400 kilometres long. In the summer, nothing of any weight, including people, can be supported on the spongy surface. Travel of any sort, even walking, is impossible. We never venture into the mushkeg for long. People travel along the rivers to get from one place to another in the summer. However, in the winter, this giant sponge freezes and becomes a solid sheet of ice. Although the weather can be difficult, we Mushkego Cree find this time of year the best for travelling to distant locations and traplines on the frozen muskeg.
There is no incentive to venture into the mushkeg during the summer. There are many beautiful inland lakes away from the rivers. There are even a few near Attawapiskat but no one bothers to visit these lakes. The mushkeg does not allow an easy access to a lake. You can start sinking into the bog hundreds of feet from the shore. Even if you make it over the wet peat, millions of biting insects that live and breed in the stagnant water of the mushkeg can eat you alive.
As a young boy, my friends and I went swimming on the river in front of our community. The river was the only place to swim. No one ever dared go near the lake. A friend of mine was surprised when I explained that as a boy, I never went swimming on a lake even though we were surrounded by them.
I was happily surprised to discover that in northeastern Ontario, it was possible and even enjoyable to go swimming in a lake. As a matter of fact I have discovered the joy of swimming in easy-to-access sandy lakes that are fed by underground springs that pump and circulate pure cool fresh, crystal clean water. This is in contrast to a Mushkeg lake that is coloured by the decomposing waste of organic material and comes out reddish brown like freshly brewed tea. Usually the lake bottoms are very silty and not pleasant to walk in.
People are known all over the world by the place they come from and the land they inhabit. My people, the Mushkego Cree, come from the very depths of the wilderness in a place where water and earth mix. This mix has helped to isolate us from the rest of the world to a great degree. In fact it has contributed to ensuring that our way of life and our culture has survived. No wonder we are happy to call ourselves Mushkego.