The James Bay lowlands have been home to my people since the dawn of time. My ancestors never really called any one place their permanent home but considered this vast area of land their territory that was shared with others. Moving from one place to another throughout the year was a way of life that was necessary for survival. People moved from one lake or river on the coast to another sometimes hundreds of miles away to find better hunting or trapping grounds.
My parents and grandparents lived in many areas along the coast and inland along the lakes and rivers. My dad, Marius, and his family lived along the Attawapiskat River for most of their lives but they also travelled to distant places in the north or south, inland along major rivers and lakes and to Akamiski Island and other islands on the Bay. My mother, Susan, was born and raised on the Nawashi River, which is about 150 kilometers north of Attawapiskat and she also spent time along the coast travelling back and forth to Attawapiskat for most of her early life. The Nawashi River was also home to my grandparents, my mother’s parents, Xavier and Louise Paulmartin. They lived in and around this area for most of their lives but also travelled further north to distant rivers such as the Opinagau and Lakitusaki. My father’s father, James, grew up in his early years along the Winisk River which is on the Hudson Bay coast. He and his family roamed on their traditional lands in this area.
Today, travelling to these distant places may not seem like a great task with a snowmachine or freighter canoe powered by an outboard motor but back then people travelled under their own power. It was common for people to have to move on the land using dogsled in the wintertime and by paddling a canoe and portaging during the summer. For many who did not have the resources to build these crafts for travelling, walking was the main mode of moving around on the land. Snowshoes were used during the winter and many of the James Bay Cree pulled their own sleds to move supplies across the land.
In 1905 and 1906, this way of life drastically changed for First Nation people living south of the Albany River when they became part of the Treaty #9. This new treaty was developed to allow the government to begin to take charge of the land and control the lives of the people who lived on it. In 1929 and 1930, adhesions were made to this treaty to include the area north of the Albany River which also saw the creation of my home community Attawapiskat. The settlements in this treaty gave some benefits but it also meant that First Nation people had to stop their traditional way of life on the land. Part of the treaty included giving parcels of land to the First Nation people living in the treaty areas in order to access the benefits. I can imagine this was a very difficult thing for many of my ancestors to understand. Our traditional lands stretched over a vast region and no one area was considered a permanent home by a group of individuals. They took care of the land and the land returned that favour.
The establishment of reserves was a major change for my people and one that has been very difficult. This new and foreign concept upset the balance that my people had with the land. When they were confined to one area it meant that soon the lakes and rivers were fished out and the other animals began to disappear. A nomadic way of life allowed people to access better areas for gathering food and also gave the environment and wildlife an opportunity to grow and prosper. Now that people live in permanent settlements, hunting, gathering and fishing has become more difficult for everyone. It also affected my people to the core of who they were and it made them helpless and stuck in a system they really had no use for.
The result of many years of living in a confined reserve has led to much sadness and chaos. Our First Nation leaders are working with others in our communities to address the many problems that have resulted from this isolation and change to our lifestyle. Hopefully, we will be able to create a healthier environment for our future generations that will offer them better opportunities as we continue to struggle with this idea of ownership of the land. Our survival is really due to that fact that we never really lost our relationship to the land. It may well be that in the years to come the very people that tried to change our way of life will come to us for guidance on how to live on Mother Earth.