Survival was a difficult reality of life for my people, the James Bay Cree, over the centuries. Even after the arrival of Europeans to the James Bay coast, people still relied on skill, traditional knowledge and a great deal of luck in order to survive in the wilderness. There were many difficulties that people had to face including finding food sources and locating wood for fuel and shelter. Our Elders taught us many of these skills and passed on the knowledge of where to find the things we needed in order to survive. All these skills were paramount to survival in any situation but one in particular stands out in my memory. It was all about safety.
We all understand the need to be careful around knives, axes or any other sharp objects. There are many guides on how to safely handle a rifle or shotgun. Keeping safe around firearms or sharp tools was an important lesson that our parents and Elders reinforced when my siblings and I were growing up back home. The regular chore of chopping wood was undertaken by all of us but only after we were warned about the dangers involved and under the watchful eyes of our parents. It was one thing to make a mistake and get hurt in the community but if something serious happened out on the land that was a big problem. Out on the land there is often nobody to turn to for help. A wound that would not be thought of as dangerous or serious in a modern hospital is considered life threatening in the wilderness. Without modern medicines or skilled people to treat those with injuries, there is danger of developing illness and infection if anything serious should happen.
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time with my parents and we had the pleasure to visit with my father’s cousin Peter Kataquapit in Timmins. Whenever these two cousins get together, I feel like I am given a window to an ancient way of life on the James Bay coast. Their stories are filled with facts and events mixed together with legend and tradition. Their tales also describe a world where life was much different than what it is today.
On this recent occasion they told me a story of an accident out on the land. They recalled a time long ago when my grandfather James Kataquapit, a First World War veteran, was spending time near Winisk on the Hudson Bay coast. He was hunting when he heard the hysterical cries of a young boy. He found the child standing over the body of his father, who was bleeding from a terrible wound to
his arm. My grandfather quickly realized that the father had mishandled his shotgun and somehow had fired a round into his arm. The boy was sent back to camp to find help while my grandfather assisted his bleeding father. As a war veteran, my grandfather had received first aid training in the army and he knew what to do in order to save the man’s life. He dressed the victim’s arm and created a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Once the wound was treated, it took several days travelling to reach Fort Albany in the south to find proper medical assistance. The man was taken in by missionaries and nuns who treated his wound. Unfortunately, due to the amount of time it took to receive treatment and the seriousness of the injury the result was that his arm had to be amputated.
In another story, my father and Peter recalled a middle-aged man was accidentally injured inside a wigwam by a sharp metal tool that dug into his thigh. It was not a serious cut that caused much bleeding but the tip of the metal object broke off when it struck bone and it became lodged inside the poor fellow’s leg. Due to the remoteness of the location it took several days to travel to the nearest fur trading post where he received some degree of treatment. By this time, infection had set in and it was too far-gone to save the man’s leg from amputation. To save his life the local people had to cut off his leg. In spite of his amputation this fellow continued to lead a traditional life on the land. Many Elders remember him for his determination and strength. Although he only had one leg he continued to snowshoe and he hunted and trapped on the land. To do so in the deep winter snow he strapped on a snowshoe to his foot and he used two smaller snowshoes on poles to support himself. It was never very difficult to find this fellow’s trail in the snow due to the very different snowshoe prints left in his wake. One was large and two were small.
Although today we have modern medical facilities in Attawapiskat the Elders still promote safety on the land. They know very well that any little accident in the middle of nowhere can suddenly become a life-and-death situation. The Elders caution us to avoid hurrying and rushing when moving on the land. They encourage us to think about our movements and actions in remote areas. Many people will not be lucky enough to have someone like James Kataquapit arrive on the scene of an accident with suitable knowledge to save a life.