Harry Capissisit’s last wishes were simple: to leave his trapline to his sister. Upon his death in 2002, because there were no other men in his family, he wanted to pass trapline W15 to his 68-year-old sister Jane, and later to her grandson Steve Coulombe. However, Harry’s wish is controversial.
The Cree Trappers Association (CTA) believes that the main principles of land ownership are to keep traditional law and order, to ensure that the land is not abused, and to oversee the sharing of the wealth of the land. Traditionally, a trapline is passed on to the most knowledgeable member of the family, the one who can best care for the land. According to the CTA, that person is always a man. Therefore, it’s a delicate situation when a woman asks for a trap line. The men have rarely faced this situation and are taken aback by it. Jane wants to honour the wishes of her late brother and to live off the family land that she knows so well. She wants to finish her days on the land where she was born.
Jane Ella Capissisit is a Cree elder born February 1st, 1935 on the family trap line. As a youth the family lived in the bush. Jane never went to school, and always lived a traditional lifestyle. Her father died while she was very young, before she ever got a chance to know him. Her mother was the sole provider and the teacher of the family. “My mother was my role model,” Jane remembers. “She patiently taught us everything about our traditional lifestyle, and the hunting, trapping and fishing skills. She worked as hard as any man at our family camp when my late brother Harry was still small and unable to do heavy chores.”
Jane’s family moved from Old Post to the new Waswanipi community in 1965 and lived by the river in tents, waiting for housing that finally came in 1976. Jane is a bush woman, quite capable of surviving off the land.
The decision on Harry Capissisit’s trapline is still pending at the CTA in Waswanipi. Following a CTA meeting in October Jane mentioned, “I was shown a map of our land and I signed for my land. I don’t know what that means.” She believes that this signature means she is now a tally woman, but the outcome is still unclear. The CTA will discuss the W15 trapline December 3, when they will poll members of the association to find out if Jane will get the land. Jane is sad about the uncertainty of this apparent setback. “I thought that I would grieve to death if I would lose the land,” she says. “I feel I would leave my people and relatives, go away from Waswanipi if they take away our land. I would feel so betrayed.”
Jane Capissisit is facing the common reality of Native women over the past five centuries: an accepted mindset of patriarchy and colonization. The first Europeans to arrive in Canada were surprised by the positions of power held by Aboriginal women in their societies. European women did not enjoy this status. It was not long before these men realized that in order to “civilize” the land and the people occupying it, they needed to remove the status and power of women.
Thus today, a Cree trapper interviewed for this story (who prefers not to be named) can ask, “Why mess with rules that have been working for thousands of years? The traditional role of male domination of the land.” To such a statement one may respond that every aspect of life itself is in constant evolution. Traditions are useful as long as they do not infringe on the basic freedoms and rights of women and men.
In the book, Strong Women Stories: Native Vision and Community Survival, Emma LaRoque writes that women “must ask ourselves whether and to what extend tradition is liberating to us as women.” For women who have always have been connected to their communities, it can be doubly difficult to question a patriarchal status quo. But author Kim Anderson writes that aboriginal women were traditionally highly respected and their opinions trusted. “They were often pivotal in the ultimate decision’s outcome, because their primary responsibility was the well being of the children, their descenders generations away,” Anderson notes. “Similarly, women had to provide for themselves and their families in the absence of a man. Native women had to learn essential trapping and hunting skills, and many contemporary women recall watching their grandmothers hunt, fish and trap.”
Jane Capassisit’s experience bears this out. “I am often called upon to speak as an elder, teach and show techniques such as making traditional handicrafts, walking-out ceremony outfit and beaded moccasins,” she observes. “I want to teach our children pride in their culture. I look forward to having other women follow this path if they get in the same kind of situation I am. I hope they fight and not give up until they succeed.”
Right now Jane Capissisit is in the bush, on her beloved land, waiting to learn if, indeed, there is a will to change – a change that respects the past.