A remarkable man, in fact, one of the most extraordinary men in Canada, died this week. He was not known much outside of the rivers, lakes and forest country in which he made his home; his death will not be noticed in the obituary columns of the nation’s newspapers; but the passing of Isaiah Awashish will create ripples of grief throughout the Cree communities of Quebec. For the Cree people recognize that as more and more elders of their hunting culture close the cycle of their lives and, as they say, pass on to the spirit world, with each death their communities are slowly, inexorably, losing their links to their ancient past.
In a quarter century of writing and filming the Cree people of northern Quebec, I met Isaiah Awashish several times but I could not say I ever got to know him. He spoke no English and French, and, although friendly, seldom showed any real interest in communicating with me.
He talked to me, answered my questions, only once, at the urging of his sons. I am not even sure that he approved of my curiosity about his people and their way of life, or of the cooperation so willingly given me by younger members of his family and community.
Isaiah, who was in his late seventies, was brought up in the bush, lived in it until a few weeks before his death, and never knew or wanted any other kind of life. He was totally steeped in the mystical, spiritual qualities that Cree hunters developed in those generations before the coherence of their lives was shattered by the arrival among them of Euro-Canadians. They lived a remote, enclosed existence, dependent on two elements that to most non aboriginal people seem contradictory: the killing of animals for subsistence; and the respect for animals, the imperative need to maintain a continuing, ecological balance between the hunter and his prey.
These were the values they expressed in the way they lived their lives. So close did such people become to the animals with which they co-exised that eventually the most skilled and spiritual of them could establish contact with the hunting spirit through dreams and trances, and through the medium of their drum.’The hunter talks to his drum,” Isaiah told me in that one interview. “The drum decides what is possible and what is right. The drum is like a person, you can talk to it, and it will reply. But you cannot force the drum, the drum will not just do what you want it to do. If you try to force something on the drum, then the drum will make life difficult for anybody else hunting on that land… The land, the trees have to be respected. The animals live off the trees, and if there are no trees, there are no animals and the Indians suffer… A hunter cannot just go and demand of a tree that it give him something, help him, aid him, cure him from sickness. You have to give something back for what it gives you.”
This is a coherent ethical world completely different from the ethic by which the rest of us in Canada live. It explains the dismay and resistance of the Crees to the James Bay hydro-project, which rips up the trees, drowns the land and disrespects the animals and their delicate relationship with the other elements of nature. In the many films I have made over the years there is one unforgettable image that, in its intensity and honesty, dwarfs everything else I ever saw: it is the image, recorded in an NFB film called Our Land Is Our Life, of Isaiah Awashish standing in a Cree meeting in 1974, explaining to his community how they cannot possibly exchange
their land for money, because money does not last; only the land is eternal.
He had a remarkable face, creased and tanned from a lifetime out of doors; he had a reserved, withdrawn dignity. As a speaker he was almost eerily convincing.
Yet, he exuded such confidence in his own world-view that one felt he didn’t care if we Euro-Canadians understood him or not. Or, perhaps it was that he knew we wouldn’t listen.
I learned about him mostly from talking to his sons Willie (who he took into the bush with him at the age of 11 and taught him everything he knew and who he lost in a tragic accident when Willie was 17), and Philip (who negotiated the hunting and trapping provisions of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement).
“When they’re trapping, the Indian people have their own world,” Willie told me. “It’s a totally spiritual world you live in when you’re trapping.” Fie was really talking about his father.
“When I first started trapping with my father, I was really amazed by what he did, and what he knew about the bush, and what he could tell you. When I first went into the bush, I never thought there was such a man as that… I was really proud of my father.”
When Isaiah was young and times were hard, and his father was old and could no longer move, he took his father in the bush with him, and pulled him everywhere on a sled, still benefiting from his father’s experience and wisdom.
When Isaiah in his turn was old and could no longer move easily, the medical authorities wanted him to stay in the village; but he always wanted to be in the bush where he felt he belonged.
“A hunter must always watch his dreams,” Isaiah told me, “for from them he can tell where the animals are… Now that my moccasins wear our every week or two, because it takes me twice as much work to do as much as I used to do, the animals of my dreams are becoming smaller, so I know I am coming to the end.”
This is one person of whom I think we can truly say: he was a great man and we will never see his life again.
This obituary was also published in the Ottawa Citizen. Boyce Richardson, an Ottawa author and filmmaker, wrote about Isaiah Awashish in his book Strangers Devour the Land.