Thursday, March 7, 2013

My Log 344 March 7 2013 Book Review Authoritative overview of the Cree of James Bay, and their ceaseless struggle to maintain their essential qualities in the modern world

Baie James (à proximité de Chisasibi) / James ...
James Bay (near Chisasibi) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cree (Photo credit: Evan Prodromou)

 Book Review

 Home is the Hunter, the James Bay Cree and their Land, by Hans M Carlson, published in 2008 by UBC Press, Vancouver, 317 pps. $85 hardcover, $34.95 paper

I have to admit off the top that I am not the ideal man to review books written by academics, of whom Hans Carlson is one, having earned his PhD at the University of Maine, followed by  employment at a pretty fair round of northern US universities  as he has made the Cree of James Bay central to his research, study and lecturing.

My inadequacy in this respect stems from my having, as we used to say in the Scottish part of New Zealand, taken a scunner over the years against the overwordy and circumlocutional English that is so often the mark of the academic. Of course I have no business to adopt such a superior air, being myself a mere scribbler of journalism, which by the morrow will be wrapped around the fish and chips, but to tell the truth, I almost gave up on this book, when I counted 12 uses of the word “narrative” (which is apparently an academic favourite) on a single page (page 31).

I am really glad I didn’t give up on it, however, since the clarity with which Carlson makes his often complex arguments is elegantly expressed. He is one of those academics --- these are fairly plentiful too, I have found --- who has done the hard yards by canoe and snowshoe, rappelling up and down cliffs, portaging across the rapids of some of the world’s greatest rivers, trekking endlessly through  the boreal forest  --- I was almost expecting him to be mushing along after a dog-team, but I don’t think he has ever gone so far--- but all of this has given him an experience that would qualify him to write a travel book if he had a mind to do it.

In short, he is more than qualified to write about the history of the Cree people of James Bay, for much of his best thinking has been done on snowshoes as he has put himself, metaphorically, in their shoes.

Although the book is ostensibly about the Cree, oddly enough much of it is about the people who have come to them over the generations, beginning in 1669 with Radisson and Des Groseilliers, who led an English ship to James Bay before returning to London with their news of, presumably, plentiful fur available, which caused the Hudson’s Bay Company to be formed in 1670, with a charter from the king establishing them as lords and owners of much of what is today Canada. They sat on the Bay for almost a hundred years while the Cree hunters visited them with their furs, having in the 1670s repulsed the incursion of the French-inspired Compagnie du Nord to challenge them.  Montreal-based entrepreneurs, French and Scottish, later combined to form the NorthWest Company in 1779, and their aggressive competition persuaded the HBC at last to move permanently inland. HBC won the day when they merged with the NWC in 1821, after which they were in complete command.

Carlson’s belief, which animates his whole book, is that the Cree are a “deeply sophisticated people” who have from the beginning negotiated with the intruders, whether traders, missionaries, company or government agents, and have, through these negotiations, always managed to absorb what the intruders brought and incorporate it into their own way of life (or “narrative” as Carlson keeps on calling it.  This ubiquitous word so irritated me that it took me a while before I looked at it to try to understand its meaning, and came to the conclusion that many of its uses could have been dispensed with entirely without in any way damaging the author’s meaning. For example, I could rewrite page 31 using no more than one or two “narratives”, and I don’t think the meaning would be in any way changed.)

Anyway, enough of that.  On page 10 of his opening chapter Carlson gives a resounding  description of what the land means to a Cree hunter:

“…when the Cree speak of their land they mean more than just the ground on which they stand…..What they mean by land is the  entire multidimensional web of beings that occupies eastern James Bay: people, animals, plants, earth. So their story is one of place, but also one of  the complicated relationships --- physical and metaphysical, human and other-than-human --- that have shaped land and people together. The land is full of their names, their stories, their personal memories about these relationships, and all of these inhabit the remembered earth. These narratives, even if they remain something of a mystery,  a linguistic and symbolic world that we are as unprepared for as we are to make our living by hunting on the land of the bay, become a responsibility for anyone who wishes to speak about the Cree and their land. The responsibility is to remember that these stories are not curiosities, but, rather, have past and present meaning on the land.”

This is beautifully written eloquent English and it is more typical of Carlson’s book than the lacunae for which I have given him such stick in my opening remarks.  His next chapter is a description of the Cree homeland, and of the relatively few intruders who made their way there in the first two hundred years of contact, and the third chapter headed, Inland Engagement, again deals with the journals and experiences of the traders, who, although Carlson does not make much of this, paved the way for the missionaries, who are dealt with in chapter four.

Carlson’s thesis here is that this “deeply sophisticated” people did not have
Christianity imposed on them, but rather went to seek it out, a suggestion that I find hard to swallow. In the very early years of European settlement of Canada, events occurred that Carlson does not mention, but that perhaps could throw some light on how Christianity arrived among the native people of Canada. It was the Hurons who Champlain noticed were bringing all the furs down to Quebec city when he arrived in 1608, and he determined to reach them. The Algonquins, who bestrode the Ottawa river, stopped him from going upriver for several years, but eventually he made it, and with him went  the Jesuits and, as Bruce Trigger describes in his monumental history of the Hurons, they were so thoroughly undermined in their belief systems by the Catholics, that when the Iroquois attacked them in 1641, the Hurons, who had been running an immense trading empire covering most of the east of north America, collapsed like a pack of cards.

This, of course, did not happen to the Cree, but I would suggest that was more a matter of luck --- the luck of their remoteness, their solation from the rest of Canadian life, the luck of their opening being almost entirely only to the traders who came through James Bay from Scotland, the luck of the fact that the HBC traders  did not bring missionaries with them ---- the luck that all of these factors left  the Cree free of Christian pressures until the first missionaries arrived from the south two hundred years later.

Nevertheless, Carlson does persuasively make the case that the Cree absorbed Christianity and adapted it to their own belief system --- which, as anthropologist Adrian Tanner once remarked, turned out to be a set of ecological principles --- and that this was only one of the many impositions from outside that they managed to absorb without allowing them to destroy their way of life.

I was fairly close to the case fought by the Cree in defence of their lands in the 1970s, and I find Carlson has impressively and accurately absorbed and described the Canadian political realities under which the hydro project of the 1970s was being built around the ears of the Cree --- whose first reaction, when hearing of what the white man proposed to do in their hunting territories, was to laugh --- how could anybody do something so stupid?

On one or two minor points my recollection is slightly different from his conclusions. For example, he suggests there is some mystery about the very first decision taken by a gathering of Cree when they met in the summer of 1971 to react to the project. He doesn’t mention it, but this is the famous resolution they passed that “only the beavers have the right to build dams in James Bay”, a  decision that was left to the Indians of Quebec Association to pass on to the governments.  That this was never done was the primary motive, a year or 18 months later, for the Cree withdrawal from the IQA. This occurred after the court case was concluded at which the IQA was one of the motivating parties, but was more or less dismissed from the case by the judge because they did not have a personal interest in the case. From then on, the negotiations undertaken by both governments with the Cree were with the Grand Council of the Cree, which, after the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, metamorphosed into the Cree Regional Authority, with a governmental brief over the lands granted to the Cree in the negotiation. From that moment the Cree were no longer under the aegis of the federal Indian Act, but were overseen by the so-called Cree-Naskapi commission.

One of the things that Hans Carlson knows, but does not mention in the book, is that Cree politicians have become exactly like local politicians in the surrounding Euro world. He does mention that when the Paix des Braves was under consideration by the Cree in a referendum, the Cree politicians made no bones about rushing it through with the minimum of examination, unlike in the first referendum they held to approve the JBNQA, when meticulous care was taken to ensure that every Cree had a chance to vote, and that their vote should be well-informed.

It is a bit sad to have to record this, but this regular-as-politicians-go behaviour lay behind their scurry to agree with the Quebec government to, in effect, sell the Rupert river to Hydro-Quebec. A deeply sophisticated people they may be as he says, but he must know that today they are surrounded by swirling accusations of  corruption, conflicts of interest, betrayal of principle, and everything else that politics gives rise to. In addition to what, Carlson dismisses their comparatively recent surrender to the hucksters of Pentacostalism in a few hurried words.

As I noted in the book I wrote following the signing of the James Bay Agreement, the terms of the Agreement opened the possibility that one of every three Cree persons could become a bureaucrat whose purpose in life was to administer the Agreement. Carlson maintains a diplomatic silence on these matters: but according to his thesis, he must still be hoping that in the new, strange circumstances of their lives, the Cree will find the way as they have always done in the past, to absorb the new pressures and influences that now bear in on them inexorably, and to emerge with their traditional systems of belief  --- and their honour --- intact.

Whatever happens, the Cree are unlikely ever to find anyone better able to plead their case to the outside world than the author of this interesting, indeed, fascinating, and ---let me be clear about this --- elegantly written book.  

But please, Hans, easy on the narratives next time!

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1 comment:

  1. Sorry, but in Academia plain and simple storytelling (perhaps the oldest of human attempts to 'pass it on') has insufficient gravitas and only 'narrative' will do - think of it as just another example of inflating the language while simultaneously debasing it.
    I first met Romeo Saganash, MP at the NDP convention in Vancouver in 2011. His personal story perhaps reflects some of what has become of the James Bay Cree: Tragic!