Friday, March 8, 2013

My Log 345 March 8 2013 Some of my journalism, momentarily rescued from around the fish and chips, is given a knowledgeable, sympathetic reading by a leading academic

The Rupert River. This is one of the largest r...
The Rupert River. This is one of the largest rivers in Quebec, Canada. This is one of the many rivers that Quebec Hydro operates along. Though the hydro company provides many jobs for the surrounding Cree communities, there is much dislike of their presence in their reserves. This photo was taken along the James Bay Road (Route de la Baie James), in October 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Baie James (à proximité de Chisasibi) / James ...
 / James Bay (near Chisasibi) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 I began writing as a journalist in 1946 on a small newspaper in New Zealand. If I ever started out with delusions that being a newspaper reporter gave me, somehow, a large influence of some kind, the sheer facts of newspaper life quickly disabused me of them.

I realized off the top that freedom of the press is exercised for the most part only by the owners of newspapers  --- that is, the wealthy, whose interests are always with the conservative elements in society; that, although the press in general may have a lot of influence on people’s knowledge, opinions and outlooks, such influence seldom, if ever, rests with an individual worker in that particular minefield; and that newspapers use disadvantaged people for their own purposes, and are unconcerned with helping them overcome their disadvantages.

Given these attitudes to the press, which I have never had cause to change, perhaps it is not surprising that I should have been so surprised (and, I guess, flattered) that my work as a journalist (and documentary filmmaker, a title I feel nervous about claiming, since the actual film-making was always done by real filmmakers, with me hanging along on the periphery) is the subject of a few  extremely laudatory paragraphs in the foreword to the book Home Is the Hunter about which I wrote in my last post. The author of this foreword, Prof. Graeme Wynn of the University of British Columbia, which published the book, says that my journalism and later work in relation to the Cree people of James Bay in northern Quebec “was instrumental in  reshaping  public awareness of (and sympathy for) the plight of the James Bay Cree.”

This is no doubt an exaggeration: in any issue of public moment, anyone who is interested puts in his two cents worth, and what emerges after it has all been chewed over is the basis for some kind of action, usually not a particularly good or progressive action, but at least action of some kind.

Since the first things I ever wrote about the Cree were in 1969 --- let me see, that’s 44 years ago, right? --- the fact that someone has commented on my work in such serious tones sort of robs me of my long-time conviction that the primary use of journalism is to wrap tomorrow’s fish and chips in. Fortunately, not all that Prof Wynn writes is laudatory. Speaking more particularly about the three films I was involved in, dealing with the Cree, he writes:
“They are not beyond critical comment, however. Three shortcomings require consideration. First, Richardson’s earliest films construct Cree hunting as a traditional practice. This gives them a very strong retrospective dimension, despite their of-the-moment currency. Yet, by treating customary behaviour as age-old, they render tradition static, flatten the past by denying the possibilities of change and adaptation, and (ironically and surely inadvertently) rob the Cree of agency. Second, as Richardson has explained elsewhere, the filmmakers shaped the picture they portrayed in Cree Hunters (by transporting hunters to kill moose and returning meat to camp by plane, and by flying in nails that allowed construction of a larger-than-usual hunting lodge). Finally, the fragments of existence offered by these films fascinate and inform, but as Bill Nichols has observed in a general commentary on documentary filmmaking ‘the information never vanquishes the fascination.’ It is the very ‘otherness’ of indigenous lives that holds the camera and thwarts ‘the documentarist’s urge to move away from the concrete and local in order to provide perspective.’ ”

These are perfectly justifiable criticisms, so far as I can understand them, and they got me to thinking about the period in which I was involved in all this work. I had just turned 40, had plenty of energy, and, as I observed and later researched how the so-called Indians had been treated in Canadian history, I was shocked by the racism, arrogance and ignorance which they had had to sustain. That kept me going: I thought it worth reporting what I could see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears, and ask Canadian readers if this really was how they wanted these people to be treated.

I never had time, nor probably the critically trained mind, to ask myself if I was treating their past in such a way as to make it static. It was enough for me to know that they had been royally shafted in the past, and that this was continuing into the present day. More abstruse questions as to the viability of a hunting culture in modern life could be resolved by the people themselves, as they reacted to what was being done to them. Was there any reason why only a few of them should have been given formal schooling? Why did they have such poor health standards? Why so many living in condemned and inadequate housing? And beyond all these questions of material conditions, even more important ones, to me, concerned the Euro arrogance that had always assumed the indigenous people lived a way of life that was “barbarous”, and that their children could only be rescued from this barbarism by being forcibly removed and placed in schools designed to destroy their own languages, their own role models, their childhood conditioning.  Could anything have been more brutal that this?

I don’t think we ever suggested in the films we made that the lives we showed were not taking place in modern Canada. I remember taking my first film into Parliament to show to some MPs. One from southern Ontario, who was slightly drunk, reacted by saying, “Never saw so many zippers in my life,” as if the fact the Cree hunters had zippers on their pants negated any claim they might make to be following a subsistence hunting existence.

Of course, the presence of a film crew makes a difference to what happens in a Cree hunting camp. When Sam Blacksmith’s three families went into the bush in September they knew we would be arriving with our five crew members to film them later in the fall, and again in the winter, so they decided to build themselves a super-sized lodge. We took in nails to help them in this task, and they built the lodge during our three-week September visit, in addition to making the customary inventory of the animals that would be available to them to catch during the coming winter.  When we arrived in March, however, they had wisely decided that their three families were living together successfully in the large lodge, and the imposition of five urban Canadians would be unnecessarily disruptive. So they erected a large tent in which we stayed, coping in the Cree way with the 40 below weather.

When we arrived in March they told us they had had a hard time of it, because no big game had come through their territory, and they had had to subsist on fish, rabbits, beaver and other small game. (Mind you, a lot of meat was available to them, even from that source.) We still had the plane that had flown us in, and we asked if it would help them were we to take them up and look around for the moose that could surely not be that far away. So we did that, and when they returned, they agreed that if we took them up again, and dropped them close to the moose, they would try to accommodate our cameraman so that he was able to film their shooting of the moose.

In the event, the hunters, released downwind from the moose, shot off on their snowshoes, leaving the cameraman far behind. When he caught up with them he discovered they had shot and wounded a moose, and were waiting for him so that he could film the coup de grace.  They then went about expertly butchering the moose, removing its skin, and packing it on to sleds for transport back to the lodge. In the event, we were able to show in the film the sequence of a moose hunt in mid-winter with almost no change in what would have been their normal hunting methods --- except, perhaps, for their wounding the animal so as to wait for our cameraman to film the final shot.

That the Cree used sheets of plastic inside their lodge to defend themselves against the cold was no more than the way they normally acted when no camera crew was present, but quite a few people who saw the film back in urban Canada took objection to their use of a tool that any sensible person in similar circumstances would use.

I learned a number of important lessons from my work with the Cree. For instance, that knowledge and wisdom does not depend on a university education: the elderly Cree hunters I came to know, however superficially,  were men of immense skills, for one thing, but also thoughtful, far-sighted men who had grown up learning  that the human species is just one of the forms of life that comprise a healthy environment. Their religion, if I may call it that, taught them that spirit lies within every thing in our world --- every rock, every tree, every animal and bird and fish. They believed that the animals on which they depended for subsistence gave themselves to them, but would do so only if the hunter respected them by maintaining the rituals for killing, preparing, eating and then caring for the bones of the animals by placing them on stands beyond the reach of predators, and by wrapping the bones and placing them on trees, sometimes hanging their skulls from trees, as a sign of respect.  They carried these ideas to such a point that if they did not succeed in the hunt, it was always, in their minds, because of something they had done in the previous year that was disrespectful of the animals which had refused to make themselves available to the hunters.

I also learned to be careful of snap judgments between and about people. Whites who wandered along the streets of Chibougamau could look into the Wachonichi hotel as they passed, and see old Crees lying on the floor after drinking.  But these were not drunken bums: these were skilled hunters who, as is their custom, made the most of what was available to them while in the town. But that visit over, they went back into the bush, and exercised their incredible range of skills to keep themselves alive, skills that only a few white men could ever hope to attain.

So these people, many of whom had never been to school,  knew so much about the biology of the animals with which they lived in such close harmony, as to outstrip the knowledge gained by white scientists. Yet, when they produced for the governments the profound information they had, the governments at first refused to accept that it was of any worth.

Unlike Hans Carlson, the historian-author of Home Is the Hunter, who has covered almost the entire region on snowshoe and canoe, I never had any wish to be an outdoorsman. When, towards the end of this period, I was asked by Peter Gzowski whether I was still nervous in canoes, I was able to reply in a resounding affirmative, “and I always will be,” I added.

I will leave it to the academics to place what I have done, if it has any continuing impact, in some kind of perspective. I was lucky to have had the chance to put my two cents worth into such a major question as the future of race relations in Canada, and can only hope that the results after the subject has been chewed over by everyone, will be beneficial to all of us.

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1 comment:

  1. Alack & alas! You've fallen prey to an academic! Pay no attention as they chew their cud. I needn't remind you that 'Cree Hunters of Mistassini' won the Flaherty Award for 1974, from the British Society for Film and Television Arts, for the best documentary in the tradition of Robert Flaherty:
    (Now you know Flaherty once worked with John Grierson, who knew?)
    You, sir, are a 'visual anthropologist'! Put that in your pipe and smoke it Prof. Wynn!
    I like to think you stand foursquare with Farley: "never let the facts get in the way of the truth":
    Regrettably, unlike Flaherty, you don't (yet) have an island named after you:
    Viz-a-viz canoes: while you're a Canadian for sure, you'll never measure up to Pierre Berton's standard. He said that "a Canadian is someone who can make love in a canoe" (Been there, done that!)