I noticed in the public prints in the last couple of days an article about an exhibition of historical, archival photographs which stated that all the white people in the photos were named, but none of the indigenous people who had been photographed appeared to have a name.
This took me back with a bump to the tragic-comic occasion on which I made my first film. This was in 1971, not long after the announcement of the James Bay hydro-electric project, and as I embarked on this unfamiliar job --- a complete novice who didn’t know one end of a camera from another ---- I had only one clear objective in mind. I was three years into my contacts with native people across the country and his was one striking thing I had noticed, that in every mixed group, it was the whites who would be in the centre doing all the talking, while the natives stood silently listening. It is perhaps hard to believe now, but at that time, in most photos, videos, TV or whatever exposed to public view, even when they were the subject of the piece, the indigenous people were usually standing in a disconsolate-looking group on the edge of the picture while some white expert --- usually an anthropologist --- would be holding forth telling the audience what the native people would be thinking and feeling, and, presumably, saying, if only they had been given the chance to say anything.
Even more striking was the fact that of the 600 native communities in Canada, almost none were ever to be found on a Canadian map. It was almost as if the dominant society, in a colossal act of indifference, had virtually eliminated the original inhabitants by the simple act of pretending they didn’t exist.
So, when I set out to make my own film, I made a kind of foolish, but understandable, decision. I decided I would turn this tradition on its head. I would identify, and allow to speak, every native person in the film; but of the white men working around them, mostly already engaged on building the hydro-project, whether as pilots, cooks, labourers, supervisors, engineers, I would hear them speak, record what they had to say, but never, ever identify them by name.
Thus in the next few days I ran across some doozers: a young helicopter pilot, an American, as it happened, fresh from shooting up people in Cambodia, who had been flying around the James Bay wilderness for Hydro-Quebec for two years, told me: “This area is one of the most barren in the world today. It was scraped clean by glaciers long ago, and virtually nothing has grown since.” We heard him say it clearly in the movie, but as to who he was: zilch.
In contrast, an elderly Cree hunter who had never been anywhere in the world except up and down the La Grande river, year after year, of which he knew every rock and hidden danger, every swirling rapid, every becalmed fishing place, every burial spot for his people, always placed in death facing the rising sun, just as they had awakened to each day in life, this man told me that the region “is just like a garden, where everything, people, trees, birds, animals, the rivers, lakes and rocks, is born, lives out its life, and then when all is done returns to become part of the continuing life.” This man was Job Bearskin, and we called the film, Job’s Garden. Later, when they built a stadium in his village, it was named Job’s Place. And I would bet that if you mention the name Job to any of his people, even today, 40 years later, the man who would spring to their minds immediately would be that same Job Bearskin, whose quiet, burning indignation at what was being done to the land he had always loved became the centrepiece of our film.
I made quite a number of films to do with the Cree people, but of all of them, I know why Job’s Garden, for all its ludicrous technical deficiencies, held a special place in the regard of the people in the villages: it was because of a scene in which Job, having been up-river to examine what was being done to the land by the developers, returned to gather some of his old friends around a fire in his teepee that stood beside his house in Fort George, a scene in which each of them in turn --- Samson Nahacappo, David Cox, Johnny Bearskin, Thomas Pachano, William Rat --- remarkable-looking men with the experience of their lifetimes spent in the bush written in their faces --- expressed their bewilderment at what the white man was proposing to do, and how deeply they opposed it all. In that tent, that day, sat this repository of the collected wisdom of the Cree people, wisdom that the invading whites with their giant machines at first completely disregarded, until very gradually, but oh so slowly!, they seem at last to have come to take it into account.
Just twenty years later, a young Cree stopped me while I was walking through the village, and said to me, as if talking about something that had happened only yesterday, “I think we are only beginning to understand what those old men were telling us.”
The old men are gone now, but the knowledge they had of the land and animals, at least the equal of any scientific knowledge, I hope still lives on in the hearts and minds of the younger people, the succeeding generations, who were always at the centre of the old people’s hopes.
Their names remain with me still:
And so it goes on…a catalogue of the admirable men I met on my trips to Cree country, the land call Eeyou Istchee.