About 30 years ago I made a passing acquaintance with a remarkablephotographer from Syracuse, New York, while I was investigating the problems of an impoverished Algonquin community a couple of hundred miles north of Ottawa, deep in the heart of what Quebec province laughingly calls the La Verendrye Wildlife Reserve.
This man, Mike Greenlar, in the 1970s had met some of the Algonquin people when they were working on mink farms in the Syracuse area, as they did for a few months every year, had become fascinated by their passion for survival in the most difficult circumstances, and from 1988 he began a series of visits to the Rapid Lake Reserve to record their lives photographically, visits that he is obviously still making to this day.
He was doubly fortunate in his choice of subject, for the matriarch of the band, 75-year-old Lena Nottaway, ruled over a small kingdom of her own, about 20 miles north of the official reserve, surrounded by her extensive family of 15 children, 47 grandchildren, and 25 great-grandchildren. But more importantly, she turned out to be a repository of knowledge about the bush life that she had absorbed from her grandfathers, her father, and from the three successive husbands whom she had outlived. She was not only the heart and soul of the Rapid Lake community, but also one of the last of the dying breed of old-time indigenous hunters, quite a number of whom I had met among the James Bay Cree, men and women with extraordinary knowledge of the behaviour of the animals on which they lived, and with which they maintained a beautiful balance. I have always thought this knowledge was so precise and detailed as to amount to something every bit the equal of modern scientific knowledge, and it is a tragedy that with the passing of the years, our society has lost most of this irreplaceable information as these indigenous elders and their communities have been overcome by the onrush of what we call civilization.
Mike and I approached the community with differing perspectives, but both of us, I feel sure, with the same sense of respect. He worked
closely with Sue Roark-Calneck, an anthropologist from the same university, SUNY (State University of New York) Geneseo, who had been studying these people for years. I was a mere journalist in outlook, intrigued to find that one of the nation’s poorest communities was challenging the Prime Minister to implement the recommendation, that the Prime Minister had readily endorsed, of the Brundtland Commission of inquiry into the global environment, that indigenous people everywhere should be given authority over development that was projected for their traditional lands.
The fact was, the traditional lands of the Algonguin people, original occupiers of the mighty Ottawa river valley, even though for the Barriere Lake reserve they were in a so-called Wildlife Reserve, were being mercilessly clearcut by logging companies, with the full authority of the Quebec government. I made a half-hour National Film Board film whose title tells everything about its orientation: Blockade: Algonquins Defend the Forest.
Now, many years later Mike Greenlar has self-published a beautiful, illustrated book called Lena, of the First Nation Algonquin, a book that is frankly a hommage to Lena, her remarkably holistic outlook on life, and her influence among her people. In his dedication of the book to her he notes that her fame spread far beyond the limits of her tribe, for in 1992, when she was 79, she was granted an honorary degree in law by Carleton University of Ottawa, in honour of her profound indigenous teachings; and four years later she was accorded the highest individual honour at the disposal of the Canadian government when she was named to the Order of Canada.
Never mind those honors, they did not prevent her from being arrested when she demonstrated on Parliament Hill in favour of the land revindications of her people. I had quickly found that the community of Barriere Lake was woefully divided between Lena’s family, the traditionalists, and another group under the leadership of Jean-Maurice Matchewan, who were running the band council. When the federal government discovered this division they immediately went to work to exacerbate it, according to the traditional government policy of divide-and-rule. They seized control of the band council from its officers, and in the kerfuffle of confrontation and arrests, Lena’s group left the reserve. I always kept myself clear of divisions like these, and if asked now who was to blame for them, I would say both sides equally, although not at the instance of Lena herself, but rather perhaps of that of some of her family, who tended to be a trifle irreconcilable. But Michael’s study of Lena is not concerned with such judgments. He is concentrated on exhibiting how Lena lived according to the remarkably holistic philosophy that used to be commonly found among the declining generation of elderly indigenous people.
When I first met such people, what struck me about them was their calm understanding of how human beings are just one of the living inhabitants on this earth, not the most important one, but a species that depends on our maintaining good relationships with the other elements, the animals, birds and fish, the rocks, trees, and rivers, the wind, snow and rain, all our other partners in the unending cycle of life and rebirth that marked the indigenous attitudes. Anyone reading this will have recognized immediately how this view of life is centrally attached to the modern environmental consciousness that is currently desperately worried about the future of the planet.
Michael gives a remarkable insight into this by quoting extensively from Lena’s telling of the human creation story as it had come to her:
“Many winters ago, before there were any humans on earth, the animals were gathering food for the fall feast. The trees did their part by supplying wood for the fire; the fish, by bringing water for the tea. There was plenty of food for everyone…. but they also came because the land was going to sleep for winter, and they had to say goodbye until spring….
“Most of the birds flew south where the weather was warmer, but some stayed to watch Mother Earth while she was sleeping. .Some animals hibernated for the winter months. Some of the trees threw leaves on the ground to cover Mother Earth and keep her warm. The insects began to crawl under the leaves and the fallen tree trunks. The fish kept the water moving so the lakes and rivers wouldn’t freeze too thick. The rest of the animals took their turns to watch over Mother Earth….During the winter every living creature went to sleep….but they were disturbed by a strange dream that kept them awake for part of the winter…in this dream they saw standing figures made of mist and fog with no specific features….when spring arrived, and the creatures awoke, the big white pine said ‘I had a strange dream….There was this thing in front of me that did not have a solid body…’ The other creatures all had similar dreams, and all wanted to talk about them….The wise old bear said, ‘It is a sign of the creator telling us another creature will soon be living with us. To welcome this new creature we have to go to the sacred fire tonight for a ceremony….’
“The bear drummed and chanted the sacred song to the Creator, and said, ‘if this creature is going to live among us, I will give him the gift of wisdom…’ He put his tobacco in the fire, the smoke began to rise and linger above the fire just as it had in their dreams….The eagle hopped up to the fire, lifted his sacred tobacco and said, ‘to this creature I will give the gift of vision so he may see where he came from and where he is leading his children….’ Again the smoke lingered, a little longer than before….then the sturgeon flopped over to the fire and said ‘I give this creature the gift of strength so he may overcome the obstacles of life…..’ he saw the creature beginning to take shape from the smoke….then the ant walked over to the fire, and lifting his tobacco said, ‘I give this creature the gift of understanding so he will be able to work with others…’ The thunder roared ‘to this creature I give the gift of voice so he may be heard by his children….’ Each of the animals, the elements, trees, birds, fish and insects had a special gift for the creature and each time they gave their gift the creature became more solid. The last of the creatures was the louse. ‘To this being I will give the gift of understanding that we are all part of this creation.’ … then the solid figures of a man and a woman walked out of the fire with tears in their eyes in appreciation of the gifts they had been given by all creation.”
It is not too much to say that this is the most important lesson modern homo sapiens has to learn ---- we are all equally a part of the cycle of life and rebirth ---- if we are to save the planet from the current impending disasters brought on by our own wilfulness, arrogance and greed.