First Nation People Are Nomads At Heart

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My people, the Mushkego Cree, from along the James Bay coast have a tradition of travelling the land. We come from a nomadic culture and before our people lived in permanent settlements, we moved from place to place several times a year. Back then, no one ever stayed in one place for too long.

There were more reasons to move than there were to stay in one place. If a family or a group of families stayed too long in one location, all the animals that were gathered for food would eventually end up avoiding the area or they would be hunted or fished out. Nearby resources, such as firewood and wood for construction, would also be depleted if a group of people stayed too long in one place.

Rather than settling in one spot for too long we moved with the rhythm of the seasons. As soon as the cold weather arrived and before the ice froze, families moved out to their traditional trapping grounds to stay for the winter. After the spring thaw and after every major river had cleared of ice, my people moved back to the shores of major rivers along the James Bay to spend the summer fishing, hunting shore birds and picking berries.

There was a practical side to this movement as well. The mushkeg is inaccessible in the warm weather as the landscape is an unstable spongy mass that is impossible to walk on or to paddle a canoe through. It is neither solid nor liquid and the only safe time to travel this part of the land is when it has frozen solid during the winter.

Even after people established themselves at their destinations either during the summer or the winter, they were still on the move. In the winter, trappers left their main camps to maintain traplines that stretched for miles into the wilderness. Trappers often slept one or two nights on the land in hastily made shelters or they merely wrapped themselves up in their tents without bothering to set up. They did this to move quickly on the land in order to visit each one of their traps. The traps meant a harvest of valuable pelts as well as a food source.

In the summer, traditional people left their main campsites to set their gill nets on nearby creeks and tributaries. There were other reasons to leave the camp during the warmer months of the year. During a heat wave, when the weather became unbearably hot in the shelter of the forest, families headed out to the barren tundra flats along saltwater bay to catch the cool northern breeze from the sea. It was also an escape from the black flies and mosquitoes.

I recall many short summer trips with my family back in Attawapiskat when I was a child. When parents had some holidays and more time to spend with their families, they went out onto the Attawapiskat River or into the bay to their traditional family gathering places. Each family in the community had a unique spot on the land including locations inland along the river, near the mouth of the river, north along the James Bay shoreline and onto the islands of the bay. These traditional family lands were handed down through the centuries.

Dad and the rest of the Kataquapit family had their traditional locations closer to the community and we either headed inland or onto the bay. We sometimes went on day excursions upriver where we made campfires on the rocky shore while we waded into shallow pools of cool calm water. Often we saw other families travelling further west to their traditional camp grounds further up the Attawapiskat River to areas located on quiet branches of the main artery, near plentiful fishing spots or close to where their winter camps were located.

Most of the time, our family ventured out onto the islands of James Bay and our main camp was located on Akamiski Island since it was a familiar place for dad as his family has always hunted and gathered on this pretty little isle on James Bay. We also camped at Twin Islands, a set of small islands north of Akamiski, where we often met with other families who were travelling on the bay. It was great to rendezvous with schoolyard friends and cousins from our neighbourhood out there on the land. We explored the island and played on the pebble beaches while our parents prepared picnic meals of bannock and fresh barbecue goose served with hot tea. I have wonderful memories of northern light nights, huge campfires, bountiful feasts and wonderful storytelling sessions while I sat high and dry and surrounded by the salt waters of the bay.

Even though my people are more rooted in their settlements along the James Bay, these days they still have the nomadic lifestyle in their blood. They feel the urge to move from Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, Kashachewan, Moose Factory and Peawanuck during the summer. Recently a new trend has developed where families now take holidays away from their communities for trips to southern cities. They are able to make excursions with their children to places like Timmins, Thunder Bay, North Bay, Sudbury or even further to Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Montreal or Niagara Falls. Although these trips are exciting and full of adventure, they are much more complicated, full of high stress, lots of perceived danger and expense compared to a holiday on the bay.

The blood of a nomadic people flows through my veins and those of people on the great James Bay and at times it seems to surge and ebb like the tide of that northern sea. We get restless in one place and need to move along.

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