Snapshots of Eeyou Istchee

Share Button

Eeyou Istchee will be forever intertwined with Dolly Parton for photographer George Legrady. He spent the summer there in 1973 photographing everyday moments to create a cultural record of the Cree who hunted on the land before it was flooded by James Bay hydroelectric development.

“We were given a teepee, but when it got too cold I was lucky enough to find a family to put me up,” Legrady explained. “Every morning they’d wake me up by playing Dolly Parton.”  

His black-and-white photographs, now digitized in an online archive, serve as a window into the James Bay communities before they were developed following the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. “My method of capturing the everyday life of people was to just hang out with them,” said Legrady. “A lot of how the pictures turned out had to do with chance.”


In 2014, Legrady returned to Eeeyou Istchee for the first time since that initial visit. “I would walk into a place and take pictures for 10 to 15 minutes, and 40 years later, a person who was there and 10 years old at the time, remembered me,” said a shocked Legrady.

What was stranger for him though, is the way the Elders looked at the photos on the return trip. “One Elder said my pictures showed a simpler time. But from my perspective, as an outsider, it was a much more difficult time,” said Legrady. “Now the communities have all the comforts and resources they lacked in the 1970s, but at the same time there are new problems.”

And even though Legrady was able to capture intimate moments while visiting the communities, he still felt like an outsider. “It always felt kind of intimidating, or I was self-conscious about walking around the communities and taking photos,” said Legrady.    

It was when the people started teasing him that he knew he had been accepted. “People had a real sense of humour. They’d take me out on the water and then give me a problem. They’d say, ‘Hey white man, how you gonna start a fire on this rocky, wet little island?’ Of course I didn’t know, so they would teach me,” said Legrady. “I really appreciated the fact that they would engage me in that way.”   


His first visit predated the creation of the Grand Council and the JBNQA. “One of the biggest things I noticed on my return is bilingualism. On my first trip most people spoke Cree, I didn’t hear a lot of English,” Legrady remarked.

“This time around people spoke mostly English, but I still heard a lot of Cree. Every community had a sports arena and cultural centre, and it was clear that the communities were well-managed.”    

And while the communities have undergone great changes in the four decades between Legrady’s visits, the hospitality and humour he enjoyed persists to this day. “I noticed mostly superficial changes on my return visit. Though I wasn’t able to connect with people as much, the warmness is still there,” said Legrady. “And now I can keep in touch with people easier because of Facebook.”


His highlights from the first trip were attending several weddings where fiddle music and dancing went on through the night. “It was totally uncool to listen to country music in the cities at the time. But all of a sudden in James Bay I was listening and dancing to this Scottish Bluegrass from 200 years ago,” said Legrady.

“I still remember that Dolly Parton song they’d wake me up to every morning. It was Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man,” said Legrady. “I had never heard Dolly before that, so when I got back to Montreal I bought that album and tortured everyone with it at parties.

“I went to see Dolly just a couple months ago here in Santa Barbara (California), where I’m living now. For me Dolly Parton is part of the James Bay – she is totally connected to my experience of being up there.”

B14_39  A05_32

Share Button

Comments are closed.