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Our Roots - Chapleau Cree History
- The People of the Moosonee - Moose Factory Area

Italicized text by Lark Ritchie - (c) 2000 All Rights Reserved
Sources: Queen's University Weeneebayko Program (http://www.queensu.ca/fmed/)
Native Peoples: The Canadian Experience, (2nd ed. 1995), edited by R. Bruce Morrison and C. Roderick Wilson, published by McCelland & Stewart (link at http://arcticcircle.uconn.edu/CulturalViability/Cree/Feit1/feit1.html)

Our ancestors did not live in the European version of Eden. We lived and travelled on and along the shores of some of the larges bodies of water on this continent. Much of our land is Black Spruce swamp, even upstream, into the traditional lands in which we Chapleau Cree now live. Our Moosonee/Moose Factory cousins are sometimes referred to as the 'Swampy Cree' (more truthfully, this name is given to our neigbours on the eastern, or Quebec side of the 'bay.) And yet, we are all part of the same family. Arbitrary borders try to separate us, but we have lived in this native land for a long time. It has been inhabited by our our people since the glaciers left about 5,000 years ago.

The area of the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands is a giant floodplain underlain with sedimentary rocks, mainly limestone, dolomites and shales, 200 miles (320 km) north-northeast of Timmins, Ontario. The extreme flatness of the terrain and the moisture holding quality of the marine clay combined with the presence of permafrost have resulted in poor drainage, thus, the lowlands are largely waterlogged. The higher banks along the major rivers systems such as the Moose, provide better drainage and protection and have resulted in the proliferation of trees such as black spruce and Balsam poplar.

From Spring until Fall, Mosquitoes, Blackflies abound. The Summer brings in the horseflies. Winter is long, cold, and quiet. Not an Eden, but nevertheless, our home. And for our Grandfathers and Grandmothers, it was enough. Nature provided both the tools, the fish, and the game to feed them. And to them, this was our Native land.

We are, and many of us, still, are 'bush' and 'water' people. Our heritiage is hunting and fishing, and the land and the water are in our being. We hold this heritage close to our hearts. It is in our spirit.

Nitao, the root of the Cree term that is roughly translated into English as "hunting, fishing, and trapping in the bush," is found in a series of words related to hunting activities. At least five basic meanings are associated with this root term for hunting: to see something or to look at something; to go to get or to fetch something; to need something; to want something; and to grow or continue to grow. In the Chapleau Cree area, we have seen and heard the word 'Kanipahow', a rough equivalent variation in dialect. 'Kanipahow'- The word calls us back to our roots, the James Bay Cree.

Wildlife in the Hudson and James Bay area was, and still is abundant. Mammals commonly seen in the area include Black bears, wolves, rabbits, moose, martin, beaver, fox and muskrat.Occasionally, seals are found in the tidal zone.

Spring time was Goose Hunt time. James Bay is on what is called the, 'North Atlantic Flyway', a major migration route for geese, ducks and many other migrating species. As a result, spring and fall migrations provided a fresh supply of food. We looked forward to this time, and many still hunt during this time. It is our tradition.

Today, it is possible to see thousands of birds including Canada Geese, Snow Geese, White Fronted Geese, Brant's Geese, Surf scoters and many other sea ducks. At Fox Lake, we remember our people when we hear the geese travelling home. And we know they go not only to their home, but also to our spirit home. The region also hosts a great number and variety of Shorebirds and Warblers.

The Moose River, our band's pathway to Chapleau, supports a variety of fish species including, River Sturgeon, Pickerel, Pike, Whitefish and Sucker. The tributaries that empty into the Moose River support Brook trout, whitefish, pickerel and sucker.

One of the most spectacular wildlife migrations is that of the Beluga Whale. In spring, the 'all white' Beluga adults with young migrate up the Moose river to feed on whitefish.

Our people depended heavily on bark, animal hides and wood resource of the area. Bark was used for lodge and canoe coverings; Wood, in the making of canoes, snowshoes, toboggans, paddles and dishes and the framework for lodges. The animals provided us well. Hides, particularly caribou were made into clothing as well as lodge coverings, and containers. Hides were also cut into strips to make lacings for snowshoes and toboggans. Rabbit skin, cut in strips and woven, was also used for fluffy, warm bedding. In the summer months, both short and long range transportation was by canoe because muskeg made overland travel slow and difficult. Snowshoes and toboggans were used in the winter months.

With the aid of the river systems. portages and the canoe, our people acquired traded goods through an extensive aboriginal trade network that linked them with Native groups farther south. It was not a comercial industry. It was a way of life, and trade was only a by-product of meeting our neighbours. Young men, sometimes with their families, would spend a major part of the summer traveling and living on the traditional trade routes moving from one camp to another. In a relay system of trading, goods would make their way into and out of the region. It was a slow but effective system. We needed little; fish nets, some tools, tobacco and maize. Soapstone excavated in the southern James Bay area was traded inland to our Mistassini cousins, (now northern Quebec) who used it to make tobacco pipes. Such pipes spread to the St Lawrence region and also back to the Moosonee where smoking tobacco was a part of religious social life.

Our cultural system was well developed and strongly connected with our way of life and always, focused in hunting and other food acquistion activities.. The first spring goose killed had a special significance. The head of the goose was dried, decorated with beads and saved in honour of the spirit. Scapulimancy, a form of divination, was used to help with the search for food. We lived in a world we understood, and when we did not understand, we had what people now call faith. We survived as families the world over have done for ages. It was not a European Eden, but our land was Eden nonetheless.

Our hunters would hold a scraped shoulder blade of a caribou over hot coals and "read" the crack and burnt spots that appeared in the bone to select an area in which to hunt.

One day, visitors came to our land. The first written desription by an European of our people in the James Bay area, presumably our ancestors, was in an account of Henry Hudson's ill-fated voyage of exploration to the southern end of James Bay in 1610-1611 A short time later, Captain Thomas James and Luke Foxe explored the Hudson Bay coast between Winisk and Cape Henreietta Maria. In 1640, the Jesuits in New France, who had established missions among the Huron Natives, referred to " Kilistinon" (Cree) who "dwell on the rivers on the North sea".

Our grandfathers, hunters, and trappers, naturally became guides to these English and French visitors. To the visitors, this was a strange and dangerous land. It was our home. They traded tools and goods for food. It was a good deal.

In time others came. And, as we traded with our neighbours, we traded with them. And we took them into the land, as we did with the first visitors. And we fed them, and took them with us when we hunted, and we showed them how to catch the animals they wanted. Most of the time, we had good relations with them. Many of us now have names of the men who entered into our hospitable way of life.

In 1668, Medard Chouart, Sieur de Groseilliers wintered at Fort Charles, later called Rupert House. News travels along our trails, and as we visited, we talked of the camp they had set up, and that they would trade us. In the spring, some 300 of our people dropped into their camp to trade. Groseilliers returned to England in 1669 with tales of a successful fur trading expedition. In 1670, a Royal Charter was granted to the "Governor and Company of Adventures of England trading into Hudson's Bay" and marked establishment of the Hudson's Bay Company.

We knew the visitors as men of the Hudson's Bay Company. They built trading camps they called 'posts' on Hudson Bay and James Bay. They built these trading posts at the mouths of the Nelson River in 1670, the Moose River 1673 (Moose Fort, later to be Moose Factory), the Albany River in 1683, and the Severn River in 1685.

A Hudson's Bay Company Post at Moose Factory, shown here in 1854 but founded in 1673.

The construction of permanent dwelling by the Hudson's Bay Company represented a radical departure from our ancestors' mobile adaptation to the environment of the Lowland. The Hudson's Bay Company depended on the us to bring moose and caribou meat and geese when they came to the posts to trade, since large game was scarce in the areas they camped. Gradually significant numbers of our Cree families came to live in the Lowland year round. They became dependent on the trading posts for arms and munitions as well as for a variety of other items such as fire-steels, knives, hatchets, ice chisels, and clothing. Those of us who lived in the vicinity of the trading posts came to be known as the " Home Guard Cree" and they were the primary supplier of "country food" .

The Hudson's Bay Company's monopoly in the Lowland was challenged on several occasions by aggressive opposition from French traders. To compete, the Hudson's Bay Company moved inland. We guided and assisted the Hudson Bay men inland to trade with others upriver.

The merger, in 1821, of the Hudson's Bay and North West Companies eliminated the Hudson's Bay Company's main competitor but independent traders continued to prevent if from acquiring an absolute monopoly.

Moose Factory was the administrative centre of the Company's James Bay or southern department while York Factory, on Hudson's Bay, was the northern hub. As well as the trading posts at Moose Factory, Fort Albany and Fort Severn seasonal outposts were opened at Winisk in 1882, at Attawapiskat in 1894, and at Lake River in 1929. Other seasonal posts were established at the confluence of the Missisa and Attawapiskat rivers, the Opinnagau and Kapiskau rivers and Ghost River Post at the confluence of the Cheepay and Albany rivers.

In Summer, we worked with them in canoe brigades along our traditional routes to supply the Company's posts in the interior. In 1869, the Hudson's Bay Company surrendered its territory, known as Rupert's Land, to Britain and in the following year, Rupert's Land became part of the Dominion of Canada.

In 1912, by the Ontario Boundaries Extension Act, the northern boundary of Ontario was extended to the shores of James and Hudson Bays. In the early years of the twentieth century, Revillion Freres Trading Company established trading posts throughout the James Bay area. In 1936, Revillion Freres was purchased by the Hudson's Bay Company. A number of individual fur traders also operated in the District in this century. Perhaps the most renowned of the fur traders was J. William Anderson of Fort Albany. Missionaries were not active in the District until 1840 when a Wesleyan Methodist was based at Moose Factory. In 1847, the Methodists abandoned the church and coincidentally, that same year, two Oblate priests from Temiskaming made a summer visit to Moose Factory and in later years, to Fort Albany. In 1851, the Anglican Church Mission Society sent a representative to occupy the Moose Factory Mission. Fort Albany was effectively designated an Anglican mission by 1855. In 1892, the Oblates erected a mission at Fort Albany. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries played an significant and almost irreversible role in the fields of education and medicine.

Our people responded to the presence of the fur traders and missionaries by gradually changing their way of life. Many traditional tools of bone, stone and antler were replaced by metal tools and firearms. Flour, tea, sugar, oatmeal, and other imported food items were obtained from the traders to supplement traditional food resources. My Grandfather, born in 1893, told me a story several times of his childhood experience with a tomato. Something so red, so beautiful, must have been the sweetest, juiciest berry ever to be eaten. Much to his surprise, there was no sweetness. He found it most puzzling. Cloth, as well as manufactured clothing, replaced garments made from hide and fur.

Our Native land was changing. We became dependent. Slowly; not violently; not abruptly; we continued to hunt and we trapped; but instead of being travellers, some of us came back to the same place. Rather than families travelling together, they stayed near the posts, and the men went out to hunt and trap, and came back. Not as a venture or a visit to the post, but came back because there was something entrancing there. The entrancer was a new economy. Our trading had become a commercial venture, and as experienced hunters and trappers, we actually profited by our skills. We had come to know 'capitalism' and 'material possession.' The equation was simple, do something well, over produce beyond sustinance, and acquire. Permanent pots and pans, metal spoons and forks, dishes, extra clothing, a permanent roof. Too much to carry in a canoe. Too much to leave if we travelled. We had become dependent on a relationship designed to take us out of our Native land. The evolution of dependency was far from complete.

Moose Factory - An ancestor's home, Moose Factory, Ontario, c. 1866..
Credit: Ontario Archives

An event of major significance to the Swampy Cree was the signing of Treaty No. 9 in 1905 and 1906, and the adhesions to that Treaty in 1929 and 1930 with the province of Ontario and the Dominion of Canada. Treaty No. 9 ceded the land in the Province of Ontario north of the Albany River and formalized the relationship between the Natives and the Federal Department of Indian Affairs. Native reserves were established and residential schools were operated at Fort Albany (Roman Catholic) and Moose Factory (Anglican).

It was about this time that many of our Chapleau Cree ancestors chose to travel upriver, migrating to southern outposts like Missanabie and Chapleau. Many of us carry links back to the treaty in our names and relatives. For example, One of the signatures on the Moose Factory portion of the agreement is Henry Sailors. Isahia, Bella, Louisa, Amon, Henry, Maria Joseph,Josephine, Sailors are the descendants of Henry and his family. From these, spring other Sailors, Cachagee's, Ritchie's, Mercier's and others who now are Chapleau Cree.

Although several Metis families living at Moose Factory and Fort Albany at the time of the Treaty were included in Treaty No. 9, other Metis families were apparently excluded from that same treaty.

During the 1970's Grand Council Treaty No. 9, a regional federation of Indian Chiefs, now known as the "Nishnawbe-Aski Nation", as well as a local branch of the Ontario Metis and Non-Status Association, was organized. At the same time, Indian Bands began to assume many of the administrative functions formerly performed by the Department of Indian Affairs - now known as Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

The trading posts and churches that were built on the shores of James and Hudson Bays during the eighteenth centuries became the focal points for Cree settlement. Today, descendants of the Hudson Bay Lowland Cree live mainly in the seven villages in Ontario along the coast, and upriver along the early trading routes into the Kapuskasing, Missanabi, Chapleau, and Timmins areas. Hunting, fishing and trapping are still very important part of our life and being - especially those of the more northern communities. Some families maintain a seasonal lifestyle, living for extended periods of time in the interior of the bush.

The Chapleau Cree Reserve #75 was set aside for the Chapleau Cree Band pursuant to Treaty #9 which was signed in 1905. The reserve is situated at the junction of the Chapleau and Nebskwashi Rivers, approximately one mile east of Chapleau. The Township of Chapleau built a sewage lagoon 1000 feet from the southwest boundary of the #75 Reserve. As a result of this and the poor quality of the land the reserve is not occupied by any band member. No permanent community was established at this site and, as a result, the majority of the band members took up residence in the town.

In 1989, the Chapleau Cree First Nation negotiated with the Federal and Provincial Governments to complete a land exchange for land more suited to establish a permanent community. The Chapleau Cree First Nation is currently situated on the recently established Fox Lake Reserve.

The Chapleau Cree First Nation is also entitled to additional land which is currently under negotiation.

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