The comments in this file are organized according to themes, and are based on interviews with Eastmain and Wemindji hunters and trappers done by Colin Scott and Kreg Ettenger, transcribed August 1994, and held in the archives of the Grand Council of the Crees, 27 Bayswater avenue, Ottawa, Ont. K1Y 2E4. The subject of these interviews was the impact of the James Bay hydro project works on the Eastmain-Wemindji area. Respondents are identified only by number. These are from Vol 2, Part A, pps 138-150. Edited slightly for publication on this Web site.
Severe general impact on all flora
Herbs and other plants
Note: individual species are named in black type to aid archival search.
The dotted line indicates a new speaker.
Because of all the changes that have been happening in our territory, even the plants seem not to grow as well as they used to grow, like they come up for a little while and wither and die. And they wouldn't have the same growth that we used to have, because the rainwater is not as good as it used to be, and because of the pollution. And not just one plant but everything, even the trees seem to be dying a lot, and even all the things that we see growing in the early spring, they just come up for a few inches and they wither and die. And that's what I've noticed, that nothing grows as well, maybe because of the weather too, that it's cold and then it's hot and cold, nothing is the same anymore, like the kind of weather that we used to have, it's not the same anymore. And therefore it doesn't help any of the plants to grow healthy, all plants don't seem to be healthy anymore.
I don't seem to be missing any plants that were here before. What I'm saying is that the plants sprout out in the spring and they seem to wither and sometimes not even grow, and then die. I think it's because of the rainwater, even the rainwater is polluted, with all kinds of chemicals are in it. Some people still drink the rainwater, but I hear it's not good anymore to use as drinking water.
I would say all plants are very weak now, because they're not growing as healthy as they used to be.
When I go out there, sometimes I have to go around for quite a bit of time without finding what I'm looking for, because when I do find them, sometimes they're not as good as they should be. I mean, like they start growing very well when you see them in the spring, and then all of a sudden they just wither and die. And when you pick bushes and shrubs for medication, you have to look for a real healthy growth of the plant. Sometimes I can't find that, it's like somebody sprayed on them; they start up very healthy and then they just don't grow as much, as healthy as they used to grow. And I can't figure that one out, what's happening, what's going on in the soil. Is there too much gas, whatever, we're using in the community that it's expanding to the bush around the community? And when I do find them, when I go out in the boat or in the skidoo to find the plants that I'm looking for, sometimes I find that they're not the way I want them, to be effective for medication. Because, like all animals in the bush and the fish in the water, for it to be good, in the teaching of the Native people, it has to be healthy. Like all animals and fish in the water, they have to be healthy in order to be effective when you prepare the medicine to treat the ailment, whatever is wrong with the person. But today I dread going out there sometimes, because I have to walk around for quite a bit of time before I can find the right growth and the healthy plant I?m looking for.
Q: Is this generally around the community itself that you're talking about, or what places?
A: Most of the time it's around the community. But it happens where there's no vehicles or other gases around, in other places, it's the same everywhere. And I don't know what's happening; maybe because of the weather or maybe there's too much chemicals in the air, for the plants to be very poorly developed.
Q: Do you need to gather plants from the wild, or would there be ways to cultivate the plants that you need?
A: I only use the wild plants because I don't think it's wise to start planting what we need for medication; I don't think it would be the same thing.
Q: Why is that?
A: Because it's Nature. Because I don't think the plant is going to grow as well as it does out by itself, out in the Nature, in the natural environment. Same thing with everything else; if something is tampered with, it's not going to be the same. Even if it's just a small little thing that's missing in that plant; it's been tampered with and it's not going to be as effective as it should be. So I don't believe we should start growing these things.
The natural growth of a plant is the best medicine that you can get. And if you grow them out in your backyard or in a place where there's a lot of trucks or planes and things like that, I don't think it's going to be effective. I don't know, I really don't think we should tamper with them, because they've been out there for thousands and thousands of years and we've been using them. And if we tamper with them and bring them to our backyards to grow them, I don't think they'll have the same effect. Something there is surely going to be missing because they belong out in the wild.
All the herbs are uprooted by the building of the dams and roads and everything that's going on, and even though they're growing shrubs instead of the original trees that were there before, that doesn't seem to be working for the animals, because that's not what their diets have been. It's changing a lot, and I don't like the way it?s changed because not everything is very good to eat anymore, they even don't taste right anymore.
The other thing I want to talk about are plants and other things that grow on the ground and where the water is raised (floods) from the dams. It is for sure there is a great amount of plants destroyed since they are under water. The water is very deep and that is where things that grow, plants and the animals lose a lot of feed around these flooded areas, also the people because people eat some of the same plants, too.
I am going to talk about the trees, the ones that are destroyed where the dams are built. Long time ago, before the trees were destroyed, the Crees used trees that grew very well along the rivers. If a Cree didn't camp where the trees were, he always could go along the river to find the tamarack to make snowshoes for himself and his wife and children, different sizes of snowshoes for the different ages of his children, especially the boys. Once they knew how to use snowshoes, he always used the tamarack to make them all snowshoes. The tamarack has very many uses, not only for snowshoes. He used the tamarack to make a toboggan which he used to travel and carry his things from place to place. He'd make toboggans for his wife and the children that could pull a toboggan. The tamarack is very strong and hard. The toboggan was used for a whole year, all through in the winter, also his snowshoes. This is how a Cree knows how the tamarack is good and he thinks very highly of the tamarack. The tamarack grow near the rivers and at the entrance and spillways of a lake. This is where one would look for the tamarack. They grow where there are lots of trees, the small tamaracks weren't really used a long time ago. Today the uses of the tamarack are still the same. I still make snowshoes from tamarack. I look for a nice and tall tamarack, I don't want to lose this skill. I don't make them fancy or different kinds like they used to a long time ago. The tamarack doesn't break easily. It lives up to its name [waachinaakin -- bends easily]. The Crees still use the tamarack the same way today as they did then. I like the wooden tamarack snowshoes very much. People would be amazed how things and what things were made a long time ago.
Today not many want to use the things that were used a long time ago, they don't want to make use of their legs by snow-shoeing. They only want to use machines, as if their legs were fragile. A long time ago, the people used to walk with their snowshoes and pulled their toboggans for a hundred miles to get food. They didn't wear out the toboggan even after pulling it on the snow for a hundred miles, then back to camp. And yet the tamarack toboggan was still good to use for the rest of the winter season. They used to say nimwaapin (meaning coming out to get food from the community -- shopping).
There are a lot of tamarack trees destroyed where the dams are built and the rivers are diverted. It is a great loss for Crees because of the uses they had for the tamarack.
The other kinds of trees, like the black spruce, a person used the black spruce tree that's dry and also the tamarack for firewood, that's how they heated their homes. The boughs from the black spruce were used to cover the floor area and used as a cushion to sleep on. They would place these boughs in a layered form so they wouldn't sleep on the bare ground during the summer. In the winter they used like a double layer of boughs so the cold wouldn't come through when they slept on or even sat on them inside their homes (shelters). The shelter/home was warm, not cold. These were what Crees used when they were hunting and trapping inland. All this is affected by the dams, the water from the dams and this is all destroyed and the effects will last forever.
The wood the beaver depend on is dying along the shoreline. The most delicate wood is birch, like you find along the shore of Sakami, but, even where the water doesn't reach, the birch is dying off as well. It could be due to under-water seepage because there used to be a lot of good birch along there. Now it's pretty well all dying off, and the other thing too that might have caused this is, you know the steam (mist) you get early in the morning from a lake, you know where the cold water and warm air meet that could rise into the bush. We're losing a lot of this (birch), even though the water is not right up to it. Even quite a ways in the bush, there's a lot of that birch dying. There's a lot of birch up there, for making snowshoes, you know, pretty well all the wood you need for toboggans is birch, and it's all decaying.
I was thinking of suggesting to somebody to make a study of the birch; I would like to know how the birch can die even though it's not in the water. It is a very delicate wood, and when it's wet too long it's no good.
Q: Maybe the roots are getting too much water from the ground?
A: From the ground, probably, yes. It's not only birch, it's other types of trees too, even those quite a ways in the bush there, they die.
We used to be able to gather berries and prepare them so they can be used the whole year round. But now sometimes the berries are not as good as they used to be. They're not as big and plump and juicy as they used to be. They just wither away when they start growing, halfway up the growing process the berries, they seem to just -- it's very rare in some spots that the berries are very healthy when you look at them or taste them. It's like they just start out to be just bulbing or just flowering and then they just die.
And the other thing is we don't have as much berries as we used to off the land, berries will grow just a little bud and then that would be about it, whereas in the old days we used to have very, very healthy berries. And we used to dry berries to use in the winter, all kinds of berries, but now today the flowering part will grow but no berries will come out of it, as if something was stopping the actual berries to grow. They would be flowering but sometimes there would be no berries, sometimes just a little bud, that's the thing I noticed most is the berries that we don't have anymore.
We have blueberries, we have cranberries, blackberries, strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, and cherries that grow on bushes, wild cherries I call them. I'm sure there's more berries than I can think of right now.
All those berries that I just mentioned were all edible. And for the birds, all kinds of berries were the main source of diet in the summer, even the bear ate berries, the geese, all the birds and some animals lived on berries in the summer time. And especially us people, we'd pick berries and dry up the berries or make jam out of them, they'd keep for all year round if they were done in the right way. Even some of the berries were used as medication. Like all sorts of bushes and shrubs that are important in our native use, for medication or just for food sources, berries were just as important as all those things that we gathered. Because sometimes we'd keep the berries for the whole year or make jam out of them, keep the jam all year round. It was very important that we'd go pick berries, just as important as everything else we gathered for the year.
Q: Was that a food that people looked forward to every year?
A: Yes, we all looked forward to picking berries and we'd go out and check out if they were blooming and we'd know when to go out and pick them.
Q: Did you know where all the good spots were on your trapline for berries?
A: I know all the very good spots, even here near the community and especially on the trapline.
Q: Whose job was that usually, to pick berries?
A: Everybody would be responsible in picking berries, because if the men went, if the men led a bunch of women, they?d have to sit there and pick berries as well as the women, everybody.
Q: Do you have any idea why there are less berries now then there used to be?
A: Because of all the building of the dams on our area, the hydro lines, because everything seemed to change, even the weather, it seems that the berries are not as nice, they're not as healthy. Like all other plants today, because of the weather and the uprooting of all the shrubs and the bushes, because of what they're doing to the land, they're uprooting everything and spilling chemicals everywhere it seems.
The land that has been flooded was probably very nice, nice for all kinds of berries to grow. We all know that when a river flows, along the shores it is very nice, and this is where the berries grow, and where people pick them to eat. Also the different animals and birds pick the berries from there too. The bear really likes to eat the blueberries. As soon as the blackberries are ripe the bear eats them all the time. The bear eats them even after the berries fall off. Sometimes, the snow is already on the ground, and you still can see these berries. The bear is still eating them, this is how the bear stays/looks healthy and tastes very good to eat, produces its fat. That's how we make siikusaakin --- fat crackling; scruncheon", when a person kills a bear he doesn't eat by himself, he shares with relatives and friends. Also when he makes the bear grease from the bear fat. He gets a lot of meat from that bear that helps with feeding his family. All the different kinds of berries, the bear likes to eat them: strawberries, raspberries, shikutaau --- bakeapple berry, blackberries, blueberries, nichikuminaanish -- a species of blueberries (smaller), mooseberries, gooseberries, red berries you find on the ground on very low bushes, cranberries, shaapumin ---gooseberry, ayuuskinich --- raspberry. The bear eats these too when these berries are ripe.
Other animals eat the berries too, I can't name all of them that eat these berries. I know for sure the porcupine eats berries, also the spruce grouse. The ptarmigan, I also know for sure that the fox eat the berries. The birds (fowl) that eat berries that I know are the geese, they eat berries on the islands and even on the hills where the berries grow. The geese fly and look for the berries; also the snow geese (wavies) do the same as the geese. The birds will feed on whatever kind of berries they can find. No one can think that only a few eat these berries, all kinds of animals eat them.
The people think highly of these berries because they know that a lot of birds and animals eat these berries to survive. A person looks for the berries he likes and he picks them, puts them in a container and uses these berries the way he likes them. If he want to eat jam he makes it and enjoys the jam and is satisfied, and just as the animals that fly, walk or run, the people that feed on these berries are nourished. The Crees really love berries. A long time ago, way back, food was scarce; only the fish were plentiful and ducks were killed. When one didn't catch that many fish in his nets, he would pick berries and make shikumin --- fish and berries mixed together. Every summer the berries grow; there are lots of berries, used to be lots that I saw inland, also along the coast. Nobody, no one can say "I don't care about the berries", because the birds and animals feed on them and that's how they survive -- no one can say "I don't get anything from the berries".
On the land that was flooded with water, there were a lot of berries destroyed because the land where the berries grew is completely under water. There were probably lots of berries growing where there is only water now. I know that berries grow inland. I have walked all over when I am inland and I see and look for things that I was taught, and help them; I don't want to let it go and lose it.
A: The first impacts are the flooding of the land and the destroying of the wildlife, the traditional food we lived on, and the medicine we used from the land; also we were able to use the awaashischiish, sphagnum moss, for baby diapers. But they have taken our money and put it all under water; the money that we could have earned from the fur pelts from the fur-bearing animals they drowned.
Q: One thing that I have not been told much about is the traditional medicine that has been lost by the flooding? Maybe you could start there, would you be able to tell us a little?
A: From the trees we would use the bark on a tree; that was used for deep cuts, and we would apply it directly on to the skin.
Q: The bark from what kind of a tree?
1A: Tamarack (waachinaakan); we would scrape the outer layer of the bark, then strip the bark from the tree, and then apply the inside layer of that bark directly on to the wound.
Q: Was this for a burn or a cut?
1A: Most of the time it was for cuts, when someone would cut himself with an axe.
Q: Would you say there is a loss of medicine because of the flooding? Looking for example at the tamarack, would there not be lots of tamarack in areas which have not been flooded?
A: True there is still a lot left, but most of them are under water. Another kind of medicine that was used was wiisichjpjkw [rhododendron canadense, according to Cree Dictionary]; you find these in an area of pine trees --- uschiskaau --- and they were used for a sore throat.
Q: Can you describe wiisichipikw?
A: They grow near the uschiskaau (pine trees) with the shrubs; they're small and light in colour and the leaves are a little wider but thinner compared to Labrador tea. Usually you can see they grow on top of the shrubs; its not Labrador tea but they are similar.
Q: Can you name other plants or trees that have been lost for medicine?
A: Sphagnum moss (awaashichitsh); I cannot remember seeing anyone use this for healing but I have heard of people using it as a heating pad. This moss was also used for cleaning purposes, like drying dishes and for toilet paper, and was used also for applying pressure on a wound by putting it inside a layer of cloth; the mid-wives long ago also used this as a mattress cover when a woman was in labor.
Q: Let's suppose that on a particular territory the main river and main lakes had been flooded; does that mean that your most important sources of some of these medicines would be wiped out? For instance, tamarack grows in low-lying places and much of this moss is found in low places. I don't know about this wiisichipikw but perhaps that also grows in lower places. If the most important concentrations of these plants are around rivers and lakes does that mean that flooding would destroy most of what you have available? From your knowledge of environment would you say that is true, or are these things distributed evenly across the landscape?
A: Most of these would now be under water because they are located in the low-lying areas are were flooded first.
Q: On the traplines if we are talking in terms of the percentage of land flooded; would it be a quarter or more?
A: Not that much where we are now but that part of the land I was talking about was the best area for everything, like the fur-bearing animals and the traditional medicine plants were all abundant and now all this part of the land is flooded.
Another thing is the movement of eel grass, it seems to be moving southward in its distribution. Like the old man at Old Factory has said, when he was very young, there were no brants at Old Factory -- the brants need eel grass to feed on. Then, during his hunting years, the brants came into the Old Factory area. And now, they go beyond Eastmain, almost halfway to Waskaganish. This is one of the changes the old people have noticed in their lifetimes, and from long ago.