The Grand Council of the Crees

Address by Grand Chief Dr. Ted Moses to the Saah Winn Hen Gathering ("Understanding the meaning of life") Chisasibi

Address by Grand Chief Dr. Ted Moses to the Saah Winn Hen Gathering ("Understanding the meaning of life") Chisasibi

Posted: 2005-07-12

Elders, Chiefs, Youth Chiefs, Honorary Co-chairs, All youth gathered here, visitors and guests:

It is a great honour for me to have been invited to address you today as you begin an important week of reflection and discussions among yourselves.  I am always honoured to be with the youth of the Cree Nation and quite honestly I am always a little bit in awe of the task for me in addressing our youth.  This is because I know that from among you will spring the leaders of the Cree Nation tomorrow.  I know that it is in the nature of youth to explore ideas, to strive for understanding, to challenge conventional wisdom and to insist on honesty.  I know that you are listening to what I have to say today, and what others here will say to you, and I know that my words can make a difference in your lives.   I know, therefore, that I must choose my words carefully and speak to you as truthfully as I can.

You have given yourself a truly challenging theme and a challenging task of coming to grips with the ?meaning of life?.  It is, however, normal and natural for youth who are just beginning their life?s journey into the world of adulthood and into the world of responsibility to be thinking about these things.  I think that these kinds of issues come to be very much in the minds of youth particularly during times of change and times of transition.  I think it is fair to say that the Cree Nation has been in a period of profound change for the last 30 years and it is not only the youth, but the rest of us as well who have been trying to understand that change and to understand what the best course is for our future.  I applaud you for the task you have set for yourselves this week and I sincerely hope that the speakers and workshops which have been organized will be helpful to you in your journeys.  

I would like to begin by saying to you that it would be extremely presumptuous and arrogant for me or for anyone to tell any other person what the meaning of life is.  The meaning of life is not a specific idea, a specific concept or a specific definition.  The meaning of life is what each and every person comes to understand as a result of his or her experiences in life.  The meaning of life comes in the journey itself.  The most that anyone could offer are things to keep in mind that might help a person in arriving at some kind of understanding of life?s events and life?s realities.  It is ultimately up to each individual to arrive at an understanding of the meaning of life.

What I would like to do, therefore, is to pass along to you some suggestions and some guides that might help you in discovering for yourselves the meaning of life and some things to keep in mind for the journey.

What I have come to understand as a result of my own experiences and what my journey?full of twists and turns, ups and downs?has taught me is the importance of principles.  Principles are those fundamental things that we believe that shape how we see the world, how we respond to events, how we react in situations, and how we relate to people we encounter in life.  Principles are those beliefs we go to when we need to figure out which way to go and what to do.  Principles are fundamentally an expression of who we basically are as individuals.  

I was born in the bush on my family?s traditional hunting territory, and there is where I spent my early formative years.  I was immersed in the way of life, the culture and traditions of our people.  I think it must certainly be there, on the hunting grounds, watching as my parents and other family members worked, struggled, socialized and celebrated on the land that I learned the principles that are at the core of our Cree culture and which have served me well as I have grown and matured, and which I have turned to when I have had difficult decisions to make.

If I had to put a name to those principles and those values which define the Cree character and which are at the core of our worldview I would say they are as follows:  1)  the importance of truthfulness,  2) respect,  3) caring and  4) sharing.

I would like to share with you a couple of very short stories that come from the time that the court proceedings were taking place which eventually led to the negotiation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975.  These stories will provide a bit of insight into our Cree values and principles.

As part of the court proceedings we brought to Montreal a number of our hunters so that they could provide expert testimony about the importance of protecting the Cree way of life.  They were asked to describe various kinds of information about their hunting territories and their hunting practices.

One hunter was called to the witness stand and the bailiff went through the usual practice of swearing in a witness.  He asked the hunter if he swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  The hunter looked at the bailiff and then at the judge, then there was some discussion with the translator (who by the way was a skinny young man by the name of Ted Moses), and finally the judge asked what the problem was.  The hunter explained that he did not know whether he could tell the truth or not.  He could only tell what he knows.

On another occasion a hunter was asked to describe his hunting ground and the lawyer for the government was trying to get an idea of the size of the hunting ground.  After some exchanges between the two the lawyer asked the hunter if the length was approximately so many miles as the crow flies.  The hunter said he didn?t think so because a crow doesn?t fly in a straight line and he waved his hand in and out to demonstrate the flight pattern of a crow.  He said it was hard to know in comparison to a crow?s flight.

There are many such stories and we find them a bit funny to listen to, but these stories also tell us something very revealing about our people, our culture and about our principles.  Our elders and those who have grown up and lived in the bush are known for speaking from a place of truth.  This is part of our tradition.  We all know that our elders have a way of speaking which is unquestionable and which does not require any confirmation.  They speak clearly and openly about what they know.  I suppose a life in the bush, which can often be very harsh and difficult, requires a certain clarity of expression and large capacity for accuracy in communications.  Our culture may be naturally disposed and inclined toward truthfulness.

And it is that very fundamental position of truth in our culture from which the other principles derive.  Our culture is noted for the high degree of respect we show for all people and all living things.  We respect the animals which we have traditionally relied upon for our sustenance and we are grateful to them.  We also respect all people because we never know who will be a source of wisdom and understanding for us.  And because we respect all people we care for their well-being also and share our harvest with anyone in need.  Our values and our principles are all interconnected and they all derive from the basic principle of truthfulness.

This is our tradition.  This is the set of Cree principles which help us in dealing with life?s challenges and also in understanding the meaning and the lessons of life.

The challenge for you, our youth, is to learn to apply our Cree values and our Cree principles to the realities of everyday life.  The challenge is to learn to apply those principles to help to achieve not only your personal goals and ambitions, but also to achieve a noble vision for the future of the Cree Nation.

Part of the responsibility which youth must adjust to as you enter adulthood is to make sure there is a good fit between what you express to be your beliefs and the way in which you live your everyday lives.  In other words, it is one of the challenges of youth to learn to ?walk the talk?.  There should not be a disconnect between what we say we believe in and what we do in our lives.  If the disconnect is there and it continues, it is a recipe for confusion which, if not corrected, can lead you in potentially dangerous directions in your personal lives.  

So say what you believe and act accordingly.  And if you act in a different way then maybe you need to review what you believe.  The challenge for youth is to be truthful, first of all, with yourself.   Ensure that your individual choices for career paths and your stated beliefs are in harmony. 

We, the people of the Cree Nation, are now in a very critical period in our history.  We have set for ourselves a vision of becoming a strong, proud, self-reliant and self-governing indigenous Nation.  We have taken some very significant ground-breaking steps to achieve this vision and we are continuing, as we speak, to break new ground on behalf of indigenous peoples throughout Canada and internationally.

There is a world of opportunity opening up for our people and our Nation to seize control over the economic and political life of our territory.  This is not just rhetoric, this is reality.  We are in a position to control the future of resource development within our lands to ensure the economic stability and prosperity of our people.  And we are in a position to establish a Cree Government which will have jurisdiction over our territory and establish laws and practices to govern ourselves.

These larger realities will translate into very real opportunities for our people.  There will be employment opportunities ranging from the continuation of the traditional way of life to high tech, to law, medicine, education and everything imaginable in between.  We are on the brink of becoming the masters of our own house.

To realize this vision the Cree Nation needs you, the youth, to seize the opportunities to make a contribution to the building of the Cree Nation.  It is you, the youth, who will need to educate yourselves and obtain the skills and training necessary to make the Cree Nation a positive reality.  It is you who will build the Cree Nation.

As recently as thirty years ago, when the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed our people were mostly hunters and trappers living a traditional Cree way of life on the land.  By that time also, our youth who had been sent away to residential schools were returning with different experiences, and with new ideas, and without the same experiences on the land that their elders maintained.

Since then, in addition to being skilled hunters and trappers, we have also begun to be skilled administrators, teachers, nurses and lawyers.  

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement resulted in our taking control over the administration of our communities, our schools and our clinics.  Some shifts began to occur in the way in which our people sought their livelihoods.  While the traditional way of life continued to be very important many of our younger people at the time became involved in the development of our communities.  With the introduction of the Cree-Naskapi Act, control over the development of the communities shifted from the Department of Indian Affairs to the communities themselves.  With that shift arose the possibility for a wide range of administrative and technical-level employment which is required to operate our communities and to provide a wide range of programs and services to benefit our members.

Over the years, it has become apparent that future job creation potential would need to focus on two major areas:  first, the gradual introduction of Crees as professionals to assume positions in the Cree School Board and the Cree Board of Health and Social Services; and secondly, in the area of economic development.

The first of these areas?the development of Cree professionals and their assuming roles as teachers, nurses, doctors, accountants and administrators?while necessary and desirable, has upper limits.  Once Crees are in these positions, there will not be significant growth from the point of view of job creation in these areas.

It has become obvious that the only significant, long-term and sustained growth in jobs for the future of the Cree Nation will be in the area of economic development.

We have always argued that our successful entry into modern economic development required that several key necessary conditions be in place.     Most importantly among these necessary conditions are land and natural resources, financial resources and human resources.   

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement together with the New Relationship Agreement with Quebec have provided us with the recognition of our interest to the land and its natural resources, and now, the New Relationship Agreement will provide us with the financial resources to become major economic players in our traditional territory.   We now have a recognition of our interest in any resource development which takes place on our traditional lands and this agreement will provide us with the financial tools to transform this recognition into future benefits.  The New Relationship Agreement represents a pivotal turning point in the historic direction of aboriginal policy and a turning point in the history of the Cree Nation.

After many years of doing battle with the Province of Quebec over our fundamental rights, Quebec has finally come to understand the importance of our relationship to the land and our need to be involved in all matters related to the development of the resources within our lands.  We have now entered a new relationship with Quebec based on mutual understanding and mutual respect.

Part of this new relationship has been that we have had our fundamental rights within our traditional territory finally acknowledged.     

Our historic claim to the ownership of our traditional territory has had as its objective to be able to exercise a significant measure of control over development, and to also derive benefits from the resources within our lands.  This ?paix des braves?, this New Relationship Agreement between the Crees and Quebec has provided us with a recognition of our claim and we are now ready?as we have always maintained?to participate as active players, in fact, to become the dominant force in the economy of the region.

This agreement represents a radical departure from history.  Historically, our ability to be seriously involved in mainstream economic development was denied to us.  The Crees, as other indigenous peoples in Canada, were systematically excluded from economic development through policy and practice.  There was no acknowledgement of our social, cultural and economic ties with the land.  And consequently there was no provision of the full range of tools necessary to allow for our serious involvement in the region?s economy.

Participating in the economic development of the territory is not something we should feel fearful about entering.  If we do not become the masters of our own house and develop the resources within our territory for the benefit of our own people, then we can certainly expect that the resources will be developed by others with little benefit coming to the Cree Nation.

We are no longer victims and we can no longer play that role.  We now enter this new era not as victims of historical injustice, but as the self-confident and proud permanent residents of our territory who are ready to fully realize the potential which the future holds for us.  Our future is truly in our own hands.  We have thrown off the yoke of colonialism and we should now be setting our sights on genuine nation-building.

Taking up that challenge forces us to address the question of what it is that defines who we are?  We have for a long time been hunters and trappers and we will continue to do so.  We will continue to maintain that special relationship with the land.  But does being Cree mean being only a hunter and trapper?  

Is it possible that being Cree might also be about taking very seriously the values, the beliefs and the philosophy that evolved from and developed out of the traditional Cree way of life and the incorporation of those values in everything we do today and in the future.  

I would like to suggest to you that we, as Cree people, are defined by our values and beliefs and by what our ancestors have learned from the traditional Cree way of life and passed on to us.  

Our way of life has never been a static one, fixed forever in time to be exactly the same thing.  There have always been changes?there were many periods before contact with Europeans when we were completely independent, then there were adjustments which our ancestors made to accommodate the fur trade, and there were other adjustments when the fur trade began to decrease in importance?and we have continuously adapted ourselves to make beneficial changes for our people.  We have never been afraid to change.  What has endured, and what has guided us to ensure that those changes would benefit our people, is our values and our principles.  

When I suggest to you that it is the challenge of youth to learn to apply our Cree values to everyday life, what I want to say to you is that it is alright for us to apply Cree principles and Cree values to contemporary economic and administrative realities.  The worth of Cree values and principles is not limited only to the pursuit of a traditional way of life.  Being a genuine Cree is not just being a hunter and trapper.  You can be a proud and genuine Cree and also be a teacher, a doctor or a judge.

My suggestion to you is to talk to your elders.  Learn the principles and the guideposts to help you in your life?s decisions and go into the world and make a difference.  This is what our Cree Nation needs.  This is your life?s task and your life?s challenge.  After you have learned the principles apply them consistently, honestly and truthfully.  

If there is one truth that I believe, and that I dare to pass along to you, it is that there is no greater satisfaction in life, no greater high, and nothing which gives any greater purpose to life than devoting yourself to the service of your people.  There is nothing which gets you out of personal ruts, depression or confusion more effectively than dedication to doing the right thing for your Nation.

Part of the ?meaning of life? must involve lessons about how to survive and how to thrive in the context of life?s challenges and life?s changes.  You too will some day be asked by future generations to explain to them the ?meaning of life?.  My wish and my hope is that when you are elders you will be able to speak eloquently about how you received Cree wisdom, values and principles from your elders and how you applied them to the challenges which you will have encountered in your lives.  

It is also my hope that you will be able to tell the next generation after you that it was our Cree values and principles which served you well in making your contribution to the building of the Cree Nation.

Meegwetch.