Situated at the mouth of the LaGrande River, Chisasibi – meaning, Big River - is the largest of the Cree communities. Our population is about 4,000.1 Like the people of Whapmagoostui, our ancestors' lands were rich in caribou, providing an abundance of food and furs with which to clothe and feed ourselves. That is, until the decline in the caribou population at the end of the 1800s and the first part of the 1900s. At that point, our people fanned out across the land in search of good fishing lakes.
Recently, our people have been deeply affected by issues related to the massive hydroelectric projects in our territory.2 Completed in 1984, Phase I of the James Bay power project flooded about 5,000 square miles of Cree, Inuit and Montagnais lands. Our community was the most affected: Besides the flooding of our peoples' hunting grounds, hydro-development caused elevated levels of mercury in fish, rendering fish - since the decline in caribou, our most reliable source of nourishment - unfit to eat.
Phase I of the James Bay power project involved diverting four rivers into the LaGrande River, increasing the volume of water in the river ten-fold. Since the river no longer freezes properly in the winter, our people can't get to their hunting lands on the other side. In addition, in 1980, fearing the increased volume of water would cause serious erosion of Fort George Island, we were forced to move from our homes to the mainland. The move caused a serious upheaval in the community.3
Fort George Island had been a summer gathering place for our people for more than 150 years, since the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) opened a trading post there in 1837. After spending the fall, winter and spring on our hunting grounds, it was to the island we returned each summer. Then, after trading our furs, we went north to Whapmagoostui to participate in the whale hunt.4
The late Noah Mamianskum talked about how the people entertained themselves when the Chisasibi Iiyiyuu were at Whapmagoostui for the whale hunt:
Kaawiipaaschikaataashit and Mamianskum
My grandfather told me that one of the things the people used to do when they were at Whapmagoostui for the whaling season was wrestle. This was when the people from Chisasibi would also come to Whapmagoostui to hunt the whales. One of the stories took place during the time of Kaawiipaaschikaataashit, my great-great-grandfather, the father of Mamianskum.
At that time, the people played a game of ball during the summer. Some of the men were very strong. No one was stronger than Mamianskum, although Mamianskum’s brother, Imiskwaapaas, was also renowned for his strength. Both men were huge!
The wrestling matches were organized, one team consisting of the people from Chisasibi, the other comprised of Whapmagoostui people. On a clear evening the matches would go on until dusk. One evening, when no one from the team from Chisasibi could out wrestle Mamianskum, the whole team jumped him!
Some of his team mates ran home, yelling, “All the Iiyiyuu are fighting Mamianskum!”
Fearing the outcome, Kaawiipaaschikaataashit decided he should investigate. “Mamianskum is strong enough to kill one of those Iiyiyuu,” he commented as he left. In the heat of the moment accidents were known to happen. Energetic and fast, Kaawiipaaschikaataashit rushed to the scene.
“Has he destroyed anyone yet?” Kaawiipaaschikaataashit asked, upon arrival. “You'd better let him be before he does any damage. He can be mean!”
Afterwards, while describing the scene to Mamianskum, he said, “When you lifted yourself from the ground, you brought all the ones hanging onto you up with you. Some fell quite a ways when you threw them off. Then an Iiyiyuu called Kaaumistuutuu came running towards you, taunting you. ‘Is this the one, is this Mamianskum, the one no one can beat?’ he yelled.”
Kaaumistuutuu jumped Mamianskum. Covering the area where the wrestling match was going on were high mounds of earth. Mamianskum dispensed with his assailant by tossing him from the top of one of the mounds and sending him rolling down the side!
Another game was played with a small ball. Two holes were dug in the ground, their size determined by the size of the ball. The holes were the home base of the two teams and were quite far from each other. The game took place in the area between the bases. The object of the game was to score on the hole of the opposing team. The ball would be thrown up in the air. Both teams would scramble to get hold of it and maintain their hold until one of their members scored.
While one team would try to protect their team mate with the ball, the opponents would try to wrest the ball away. With everybody holding onto someone else, both teams looked like a big human ball. This human ball gyrated back and forth in an attempt to get to one or the other goal. The Iiyiyuu term used to describe the holding onto and the pushing of each other was pihkutaauchisimituunaanu. The players would try to get to the other team's goal anyway they could, even if they had to crawl.
One time Mamianskum was just coming up from the river's edge where he had been tending his net when he saw the men playing ball. They were in the middle of a pihkutaauchisimituunaanu. The men from Chisasibi were on one team. Whapmagoostui men were on the other. The teams were really big as there were a lot of men. Kaanuuwaaiimikuu, one of the men on the Chisasibi team, was a cousin of Mamianskum's.
Putting down his net, Mamianskum went over to the players and asked who had the ball.
“Uncle Kaanuuwaaiimikuu has the ball. He's under all the men,” someone answered.
Mamianskum went to the players, and, one by one, pulled them off. When he finally came to Kaanuuwaaiimikuu he told him to hand over the ball. Kaanuuwaaiimikuu complied. This was no sooner done than all the men swarmed over Mamianskum. When he started crawling towards the goal, he dragged along all those clinging to his back. He made it to the goal and put in the ball. Once he had scored, the skirmish stopped and everyone got off. Everyone had a good laugh at the thought of all those bodies all over him!
Storyteller: Noah Mamianskum
Visit our website: Cree Nation of Chisasibi
- 1. Source: Statistics Canada 2006.
- 2. Plans for hydroelectric development in James Bay – to involve all the major rivers in the Crees' territory – were revealed in 1971. Crees won an injunction to stop the first project, but within a week the injunction was over-ruled. The initial success in the courts, however, forced Quebec to recognise Crees' rights to the land and to negotiate a land claims settlement, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
- 3. Source: Penn, Alan. “Social Impact on the Crees of the James Bay Project.” Grand Council of the Crees' website.
- 4. Northern Cree traditionally came to the mouths of the Great Whale and Little Whale rivers during the summer to hunt beluga. Then, after 1791, the HBC sent a boat from Eastmain to Whapmagoostui to obtain whale oil from the people. Our ancestors continued whaling at Whapmagoostui when the HBC reopened its post there in 1856. In 1860, 800 whales were killed at Whapmagoostui. Soon after the whale population declined until by 1870 whaling ceased at both Whale rivers. Source: Francis, Dan and Toby Morantz. 1983 Partners in Furs – A History of the Fur Trade in Eastern James Bay 1600-1870. McGill-Queen's University Press: Montreal and Kingston.