The Ancient and Idle Attawapiskat Wars

By Nathan Elberg on January 14, 2013

Chief Theresa Spence’s moderate hunger strike is the polar opposite of the war tactics of the 17th and 18th century Indians of James and Hudson’s Bay.  The lowlands of the northern forest, their shorelines and muskegs were hotly contested by the Cree and Inuit prior to the arrival of the Europeans, as the latter moved further and further south.  The fur-traders turned the tide in favor of Indians, who were first able to trade for guns; the Inuit were initially kept unarmed by Hudson’s Bay Company policy.  The armed Cree turned with a vengeance on their Eskimo rivals.  Following many of the massacres their warriors would eat an inch of raw Eskimo flesh, often a piece of fat cut from the thigh of the scalped, slain victims.  Women and children, if not killed, were adopted into families or taken as slaves.

Warfare was endemic to pre-contact America, from Alaska all the way down to Mexico, (where the Aztec sacrificed and ate huge numbers of captives).  It was endemic to aboriginal northern Ontario.  Based on extensive historical and anthropological research, Charles Bishop and Victor Lytwyin (in the book North American Indigenous Warfare and Ritual Violence) conclude that these wars started long before the arrival of Europeans.

The ancestors of the Attawapiskat people also fought against other Indians.  The Dene threatened to encroach from the northwest.  The Iroquois attacked from the south.  When the Cree needed war trophies and couldn’t locate any Inuit, they occasionally took the scalps of members of related tribes.

Bishop and Lytwyin attribute the end of James Bay regional warfare in the late 18th century to increased employment, brought about by expansion of the network of fur-trading posts.  The Cree helped build the posts, transport goods, and procure supplies.  The increased availability of modern tools and weapons made their life in the bush less hazardous, lessening the number and severity of the misfortunes that the Cree blamed on malevolent Eskimo sorcery.  With the new jobs and prosperity, the Cree were never idle enough to devote time to ethnic warfare.

The growth of the fur trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth century revolutionized Cree life, bringing relative wealth and comfort.  They organized clan and family hunting territories, giving them a form of property tenure.  The older nomadism, and eventually the warfare it entailed, faded from memory.

The contemporary “idleness” and economic stagnation of Attawapiskat and many communities like it are largely the result of the collapse of the fur trade, the enterprise upon which the village, indeed upon which Canada was established.  Chief Theresa Spence should be demonstrating in front of PETA’s waterfront offices in Norfolk, Virginia, rather than on an island in the Ottawa River.  She could flaunt a fur coat (rather than her body, as do many of PETA’s glamorous supporters).  

The eighteenth century solution to the Attawapiskat region’s problems was jobs; not make-work government projects, but participation in a market economy.  Back then, prosperity was built around fur.  In the 21st century, the “Ring of Fire,” a concentration of valuable minerals such as chromite and copper offers a parallel opportunity for the contemporary natives of the boreal forest. 

In the 1970’s, I spent a winter in the bush with a James Bay Cree family, trapping beaver and living off the land.  At that time it was a break-even enterprise, with the price of fur pelts expected to cover the cost of supplies and the chartered plane to fly inland.  That’s no longer possible.  The price of pelts has tanked.  A fur coat is considered a sign of barbarism, rather than wealth and sophistication.  If the aboriginal culture of Attawapiskat is tied to an extinct economic enterprise, there’s nothing Chief Spence can do to protect her people; she’s right to play the victim card.  If they are to have a future, the people of Attawapiskat and other such communities must embrace new economic realities, just as their ancestors did centuries ago; just as many contemporary native communities have chosen.  Jobs provide a better diet than warfare, headlines or hunger strikes.  The choice is in the hands of Spence et al: idleness and victimhood, or growth. 

Nathan Elberg is a writer currently doing a PhD in Religion at Concordia University.  He has lived and hunted with Inuit and Indians in the northern Canadian wilderness, and did research on behalf of the Cree of Quebec to oppose the James Bay Hydro-Electric project.

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