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Reconnecting with Cree culture, language and land: An interview with Bob Sutherland

Sunset on the Moose River in Moose Factory.

Cultural landscapes

Published Date: Sep 09, 2016

Photo: Sunset on the Moose River in Moose Factory. (Photo: Stan Kapashesit)

On July 20, 2016, Sean Fraser from the Ontario Heritage Trust interviewed Bob Sutherland about his experiences and travels reconnecting with Cree relations in the Rocky Mountains. Sutherland has discovered that many James Bay Cree traditions devastated by the residential school system more than 140 years ago have been preserved in Alberta and Montana by Cree descendants who are providing a means of recovering language, songs, ceremonies and important spiritual knowledge.

Sean Fraser: Tell me about the importance of language to the Moose Cree in understanding and connecting to the landscape of the James Bay area?

Bob Sutherland: People don’t fully understand that culture is language and language is culture. And that’s what’s lacking in a lot of young people today, but not only young people. My wife and I both agree that we did not speak enough Cree to our grandchildren. All our children actually speak the language, but my grandchildren don’t – and we are both at fault for that. There are some important sacred sites in the James Bay region, and the people who know of these places know them only in the Cree language. The language of these places is significant to our culture.

Sean: How would you describe the relationship between the Moose Cree and the land itself?

Bob: Well, lately I guess, more young people are interested in knowing the spiritual part of life. A lot of young people are searching. For us in the James Bay area, people call the land Mother Earth. The earth is our mother and our part mother, I should say. All the people up here are related to one another, and want to be connected in one way or other. The thing is, changes are coming quickly. For example: mining and forestry. The people in coastal communities are still attached to wildlife, the food, the moose, the caribou, the goose. That’s what’s happening to us in our communities: we’re still attached to the traditional foods. It’s also popular because of the great expense up here for food from down south.

Sean: Could you explain what was lost in the connection between the James Bay Cree and the land with the arrival of the residential schools?

Bob: So, in Moose Factory, there was what they call the Anglican Church and what we used to call the Wesleyan Church way back in the 1700s, who also came to the James Bay area. The Anglican Church started a boarding school in Moose Factory before any government-run residential school. Even though it’s a long time ago, the language is still strong in the coastal communities – though maybe not as much in Moose Factory. Myself, I’m fortunate to speak the Cree language, but what was lost along the way was the spiritual part of the Cree people – like the sun dances, the long lodges, the teaching lodges, the fasting lodges and the sweat lodges. While the structures and buildings are still there, what’s lacking is what used to be there. Same thing with the sabtuan [a traditional Cree shelter] located in front of the Ecolodge in Moose Factory. That site used to be a ceremonial place. A lot of people don’t know that it used to be a place for the ghost dance feast to honour people who have gone to the spirit world. These ceremonies were lost to residential schools.

Sean: It sounds like the ceremonies were closely connected to specific places. They weren’t just general ceremonies, but ceremonies rooted in the landscape.

Bob: Yeah, and that’s exactly what happened to many ceremonies in 1873 when some Cree started running away to the west. Some stopped in Rocky Boy, Montana, while others went to Sunchild, Alberta and some to Jasper and Hinton, Alberta, too. When I finally caught up with them 38 years ago, the first thing they told me was, “These ceremonies are your ceremonies; these songs are your songs. They come from where you come from.”

Sean: Do you think many ceremonies would have been lost if these Cree hadn’t run away to the west?

Bob: Yes, that’s exactly why they took off – because they didn’t want to lose what they said to me that God gave them. And I’m not the only one now who knows this story, but I was one of the first to learn about their running away.

Sean: Tragically, it would seem that they had to leave the land to save their connection to it.

Bob: Well, see, the songs are a connection to the land. No matter where you go – like, let’s say you’re in Alberta or Ontario – the same meaning of spirituality is there: Cree, Ojibway, Blackfoot – they’re all the same. The Blackfoot have the same songs as we do, but they sing them in their own language.

A Moose Cree community goose roast on Moose Factory

Photo: A Moose Cree community goose roast on Moose Factory. (Photo: Kim Cheechoo)

A sabtuan (traditional Cree shelter) in Moose Factory.

Photo: A sabtuan (traditional Cree shelter) in Moose Factory.

Deck and canoe

Photo: The Ecolodge dock on the Moose River at Moose Factory Island.

Sean: What steps have you taken to try and recover this knowledge and these connections?

Bob: Well, what I have done is travel every year to the communities that I mentioned. This year was the second time I went to Rocky Boy, Montana, but this time I made a connection with somebody there and told them the history I knew of their running away from Ontario. And they said, “Yes, this is exactly what happened. We are those descendants.” Sure enough, they call themselves Chippewa-Cree, and they sound exactly like us up here in James Bay.

Sean: Their dialect was James Bay Cree, but an older form from maybe 100 years ago. Bob: More like 140 years ago. When I started doing this history, I had to find the truth to see if it was real. I didn’t want to say anything to anybody. But, I had been talking to people here in James Bay and also in Sunchild who express the same interest and knowledge of reviving our culture. So, now we go there. They know that we are from Ontario, and they know and recognize us. And they even say in Sunchild that these people – us – came from Ontario. These people are our relatives. That’s why I go there every year.

Sean: When they moved there, they must have found support from other First Nations.

Bob: See, what was happening and why Crees ended up so far away in the west began when the Hudson’s Bay Company started building its empire to the west and the Crees were paddling them up into the interior. And many times, the Cree said let’s stay here or there. But, the ones that ran away in 1873: they had a different purpose for running. For these other people, it was more of a spiritual thing. They didn’t want to lose the spiritual part of their lives – their identity.

Sean: How did you personally come to learn about the land where you live in Moose Factory and your people’s connections to it?

Bob: Well, I guess as a young child I had humble beginnings. We didn’t live in Moose Factory. We lived about 10 miles upriver. In Moose Factory, they had the store, the hospital, the school. But, before I was taken away at age 7 for residential school, we grew up in a totally unique environment. We grew up on the land. As a young person, I had familiarity with the land. I used to snare rabbits with my aunt. And we set fishing nets. So, our surroundings, our areas to go get fish, partridges, rabbits, to go get wood, it was all familiar for us. These were daily chores. We always had fresh fish and we were very fortunate. There were only about 10 families on the Old French River Reserve – the original reserve created in 1905. And that’s where we grew up. There were no vehicles and there were no roads, per se. You know, it was a unique environment. We had radios but no TV or anything like that. So, I think we were closer to the land, closer to the environment, and we knew that it feeds us. That’s something that we didn’t see in the store. In Moose Factory, there was the store and people were always getting food – compared to us, who had to find our food. I think that’s where I learned about the spiritual connection and the importance of the land, the air, the importance of the sun and the water – you know, all of those natural things that we don’t have control over. But, they do control us in a way because if I don’t have air, I won’t survive. The water was always fresh and clean upriver. So, normally, with the environment fresh and clean, we human beings will be fresh and clean as well.

Sean: How did you stay connected to the land after you were taken to residential school?

Bob: I think I was in residential school for 10 years. But, I already had my connection with the land, and every summer, I would go back to the land where I was raised to reconnect. You know, even today, I have a house up there and I still go back to sit up there and relax. I go up in the winter to cut wood. Now, people go up there to fast, so it’s a lot different. It’s become a ceremonial ground, a lot different from my childhood and from my grandchildren’s childhood. Things are a lot different now on the land.

For the full version of this interview, visit heritagetrust.on.ca/hm.