Mr. James Wesley could stop any conversation in the room as soon as he opened his mouth to speak. A gifted story-teller he amplified that skill with authentic stories garnered from his own gifted elders.
“The people decided it was time to go,” he once said as I sat mesmerized inside his humble home. “It was time to leave the comfortable and safe highland ridges to seek another kind of life.”
Our people, the Inninowuk of western James Bay, some five thousand years ago, left the Sutton Ridges and headed north. They encountered the present Hudson Bay and observed the rough waters. It was here that they stayed for a long time. The population increased. Life was adapted for the lowlands of the bay waters. Children, in time, forgot what life was like in the highland ridges. Ceremonies were conducted and Sacred Stories transmitted to the young. Memories of life in the “Island of Giants” continued to fade and the new generation attuned their eyes to the future.
Small groups began to drift northwards and beyond to what is now Churchill River. But there was talk of a giant Inukshuk further north and a message from the Inuit that it marked their boundary line. Others went east to Cape Henrietta and south. Many years were spent along the shores between Winisk River and Cape Henrietta, long enough that there are visible markers still evident today.
Nakabeyhano Washhebeyow (Western James Bay) Cree traders of old would travel from the Kistachowan (Albany River) loaded with a good supply of birch. It was a major excursion. Several toboggans, each pulled by strong huskies and one person, followed the same trail that led to the far north … home of the Inuit. The trip had been made many times before. Past Churchill River, they struggled over the frozen terrain, following the western coastline of Hudson Bay. They continued until the large Inukshuk was reached. There they waited. The large Inukshuk stood tall and imposing amid the flat landscape. They would wait there until an Inuit representative took their message or invited them in to their community.
The Inukshuk was a respected symbol that marked the boundary between the Inuit and the Cree. This was long before the appearance of the eastern races and the economy still relatively stable.
The Inuit wanted the pliable and strong birch for their Kayaks. The birch tree can be split and it will follow the grain making it easier to turn it into lumber. It can also be bent, to a desired shape, tied up until dry and it will retain that shape. It’s ideal for making the frame of the kayak before attaching the sealskin to the skeletal form.
Our successful traders in the meantime valued the sealskin and seal meat they got in return. The meat will be rationed to the dogs that helped with the hauling. One tiny portion is enough to give them energy for a long while. The seal skin will be converted to boots and waders. The traded goods are usually distributed to community members. Our trade with the Inuit of the north is only one of several trading partners James used to tell us about.
Where did the First Nation people of western James Bay come from? I grew up wondering about that. James Wesley, Michael Patrick, Ernest and Joliet Sutherland, Mary Kostachin, Willie Stephen are only a sample of the older kin that filled me with wild adventures. They brought Wisakejahk, Wemishosh, Hanaway and Chakapesh to life. I heard familiar place names like Nawashi, Paskayow, Kishaymattawa, Nakitowsaki and saw the familiar far-off look in their eyes remembering places they knew as young children; remembering their older they left in sacred ground.
As a member of the Nation I can say we have a unique language. The existence of several dialects of the same language only confirms the long passage of time we have been here, each independently pursuing our own ways. Our language possesses the root words but terminology changed to the need to adapt to the environment. One group slowly disperses and through time, the language of the departing group undergoes a gradual change due to different activities. Think of the Paris French and the Quebec French and that is only almost five hundred years.
The Crees of the western Plains use land based terminology and we understand them. We, on the other hand, living primarily close to water, we use water-based words.
One story that remains constant is the legend of Ehip; the Great Spider that brought our people from the Upper World.