Many families along the James Bay coast are headed out onto their ancestral lands during this time of year. It is our most important season as so many events coincide that make it a perfect time to hunt and gather food. Even though it is still winter weather, temperatures moderate at around zero degrees which makes it more hospitable and manageable. This is also the time of the Niska, the Canada Goose migration where millions of these birds fly north for their summer nesting season.
Several of my family members make the journey to cross a small strait at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River over to Akamiski Island, the largest island in James Bay. The name of the island is a Cree word that means ‘land on the other side’. It is an area that has been visited by my people for generations and many families from my home community consider this island their traditional land.
My brother Joseph, his wife Lynda and their sons Orion and Landyn recently made the trip to gather food for themselves for the spring hunt. I was happy to see him and his family make that hunt in the same way our father Marius Kataquapit had done for us when we were young. My other brother Lawrence and his wife Christine also braved the challenges of travelling to the island in the very early spring. They enjoyed the rejuvenating aspect of being out on the land in the midst of real Canadian wilderness.
My brothers have established a well built camp on the southern shore of Akamiski close to many areas where dad had once trapped for animals to feed and sustain our family. Many years ago when I visited this family camp with my parents I recall that dad always enjoyed sitting on the high gravel bank of the south shore to admire the vast grey ocean water of James Bay. He reminded us about the many times he had walked along this same shore alone with just a toboggan or a small team of dogs to make this way to his camp or head back to the community. He said it fascinated him to think that he had been there when it was freezing, challenging and he was lonely and with few supplies and food. I understood that when he reflected on his early years it reminded him of all of his fellow hunters and gatherers who survived on the land.
Akamiski Island is an important historic place as my people have hunted and trapped there for generations. We identify this island as part of our traditional lands but Canadian, provincial and territorial governments see it differently. As Mushkego Cree, we reside in Ontario but the island and all islands in James Bay are actually identified as being part of the territory of Nunavut. To complicate matters more, two thirds of the eastern end of the island is identified as the Akimiski Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary by the federal government. This arrangement has historically made it difficult for our leaders to assert our territorial rights to hunting and trapping on this land. We are residents of an outside province, on an island under the stewardship of a territorial government that is a thousand kilometres north and protected by a federal government that is headquartered a thousand kilometres south. We do our best to live with the politics regarding this great island. The western third of the island is not as regulated and my people freely use the land as we have always done in the past. This has to do with our ancestral right.
The rewards of visiting and using this land come with plenty of risk for all those who venture out to Akamiski as there is danger for travellers who risk moving over thawing ice and snow for hours. It takes plenty of skill, knowledge and awareness to travel safely on this land and frozen ocean. Everyone maintains a network of communications among each other to monitor the weather, the ice, the open water and where other fellow travellers are located. People maintain their safety through their individual skill but also rely on one another to stay aware of the dangers.
The south shore is much like the northern muskeg river banks with high gravel bluffs, pine forests and fresh water lakes and creeks. The northern coast is a wide open flat landscape of tidal coast land, lowlands and swamp. It is excellent bird habitat and it is easy to get lost in what seems like a never ending expanse of flat land, scrub and tidal ocean water that seems to have no coastal edge. In the midst of this barren landscape are a few large boulders that sit above the silt, clay and scrub. Our people have used them as markers and their unusual placement on the flat featureless land are seen as grandfathers or ancestors that stand watch over the people and the animals that roam Akamiski, ‘the land on the other side’.