The ancestors of the current Cree population have occupied the James Bay of Northern Quebec land for nearly 5,000 years. The Cree of Eeyou Istchee (land of the people) live along the rivers and lakes surrounding the southeastern extremity of James Bay of Northern Quebec. Their traditional way of life is based on hunting, fishing and trapping. Thanks to their creativity and ingenuity, the Cree have traveled through and become familiar with this huge territory, living in harmony with the land.
Defining themselves as a nation of hunters – Ndooheenou – the Cree have traditionally followed the seasons and animal migrations. To this day, during the fall, many still go to their trap lines to hunt moose, caribou and bear, snare rabbit as well as trap beaver, muskrat, otter, marten, lynx, and fox. Some trappers return to the community for Christmas, but others remain in the bush all winter.
During the spring, the hunting period is called “Goose Break” (end of April/beginning of May) and it remains one of the major traditional activities observed in the communities where the whole family returns to a nomadic lifestyle for two weeks.
When a boy kills his first goose, the head of the bird is cleaned, stuffed, sewn and decorated with beadwork. It is kept in honour of his first hunt. In recent years as this tradition has evolved, girls have become increasingly involved and included in this activity.
Communities also have a fall hunting period; the coastal communities will traditionally hunt geese whereas the inland communities will hunt moose at this time of the year.
In the summer, fishing is in full swing in the coastal bays and river estuaries. At the end of the season comes the long-awaited time for picking berries, small fruits and other plants to be used not only as food but also as ingredients in medicine and dyes.
Traditional foods are still prominent at community feasts and cultural gatherings. These foods have long been associated with healthy living not only because of the physical effort involved in hunting as well as the time spent outdoors with family members but because of the way they are prepared with natural, unprocessed ingredients.
￼Another sacred tradition observed in the communities is that of the “walking-out” ceremony, when a child of about one year of age takes his or her first step outside the teepee. Girls are dressed in traditional women’s outfits from yesteryear and carry hand-made wooden axes as well as bundles of boughs on their backs. Boys are dressed as hunters with pack sacks and guns. Depending on the community, the child is led out of the teepee by his or her parents or a relative. The choice of which person will accompany the child is very important as this person will stand out and stand by this child for the duration of the child’s life.
Though some Cree still make a living from trapping, hunting and fishing, life has changed considerably for hunters and trappers. In fact, the landscape has been significantly transformed first by the construction of huge hydroelectric facilities and roads, and more recently, by mining and logging activities. These changes have all had an impact on day-to-day life for the Cree Nation. Since the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed in 1975, the Cree way of life has been altered dramatically. The Cree Nation has evolved into a political force that provides its community members with the benefits of modern life, especially in the areas of health, education, economics and housing while continuing to focus on its traditions, language and community developments.