By Matthew Stark
for the course Native Perspectives
Instructor: Susan Briscoe
My story starts in August 2011, but first let me tell you how it ends, or at least the closest thing to an ending this story has. My name is Matthew Stark, and in the past year and a half I have become increasingly interested in reading more about aboriginal themed books, attending aboriginal themed lectures, and finally taking a “Native Perspectives” English course. Now, why this sudden interest? The answer lies in the story I am about to tell. It takes place in Waskaganish, after a month-long canoe trip down the Broadback River and just days before a three-day solo experience based on the native “vision quest,” but that’s another story. Waskaganish is a village in Northern Quebec. Waskaganish is on the shore of the James Bay, at the mouth of the Rupert River. This community is home to a couple of thousand people, predominantly Cree. My three-day stay there taught me a lot. It introduced me to many of the themes covered in the “Native Perspectives” English course, such as the tension between whites and natives, the importance of nature and history to the Native North Americans, and the blending of their culture with white culture. It was during this visit that I started to see the issues that still plague North American Natives.
It was the 26th day of our 29 day trip. We had woken up pre-dawn to paddle our last stretch with the tides. After 26 days of near total isolation on the river, we reached Waskaganish at around 8:30. Regardless, it was early and people were just starting to move about. Our three guides went searching for somewhere to stay while the seven participants, including myself, stayed put. This was my first view of a native village. The first thing I noticed were the fishermen heading out: Though they were right next to us, they didn’t really acknowledge us, the way you are ignored while visiting a foreign country and you’ve wandered out of the tourist zone. Except we weren’t in a foreign country, we weren’t even in a foreign province. The feeling of being an outsider only grew as the days progressed. It didn’t help that we ended up staying in the grocery store’s backyard. We were told later by some of the Natives we befriended that we had chosen to stay in the white section of Waskaganish, which was a small, fenced-off area behind the grocery store. In this area, the streets seemed slightly nicer and the houses looked different from the rest, a big deal in a place where every house looks the same. It’s a living example of what we see in The Rez Sisters, by Tomson Highway, when Pelajia sits on her roof dreaming of paved roads. Natives in Waskaganish sometimes see the store’s location as a monopoly over the food supply and the fencing off of the white area as a continued insult, as if to maintain the colonial set-up.
The next day in Waskaganish, a friend and I went to explore the area. We quickly realized that the grocery store was the social center of the village, despite it being located in the white area. Therefore, surrounding the store were a hotel, an elder center, two churches, a small strip mall, a trapper’s building, a smokehouse and just down the street, city hall and the school. The rest of the village was comprised of snaking streets of almost identical, small houses with varying color schemes. We realized that just as with their food, the Natives are given very little choice of almost anything. Native builders are all trained by the government and the Hudson Bay Company project. As for appliances, they all come from “The Northern,” the grocery store we were camping behind. The native people live under very controlled conditions, making me wonder how different this is from the reservations such as those mentioned in Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt. They don’t control where most of their food and appliances come from, which appear to be completely under white control.
Another thing we noticed on our journey was the two churches, for Waskaganish is a Christian village. This is a clear sign of the effects of colonialism that natives like Black Elk fought so hard to prevent. Christianity is purely a result of colonialism and in Waskaganish this religion is overwhelmingly predominant. When we walked into the city hall my eyes instantly saw the quote hanging above the entranceway, “Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your god.” (Ezekiel 36:28) This quote is definitely not part of traditional native beliefs as they would have never heard of Ezekiel before colonization. The Bible, from which this quote comes, was written centuries before whites became aware of the Native North Americans. This goes to show how in the absence of Natives like Black Elk, who fought for his beliefs, almost entire communities have adopted European faiths that their ancestors reverently fought against.
We also saw the effect of the recently completed Rupert River diversion. The project consisted of the building of multiple dams to restrict the flow of the Rupert River, nearly rendering a once majestic river into a stream. The project is part of Hydro Quebec’s James Bay Project, that provides electricity to Quebec and reaches as far as New York. Yet the project has another effect: It has radically altered the river that the people of Waskaganish have lived on for centuries. It has destroyed their fishing lands and made many of their traditions impossible. This isn’t unique to the people of Waskaganish, as seen in the movie People of a Feather, for the natives of the Belcher Islands experience the very same thing. Hydro Quebec is installing dams all over Northern Quebec, affecting many Indigenous peoples by rendering their traditions impossible and reaping havoc in their environment. Hydro isn’t stopping its expansion and more dams are constantly being planned regardless of the consequences. The unnatural river flows are gradually slowing down the ocean current, and no one really knows what will come of these decisions.
My last day in Waskaganish had a great impact on mel. Through a string of lucky occurrences, after being invited to see a fish-gutting set-up, I ended up cooking geese in the smokehouse with the town cook. The fish-gutting was a heartwarming view of native traditions being passed on; the elder women gutted the fish in a blink of the eye, while their granddaughters and daughters sat nearby learning. Cooking geese was also quite interesting as I got the chance to speak with the town cook. However, for once, the conversation was an easy one. We exchanged stories about cooking and he told us of the biggest meals he has had to cook: It was a double wedding preceded by an unrelated funeral. This was an acceptable close to my Waskaganish visit, yet it left me with a lot of thinking to do. It amazed me how such a culture, foreign to our own, can exist in our own backyard without most people knowing much about it. Also, how is it that we can learn about colonization in school without ever being told that colonization has yet to end? These questions inspired me to look for answers and, in turn, I have discovered even more questions. I have been led to native culture for answers to questions I have always had about history and society, and I am just beginning to understand the wealth of knowledge that these cultures have to share. That is why this story has no ending and probably never will; this is just the starting of the story that has opened my eyes to a whole new world.
Highway, Tomson. The Rez Sisters. Canada: Fifth House,1988. Print.
Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks. USA: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. Print
People of a feather. Dir. Joel Heath. The Arctic Eider Society, 2011. Film.
Stark, Matthew. Personal Journal. Summer 2011.
Stark, Matthew. The City Hall Quote. 2011. City Hall, Waskaganish. Photograph.
Paddlefoot. Wilderness Leadership Program Manual 2011 (A collection of readings). Ontario: 2011. Print.