Remembering Eeyou Pimatseewin, the Cree Life

Allan Saganash Jr. grew up in the bush, living off the land—then watched as industry shrank and changed his beloved boreal forest home. He’s determined to save what’s left.

Allan Saganash sharpens his knife, ready to gut a moose shot by his son Dennis.

Credit: All photos courtesy of Allan Saganash

For more than 40 years, Cree elder Allan Saganash Jr. has devoted himself to protecting the natural resources of his community’s traditional lands. His people have lived off these lands for thousands of years, establishing a system of family traplines for their subsistence hunting practices, respecting the cycles of animals and seasons, and tolerating a climate that could fall to -58 degrees Fahrenheit.

These days, Saganash is based mainly in Waswanipi, one of nine Cree communities in Eeyou Istchee, the Cree homeland bordering James Bay in Quebec, about a 10-hour drive from Montreal. But he was born in a forest known as the Broadback or Mishigamish, another five hours north by truck and boat. Mishigamish borders the powerful Broadback River that flows into James Bay, and contains the last 10 percent of intact lands in Waswanipi territory. It’s dominated by coniferous trees, reaching like spires into the sky, and intersected by fast-moving rivers, with caribou and moose grazing in the marshes and eagles soaring overhead.

Saganash with his wife, Flora, at one of their many bush camps. Happy times, happy days, living out Eeyou Pimatseewin.

Saganash’s stories and photographs give us a firsthand view of the Cree way of life—or Eeyou Pimatseewin. He and his wife, Flora ("Lola" to their grandchildren), have seen many changes to Cree lands over their lifetimes. In the late 1970s, huge dams were built to send electricity south to Montreal and New York City. Then came the clearcut logging and mining activities. Roads now crisscross huge portions of their territories. But there are parts of the land that remain healthy, where Saganash, Flora, and their family still visit, and where they can truly be themselves. We, at NRDC, are so honored to share Saganash’s stories and his voice.

A Childhood Interrupted

Two young Crees with geese during spring break

I have lived and seen all the changes that occurred in the boreal forest I call home in such a relatively short period of time. The landscape has changed so much compared to when I first started hunting in 1966. Then, the forest was still undisturbed, and there was not a single forestry road; the lakes and rivers were unpolluted and the animals were healthy. The Cree way of life out on the land was still very intact.

I was born on March 21,1950, somewhere in the bush near the Broadback River. I was born in a tent with spruce boughs for a floor and heated by a wood stove. For the next six years, I would be raised in the bush by my parents and my grandmother, who always took care of me. They had always lived as people of the forest—hunting, fishing, and trapping as a way of life, the “Eeyou Pimatseewin.” Every year in September, we would leave the small village of the Waswanipi Posts, a summer gathering place at the time for the Waswanipi Crees. We’d spend the next 10 months (September through June) in the bush. Then, when the spring thaw arrived and the ice started to melt and open water formed, we’d slowly make our way back to the old post again, trapping and gill net fishing along the way. The Waswanipi Crees would spend the summer months of July and August gathering at the old village.

On September 4, 1957, I was taken away from my parents. Under the federal government policies, I was to attend the residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. I had never left my parents or my grandmother; they were the only people I trusted. Without them, I was afraid and insecure. A year or two before, we had lost my seven-year-old brother, John, while he was attending a residential school in Moose Factory, Ontario. He was buried on the school grounds; my parents were informed about his death a month later. They never brought the body of my brother home. Can you imagine what was on the minds of my mom and dad when another son would be taken away from them to attend school?

For the next 10 years, I attended the school in Sault Ste. Marie, returning home only for the months of July and August each year. From that fall of 1957 to the summer of 1966, I lived a culture that was not mine. I was raised not by my own people but by the people who controlled the residential school I attended. I was hardened and disciplined and forced to obey whatever they wanted. They tried to make me think that being an Indigenous person was not the good life to live. They tried to make me forget who I was and what my purpose was. I was assimilated and forbidden to speak my language.

I lost my identity, but I longed for home—the rivers, lakes, forests and areas I occupied when I was a child. In the fall of 1966, I returned back to my bush life. I was 16 years old now, a teenager who’d lived in a white society most of his life. It did not take long to get my way of life back. I had the best teachers that I would ever have—my mom and dad.

Saganash with a bull moose shot by his son Dennis

Eeyou Pimatseewin

I became a full-time hunter and trapper for the next 12 years—a new life and a new beginning. I relied on the six Cree seasons to carry out my fishing and hunting activities. These included early fall (waastebakuun), late fall (daagohten), winter (pipuun), early spring (shiigoon), late spring (miiuuskumin), and summer (niibin).

There was no forestry yet and no roads. Wild game was plentiful but you had to find it. You sometimes had to walk many miles to find food. It was always on snowshoes, an efficient way to travel in the winter those days.

In the months of January and February, it was so cold, you could hear the trees splitting and the muffled sounds of ice cracking on the lake in the middle of the night while inside your tent. It woke you up sometimes. We'd see the beauty of the dancing northern lights on those cold clear nights. All these happenings were part of bush life.


Spring hunt: Flora with a duck (howeshiish)

In January of 1971, my dad passed away and I was left to care for the family. I was grief-stricken over the loss of my dad but I knew he wanted me to continue what he had taught me. I grew stronger and wiser, as I was now responsible for putting food on the table for my mom and my siblings. For the first few years, I was alone out there in the forest but I always felt the presence of my father. He showed me the way.

A pastime: Breaking a snowshoe trail to set up rabbit snares

While I was hunting, fishing, and trapping full-time, I met this tall, beautiful girl who spoke fluent Cree but did not understand English well. She taught me the Bush Cree language and I taught her English. We became the best of friends and later on, we got married.

In those days, the forest was big enough for all of the Cree families to live off the land. But by the late 1970s, forestry had come to our territory and our forest was turning into a patchwork of clearcuts. Some of the clearcuts were near my family’s hunting areas and camps. Layers and layers of forestry roads, totaling more than 33,000 kilometers, now stretch across our traditional lands, and the areas that were subject to harvest have fragmented, denuded of their natural beauty by forestry development.

A Different Kind of Work

In the winter of 1978, I was asked to come work as an administrator for the new community that was being built. They told me I could fight for what I cherished, to protect what was once my home and still hunt and fish at the same time.

For my wife and my small family, the decision to accept this position would change our lives forever. I would now be working full-time after spending the last 12 years of my life in the bush. A new era was beginning, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it. However, I managed—and for the next 40 years, I worked. To this day, I never regretted coming to work, as I had learned to help my people. I relied mostly on what I was taught in school, but used my traditional knowledge to try and make changes on how resource development was carried out on our traditional hunting territories.

The government of Quebec totally opposed what I was trying to achieve and the changes I was proposing. In fact, some of the officials actually feared me and told me that I was one of the most difficult persons to work with. I didn’t mind because it made me realize I was doing something right. I never gave in to their demands if I thought it was not right for my people. Government people knew the work I was doing would impact the benefits they were extracting from the land.

Confronting Climate Change

Today, we are still fighting for our forest but we are also fighting changes in our weather. Climate change has altered the weather patterns dramatically. We can no longer depend on the six Cree seasons as we did in the past; in fact, some of them have almost disappeared. Mother Nature is confused as much as we are and seems helpless to correct the situation. Man has overwhelmed her, but she strikes back with the forces of nature, bringing more furious storms than we usually have.

I have witnessed an increase in floods, high winds, countless snow blizzards, torrential rains, frequent thunder and lightning, extreme heat causing forest fires, and so on. I cannot walk on areas of the lake or river because it is not frozen as solidly as it used to be in the past. You have to be more cautious when you are out there. I have seen and heard news of people falling through the ice...even our people, simply because they traveled on areas of the ice the way they had always done in the past.

Climate change has altered the Cree way of living. It’s not the same anymore.

FROM LEFT: Saganash and his grandson’s walking out ceremony; tracking moose during the winter on snowshoes

Life was beautiful weskutch (“long time ago”) when the forest was intact, the wildlife was plentiful and healthy, and the water was unpolluted and drinkable from any source. The weather was consistent with the seasons. That was the kind of life I lived and enjoyed. I miss it, and that’s why my wife and l keep going back with the family, even though the land is not the same anymore.

The fight continues and I am still standing. I have not fallen. I am 70 years old now and I will still be out there to enjoy what I love, walking around on snowshoes, hunting and trapping and teaching my grandkids how I lived in the past. My real home and my way of life are still out there and still very intact in my mind. That makes me strong.

One day, they will realize all the work I did was for a purpose—not only for my people, but the whole world. I still believe that the purpose of life is to leave something behind as proof that you were here. Good things, that is. For me, it’s the forest, the rivers, the lakes, the wildlife, and so much more. We have a vibrant life to live and fight for.

My way of life, my culture, my language, and my identity as a Cree person are still very connected to the land. That will always be in our hearts. The earth is our mother. She provides and nurtures every living thing on it. Love and honor everything that is in the waters and the forest. It is your earth as much as it is ours.

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