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Speaking the land exploring women's historical geographies in Northern Quebec.


In 2003, The Nation--which is the Eastern James Bay Cree's main periodical--published the legend of 'The woman who turned cannibalistic' (Masty 2003). (1) It tells the story of a couple who lived on the land a long time ago 'when it was easy to catch beaver' (p. 59). One day the man notices that his wife does not eat much of the meat he brings home but seems satiated after a few bites. Spying, he observes her leaving their lodge with a cooking pot and walking over to a mound near the edge of a swamp. There he sees her sitting beside the mound and cutting something inside which she then transfers to the pot. Confronting her, he realizes that she has killed a bear and is cutting meat from it a little at a time. Outraged, 'the man dragged the partially butchered carcass out of the den and took it home' where he proceeds to 'properly' (p. 61) clean and butcher the bear.

This killing and consuming of the bear outside the traditional ritualistic procedures followed by male hunters has severe consequences. Gradually, the woman starts to exhibit strange behaviour. After skinning a beaver, she licks the blade of the flesher against the prohibition that beaver meat is not eaten raw. Worse, she tries to stab her husband when he mentions this rule to her. Fearing that she 'no longer had any sense of right from wrong' (p. 63) the man leaves their camp the following morning to fetch her parents who are hunting nearby. When they reach the camp, the crazed woman walks toward her parents, kills them, and later eats their corpses. From then on, it is clear that the woman has stopped being human: 'She was no longer the size of a human. She was becoming a giant cannibal. She was eating people now' (p. 65). Following in her father's trail, the cannibalistic woman walks back to the main camp where the rest of her clan is ready for her and a shaman kills her. The legend concludes that: 'The spirit of the bear was vengeful to those who showed disrespect. This was before there was religion. Nobody knew God'. Nevertheless, 'the man wasn't killed because he was very observant' (p. 65).

Interestingly, that issue of The Nation also contained an article, this time non-fictional, about a woman who was making a formal plea to the Cree Trappers' Association (CTA) in order to become lead hunter of her family trapline, a role now referred to as 'tallyman'. (2) The woman, who at the time was in her late sixties, was born on her family's land and spent her youth in the bush. She never went to school and always led a traditional lifestyle. Her father died when she was very young and her mother became the sole provider and teacher of the family. She remembers her mother as a role model: 'She patiently taught us everything about our traditional lifestyle, and the hunting, trapping and fishing skills. She worked as hard as any man at our family camp when my late brother was still small and unable to do heavy chores' (Valade 2003, 41). When her brother died in 2002, his last wish was to leave the trapline to his sister; as an elder and a respected member of her community, she was the best person to ensure that the land would be well taken care of, and that its wealth would continue to be shared. This simple plea, however, would put the CTA in a delicate situation for, in granting such a wish, it would have to go against the traditional patrilineal practice of transferring land from father to son. (3)

The juxtaposition of these two pieces only a few pages apart is an intriguing editorial commentary by The Nation on the dilemma facing the CTA, and Cree society as a whole. Indeed, it would constitute a surprising break from tradition if the CTA were to grant official responsibility of a trapline to a woman. Yet, in practice, men and women often accomplished many of the same tasks while out on the land. The extensive list of skills that traditionally had to be acquired by both men and women to maintain a successful hunting lifestyle attests that the division of labour between them was a matter of survival: living off the land meant that each gendered task was developed toward the goal of maximizing every effort, resource, or movement in space. Nevertheless, as oral history demonstrates, injury, death, resource scarcity or other calamities constantly forced men and women to cross gender barriers and do what is needed to be done in order to sustain themselves and their families. What then, in this context, constituted a 'traditional' division of labour between men and women? And, depending on the nature of this division, what kinds of social roles, or types of relationship to the land did it give rise to?

This is the question I explore in this review article, which also aims to present possible research avenues. I start from the premise that we cannot understand the historic and contemporary geographies of subsistence economies without more research about the roles that women played in them. Unfortunately, very little systematic research has been dedicated to this topic for the Crees of Quebec. It must be stated at the onset that my project here is not to 'uncover' the historical geographies of Eeyou women in Northern Quebec, for they themselves know their contribution to the landscape of Eeyou Istchee and to the history of their people on this land. (4) My goal, rather, is to identify possible research avenues on women's historical geographies in this region. Related to this goal is also a broader reflection on how geographies of the past are reconstructed by historical geographers, both from an epistemological and methodological point of view. As a discipline, historical geography has been chiefly dedicated to the study of the encounter of migrant Europeans with new world lands and societies, with the result that Aboriginal and women's geographies have commanded less attention. This, I suggest, leaves us with a gap in knowledge that should be addressed by emerging researchers.

As it relates to Quebec and to the body of research that pertains to the Cree subsistence economy, this question must also be replaced within a specific context: The beginning of hydroelectric development in James Bay following the announcement of the La Grande project by Robert Bourassa in 1971 caught the Crees and their allies by surprise. The fast pace at which events moved and the stubbornness of the government, which pressed on with the project even as negotiations were under way with the Crees, created a sense of urgency. A solid case had to be made that a lively, viable hunting culture existed--and indeed continues to exist--in James Bay, and that this culture would be irremediably altered, if not destroyed, without express policies designed to protect both its practitioners and their territory. During the court proceedings that led to the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec agreement, male Cree hunters addressed the judge, speaking of their land as best as they could within the constraints of the white judicial system that reviewed their case. (5) Anthropologists, many of them teaching or studying at McGill University (see Feit 1978; Tanner 1979; Scott 1983; Salisbury 1986), played an important part in analyzing the various aspects of Cree culture and territoriality that were key to the success of the negotiation. Within this highly politicized context, it is normal that some features of Cree culture became strategically emphasized while others, including women's important roles in the maintenance of a hunting economy, tended to recede in the background. In creating a gender-blind picture of the Eeyou traditional economy, scholars may have also skewed our understanding of the interdependence between male and female spaces and practices on the land. While it will take years of collaborative research with the Eeyouch to generate a more nuanced account, the present article aims to lay some bases on which to ground this inquiry.


Taking an interdisciplinary approach, and moving from the general to the particular, my inquiry has three parts. First, I identify some key debates that are pertinent to a study of gender and Aboriginal women in a colonial context. Second, I review the existing ethnographic literature on Cree women in Eastern Canada, assessing what insights it gives us about their role in subsistence economies. Third, I outline specific avenues that help frame a research programme studying the historical geographies--by which I understand the places, placing, and place-making--of Aboriginal women in Northern Quebec.

Approaching the Field: Gender, Space and Colonization

For decades, Aboriginal populations in Canada and elsewhere have claimed their rightful place in research as active subjects rather than objects of inquiries that were often led by academics with only a tenuous link to their communities (see Abbott Mihesuah 1998; Tuhiwai Smith 1999; Hudson and Taylor-Henley 2001; Piquemal 2001; Abbott Mihesuah and Cavender Wilson 2004). Thanks to their work, researchers are slowly realizing that research pertaining to Native societies should not be envisioned as a special interest but has the potential to offer new and transformative perspectives on society at large. Thus, a study of the progressive making of Eeyou Istchee by First Nations people should shed light on the making of Quebec's territory as a whole. The same is true for the inclusion of gender in such a study. As Jeanne Kay Guelke has pointed out in her analysis of regional historical geography in Canada and the U.S., paying greater attention to gender and gendering and incorporating material on women in our readings of historical sources may reveal a 'strikingly different picture of the past' (Kay 1991, 436). In turn, 'ignoring the vast published literature in women's studies and ethno-history that would directly contribute to full and balanced regional historical geography is essentially inadequate research' (p. 436). Historical geography also brings a fresh perspective to Aboriginal studies that, although they have long been the purview of anthropology, are expanding in domains such as law, sociology or urban studies. This bringing down of disciplinary walls is indicative of the fact that Aboriginal people are no longer viewed as 'locked' into a pre-modern past, but as key elements of the cultural, historical, and political make-up of Canadian society. In summary, looking at the place of Aboriginal women as agents in the making of human landscapes has the potential to expand historical geographers' realm of analysis, challenge our methodological assumptions and thus improve overall scholarship in the discipline, in addition to broadening the scope of Aboriginal studies.

To begin this project, historical geographers have to re-examine the categories they traditionally work with, using a gender lens. As social constructs, space and rime both shape and are shaped by cultural, political and economic forces; gender is an intricate part of these forces and is therefore constitutive of how human landscapes are shaped over time. Social theorists have demonstrated how gender is a binary system where the masculine is consistently valued over the feminine; this unequal attribution of value extends not only to men and women but to all things associated with the 'masculine' or the 'feminine' (see de Beauvoir 1949; Haraway 1991; Butler 1993). In the West, the historical formation of this hierarchy has partly been traced to Enlightenment thinking and to the scientific mapping of the body and nature, through biology and other means (Merchant 1983; Fausto-Sterling 2000). Feminist researchers in geography have focused on how gender is constituted through spatial relations that both create and recreate a dualistic gender structure (Rose 1993; Massey 1994; Hanson and Pratt 1995; McDowell 1999; Domosh and Seager 2001). One of the primary spatial frameworks for the reproduction of male and female identities is the division between the private and public spheres, which is accompanied by the attribution of different forms of labour to each of these spheres. While, where it is operative, this division is configured differently by various societies and fluctuates over time, studies have demonstrated how it became dominant and acquired greater fixity with the rise of capitalism in Europe, which was accompanied by the gradual sharpening of a division between spaces of work and spaces dedicated to leisure and family time (Thompson 1963; Hobsbawm 1975; Massey 1984). Among their many contributions, these various studies underline the constructed nature of the division of space and labour--with their associated roles and identities--therefore undermining the essentialist view that the latter derive from biological functions.

The connection between the public/private division and the global expansion of a market economy has important implications for the study of gender among indigenous and subsistence societies. While contact between Aboriginal and European people in the Americas precedes the Industrial Revolution, the growth of early colonial encounters into fully fledged mechanisms of trade, education and governance was predicated on a profound restructuring of spatial relations within Native societies: if feminist geographers are right that space and gender determine one another, we can presume that changes in spaces of everyday life brought about by settlement and urban development have impacted the structure of male-female relations within First Nations. In Canada, the reserve system has been studied as a chief example of the colonial restructuring of Native space, yet less is known about finer scales of interaction with space (or the land) such as those relating to the individual or the household. The lack of systematic data leaves a lot of room for speculation regarding the nature of male-female relationships in pre-colonial societies; gender binaries and inequalities in indigenous cultures are often regarded as the legacy of colonial practices that reworked cultural understandings of sex identities that were traditionally much more fluid and open, at times even exceeding the dual categories of male and female (Williams 1986; Roscoe 1991; Jacobs et al. 1997). The current gap in extensive knowledge of pre-contact gender systems also adds another level of difficulty to the task of developing further research: indeed, research on Aboriginal gender systems--historical, but also contemporary--cannot be solely premised on Western understandings of male/female relations, nor on expectations of outcomes for social change that motivate mainstream feminism. (6) Like women of colour in their critique of white feminism in the U.S. and Canada (see Moraga and Anzaldua 1981; Hull et al. 1982), Aboriginal women are weary of seeing colonial dynamics recreated in various research agenda conceived from a privileged, generally white, academic perspective that is impervious to cultural context and/or political agenda.

Rather than be seen as obstacles, these issues can serve to guide the approaches and methods of a feminist historical geography. Even as a contested and hypothetical terrain, gender can inform in important ways our understanding of a key aspect of colonialism, which is that it systematically works to separate bodies from land. As several indigenous and non-indigenous scholars have demonstrated, 'de-settlement' of Aboriginal territories has been the first and necessary step of the settlement of Quebec, and Canada as a whole. One must write historical geography backwards, as it were, to record the stages of de-settlement that make possible the re-resettlement of the landscape by non-Aboriginal actors (Trigger 1990; Delage 1991, 2000; Harris 1997). Since, in Aboriginal cultures, institutions and bonds of sociability were derived from the relationship to land, the systematic de-structuring of spatial relationships through relocation, removal and 'reduction' (Simard 2003) alters the internal logic of culture and thus weakens, or breaks down, familiar cultural patterns. If this weakening of cultural patterns is effected most directly by removing populations from their ancestral territories, it also proceeds through re-education into a white cosmology where the relationship to the land is configured differently. The loss of traditional knowledge about how to survive on the land--or the lack of access altogether to that knowledge through traditional Aboriginal education--effectively finalizes this separation of body from land.

It is because body and land are so closely intermeshed in Aboriginal cultures that they form such an important site for the deployment of colonialism. That site is rendered all the more complex by the fact that bodies are not generic but gendered entities, although they have often been treated as the former by researchers in colonial history. In comparison, Canada's chief legislative colonial tool, the Indian Act (1876), was eminently attuned to gender, using sexual difference strategically to achieve its goal of 'enfranchisement' of Native subjects: up until the adoption of Bill C-31 in 1985, women who married a non-Aboriginal person would lose their status, as would their children. (7) The same was not true for Aboriginal men who retained their status independently of their choice of spouse. Since band membership effectively grants access to the reserve, one of the consequences of the Indian Act's unequal treatment of men and women is that it translated into differential access to the land. (8)

This inequity is but one aspect of the complicated nexus linking gender, space and colonization, which gathers in its orbit other related topics. Among them are Aboriginal modes of access to land, notions of property, systems of community exchange or of resource management, all of which are crisscrossed by the different functions assigned to men and women in reproducing these social structures. This brief overview of gender and colonization is meant to foreground the important notion that, if colonialism modifies in a profound way the relationship to the land, its full impact cannot be understood unless researchers pay more attention to the fact that the bodies being removed from the land were gendered. On a daily scale, no longer being able to hunt, fish or travel through a significant area at a specific time of the year meant different adjustments and reconfigurations of self for men and women, depending on what practices they had come to integrate as part of their identities. In this view, the treatment of male historical actors as 'gendered' subject rather than generic ones whose experiences can be generalized to represent the whole is as important as the inclusion of women's experiences and a creative search of their traces in archival materials. Against this larger picture, I now turn to a review of the relevant literature on Aboriginal women's histories and ethnographies in an effort to identify potential openings for further research in Quebec.

Situating Women's Historical Geographies in Northern Quebec

Although not directly related to the Eeyouch, research conducted in collaboration with Aboriginal women in Western Canada, notably the accounts by Plains Cree women (edited and translated by Ahenakew and Wolfart 1988) and the ethnographies of female Yukon elders by Julie Cruikshank (with Sidney et al. 1990), offer key methodological approaches for integrating a gendered perspective into geo-historical studies of Northern Quebec. Similarly, Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer Brown's historical studies of the place of women in Western Canadian fur-trade society can provide a model for analyzing the place of gender in social relations among fur traders on the East Coast of James Bay (Brown 1980; Van Kirk 1980, 1985, 1988). Addressing the social construction of gender in a different cultural and historical context, Roland Viau's (2000) enquiry into gender and power in traditional Iroquois society also provides important methodological insights, particularly for its comparative approach.

When it comes to Northern Quebec, Regina Flannery provides most of the earliest references for Eeyou women with a body of work that spans nearly 50 years and encompasses the Crees of both the Western and Eastern shores of James Bay (for a list of key works see Flannery 1995, 92-93). Her article (Flannery 1935) discusses the status of Cree women at the turn of the century and constitutes the earliest academic reference on the subject. Although very little specific data are provided in this short text, Flannery concluded from her ethnographic observations that: 'The division of labour between the sexes would seem therefore to depend much on personal ability and commonsense adjustment to circumstances, far from entirely on institutionalisation' (ibid., 83). The life story of Ellen Smallboy, which Flannery recorded in the early 1930s when Ellen was already in her eighties, constitutes perhaps the most detailed ethnographic illustration of this proposition (Flannery 1995). In Moose Factory where Ellen Smallboy spent the end of her life, Flannery worked with Ellen and a translator for an extended period of rime to record her life history, from childhood to her married life and old age. Looking back on the life of this Cree woman, which spanned the latter part of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century (her exact year of birth is not known but she died in 1941 when she was approaching ninety years), Flannery takes the perspective that:
   In most respects Ellen's life exemplifies the pattern expected of
   women in the nineteenth century in the James Bay area. Thanks to
   her mother's strict training and her own willingness to learn, she
   was by her late teens fully competent to carry out all the tasks
   expected of women. Although the loss of her father early in her
   life caused hardship and great sorrow, his death seems to have
   fostered her independent spirit as she achieved increasing
   competence in hunting, trapping for furs, and other activities
   usually undertaken by men. This competence was an advantage in
   subarctic bush life, where survival might hinge on such skills, and
   it was a quality admired in a marriage partner. There was no hard
   and fast rule regarding the division of labour, nor was there loss
   of face when either men or women took on tasks normally performed
   by the other (Flannery 1995, 53).

The notion of competence underlined by Flannery has been explored by another scholar, Sarah Preston, who discussed it under several angles, notably in childbirth (Preston 1982) and in the context of the life history of Alice Jacob. Quoting from her husband Richard Preston, she characterizes social competence in the following terms: 'Competence refers to behaviour that demonstrates effective interaction with the environment and to a synthesis of internal strength or will and aptitude that is the potential for such behaviours' (Preston 1986, 9). Within the Cree concept of social competence is also a strong component of responsibility that extends beyond oneself: 'Cree social competence therefore also includes the ability to recognize the outcome of one's action, intended or unintended, to assume responsibility for that action, and to alter future behaviour in the light of acquired knowledge' (ibid., 10). Thus, Preston analyzes Jacob's life history as a journey toward the acquisition of social competence in different situations. At the beginning of the narrative, an episode is detailed in which a young Alice freezes her foot, thus incurring negative consequences for herself and her family. Other episodes describe the acquisition, as Alice gets older, of the ability to make well-informed decisions, develop confidence and a sense of social responsibility, as well as exercise individual autonomy.

What is important to note about Preston's analysis for a study of women's places and place-making in Eeyou Istchee is that, from moveable camps to permanent homes, the duties and expectations related to social competence would presumably fluctuate with the changing spatial patterns of life. In a chapter dedicated to the 'Organization of Social Space', Tanner (1975) noted with great detail the layout of domestic areas in traditional hunting camps, from the placing of individuals during meals and nightly rest to the arrangement of objects of everyday use. For example, food supplies are kept on the women's side while any article related to hunting and trapping is generally kept on the male side of a family dwelling (ibid., 77-78). What emerges from this picture is the gendered nature of the organization of space in the bush and the close connection between this micro geography and hunting as a mode of production: 'The division between male and female sides not only results in men seldom entering the space of the women, and vice versa; it also provides a graphic demonstration that there exists a cognitive ordering of household articles in terms of the categories of male and female' (ibid., 78). From a historical geography perspective, we can imagine that this cognitive ordering and organization of social space and labour gets altered as everyday environments change, yet more research remains to be done in order to assess these changes, and understand their impacts in contemporary Eeyou communities.

While their perspective is not specifically geographical, Preston and other researchers have approached this question in ways that can be relevant for a study of Eeyou Istchee that would be more attuned to the relationship between gender, space, and work over the longue duree. In the early 1980s, funds were obtained by a group of scholars at McMaster University for a research project entitled 'Women and Work: Northeastern Ontario'. The stated objective of the project was to: '[D]iscover the roles of women in managing and mediating familial relations and economic involvements, including public and domestic employment for women and men' (Blythe et al. 1985, 3). Although focused on the Ontario communities of Moosonee and Moose Factory, their report provides important data about patterns of traditional, domestic, and waged labour for women as well as their roles and responsibilities in family and community matters. The changing contemporary nature of employment opportunities for women in Moosonee and Moose Factory provided the principal motivation for the research, yet the investigators also indicate that historicity is part of their approach when they mention that: 'The residents of Moosonee and Moose Factory, and their forebears, have had a long history of adaptation to changing economies and social settings, and we welcome the chance to look at the evolution of these northern towns in terms of how the different groups have interacted' (ibid., 4-5). Building from this approach, a historical geography perspective would focus the question of 'changing economies and social settings' by, first, looking at the evolution over time of spatial structures in Eeyou communities and, second, contextualizing women's adaptation to these changing spatial structures in terms of the spaces they have historically overseen, occupied and performed their labour in.

Such a programme would also have to take into account the vast body of legends, cultural narratives, and oral history that documents the Eeyouch's interaction with their land over the centuries, this in order to assess the material and religious function of tradition, as well as the spaces of accommodation that are negotiated between them. As the juxtaposition between the legend of the 'Woman who turned cannibalistic' and the story about the woman who wished to become lead hunter of her family trapline indicate, tradition is not separate from material circumstances and/or historical change but can be viewed instead as a product of both. Furthermore, the meaning of the legend about the cannibalistic woman cannot be taken at face value--i.e., 'women cannot hunt big game'--but must be replaced within the larger context of a lesson on how to maintain a proper balance of giving and taking with animal spirits (see Preston 2002). In the same way, what constitutes a 'traditional' division of labour depends on the larger context of material and personal circumstances. If an ideal division of labour between genders has in fact endured in Eeyou society, its materialization in daily life nevertheless depends on the performance of its prescriptions by individual actors. Indeed, each time this division of labour is put forward, a space also opens up in which tradition is seized upon by those expected to perform it, and potentially reformulated through the subjectivity of each actor, male or female. This is abundantly illustrated in the ethnographic data and oral histories collected to date in Eeyou Istchee. The case of the woman who asked the CTA to become 'tallywoman' of her family trapline is a perfect example of the way in which material and psychological circumstances can redirect what is often a-historically and a-contextually understood as tradition. It is at this juncture that historical geography has an important part to play in understanding the historical construction of space and gender as co-constitutive in Eeyou society. Keeping this exploration of the relevant literature and the questions it raises in mind, I now turn to key areas of inquiry that can allow scholars to paint a less androcentric picture of people and places of the past in Eeyou Istchee.

Gender, Space and Women's Historical Geographies in Eeyou Istchee: Some Avenues for Research

In order to study the interaction between gender, space, and the role of Aboriginal women in shaping the landscapes and geographies of the Eeyouch in Northern Quebec, two initial research umbrellas could be profitably deployed. They are, (1) the material and spiritual role of gendered practices in subsistence economies; (2) gender and the geography of contact, settlement, and market expansion. I will give an overview of the main axes of inquiry for each of them before I move toward my conclusion.

The material and spiritual role of gendered practices in subsistence economies

The Cree Trappers Association training program for the 1992-1993 season outlines two different curricula, one for men and one for women. (9) A quick survey of the curricula reveals that, in setting up base camp, men and women work closely together. Around day five of the training program, some tasks become more specific as men prepare to more to a temporary camp in search of animals. In the traditional hunting economy, base and temporary camps represent separate but interrelated spatial spheres that organize different forms of production; it is in the separation and traffic between these two spheres that the gendering of labour becomes more pronounced. Before the men leave base camp, they receive important training concerning safety hazards during winter travel. Since, under regular circumstances, women will most likely not travel to temporary camps, their curriculum does not emphasize these skills early on, focusing instead on the stretching, drying and processing of skins, including sowing and beadwork embroidery. (10) Since snowshoes are indispensable for travel in the winter, the preparation of 'babiche'--the thin leather strips made from moose and caribou hides that form the webbing under the foot--is an important part of female labour. Men, in turn, are generally responsible for producing the frames. The two curricula show male and female labour overlapping in several areas--preparing camp, learning safety, fishing and setting up snares--but does also emphasize gender-specific modes of production: as men are not specifically taught the wide array of skin processing and cooking methods, women do not receive explicit training in the hunting of big game. Yet their labour encircles the whole of this activity: all in all, women become proficient at preparing the food and equipment needed to go out on the land, in addition to transforming the fruits of a successful hunt into food, clothing and artefacts that are at once functional and cultural objects.

Although modern Eeyou hunting practices--which often involve using the community itself as base camp or dividing labour in non-coupled households--do not generally reflect a clear gender separation of labour, the trappers training curricula give us a sense of how different types of labour have traditionally been assigned to men and women. What are the social and cultural motivations for this assignment of tasks? In trying to answer this question, it is interesting to note that, whereas cooking is not a predominant part of men's training in the bush, certain methods for cooking are meant to be used by men only due to the religious and cultural significance of some animals, notably the beaver. This highlights the important fact that, if the division of labour along gender lines is most often motivated by material necessity, in some instances it proceeds from a religious ideology that regulates interactions between humans, animals and the land (Tanner 1979). What part of this religious ideology do women fulfill? A geo-historical perspective would allow us to shed light on these motivations and, consequently, to better understand the gendered landscapes they gave rise to.

Gender and the geography of contact, settlement and market expansion

More information on women's roles in the material and spiritual practices associated with hunting, trapping and fishing would allow us a fuller grasp of the specific geographies that arose as a result of the gradual weaving of these forms of production with a market economy. Once again, we know very little about women's agency in shaping these geographies. The role of Native women as lovers and wives in facilitating contact has often been studied in efforts to understand how personal alliances created the channels that brought whites and Natives into modes of interaction that would extend to their larger community (see Brown 1980; Van Kirk 1980, 1988; Peterson 1988). The history of metissage in Quebec, as elsewhere in Canada, is a field of study that is gaining ground and, in general, the role of women as family anchors and vectors of tradition has emerged as a crucial avenue in reconstructing the stages of ethno-genesis of new cultural communities (Peterson and Brown 1985).

Despite the richness of this scholarship, it would seem that researchers have only scratched the surface of the different forms of relationships that women develop with the people they come into contact with, and the significance of these relationships in altering their experience with the land. Built environments are the result of social processes as much as physical ones. The nine permanent Native villages in Eeyou Istchee are the points of solidification, in space, of a complex network of social relations between nomadic hunting families, traders, missionaries, merchants, government representatives, health and social workers, etc. How have women interacted with these various agents and have the personal decisions they have made as a result influenced their trajectories, or that of their families, on the land? One set of important decisions that may have influenced both the shape and rate of settlement, as well as the geography of Eeyou movement across the territory, are those related to birthing practices. The gradual establishment of health services in Eeyou Istchee as a social dynamic of exchange has not been systematically studied from a historical geography perspective in order to understand its impact on the gradual formation of the built environment. As it relates specifically to women, the extent to which traditional birthing practices in the bush may have been modified by the availability of medical assistance in permanent communities may constitute a very rich terrain of research to understand women's shifting places in Eeyou Istchee as this space was reconfigured through modernity. Was women's choice to have children in the bush or to gravitate toward permanent settlements when medical help--or help of any form--was available an important factor that accelerated, or slowed down, the expansion of these settlements? What is the historical horizon of these developments and can it be correlated with the evolution of villages? Births are sometimes recorded in Hudson Bay Company post journals and can be found in mission archives as well as in the federal government Indian registry. Interpreted with the goal of better understanding women's trajectories and agency in shaping the geography of Eeyou Istchee, archival research in these areas may provide new insight into Eeyou hunting culture by defining its practices within the context of the entire life cycle, which includes, to be sure, survival in a daily basis, but also birth and death on the land.

These are only some of the important insights that could be gained from increasing our awareness of gender in geographies of the past in Northern Quebec. We can speculate that settlement hardens the boundaries between private and public and therefore the gender roles associated with these sphere. Yet, unless we understand gender and space in historical perspective, we have little on which to base our assumptions about the specific ways in which Eeyou people have integrated a market economy into their culture, and how they have fashioned a specifically Eeyou modernity from that experience. Through women's historical geographies, scholars can get a finer grained understanding of spatial change over the long duration and of the emergence of new spheres that, for the Eeyou, quickly became the material spaces of modernity.


I started this review article with a legend and a real life story that demonstrate how gender complicates what is perceived to be a traditional division of labour within Eeyou hunting culture. Whereas the figure of the male hunter has commanded a good deal of attention by anthropologists and other social scientists, the place occupied by women in this system has remained, in comparison, under-studied. Indeed, what part of the religious cosmology of hunting do women fulfill when they cook the meat of animals, or fashion skins and bones into clothes and other artefacts? What are the scales (for example, household, camp or trapline) at which their knowledge of the environment is produced? In the same vein, how are ways of living, moving, or settling on the land constrained or directed by the exigencies of child bearing, childbirth and child rearing? I have argued that, as long as answers to these questions remain approximate--or even as long as the questions are considered to be marginal--our knowledge of the processes of humanization of Northern Quebec by the Eeyouch, and other First Nations and Aboriginal people, can only be partial. In turn, I have suggested some avenues of research that could help us get a fuller picture of the complex social dynamics that have given rise to the built, and also the unbuilt but widely known and travelled, landscape of Eeyou Istchee. This is only the beginning of what should be a much larger and collaborative inquiry with Eeyou researchers. In closing, senior hunter Freddy Jolly once described the relationship between the tallyman and the land as one of exchange and communication: 'When you live in the bush all year long, watching over it, the land speaks to you. So when the tallymen speak, it is the land speaking' (Jolly 1997). Ultimately, exploring the historical geographies of Aboriginal women in Northern Quebec and Canada is a way to tap more systematically the wealth of insight and knowledge that is bound to emerge when women, in turn, speak the land.


Research for this article was supported by the Canada Research Chair programme of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. As this article was originally presented at the CAG annual meeting in London (Ontario), I am grateful to all the participants who shared their insight, particularly Serge Courville who provided comments on the first draft. I am also indebted to two anonymous reviewers who gave detailed commentaries and suggestions to shepherd the manuscript to its final form. All errors and misinterpretations are, of course, my sole responsibility.


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(1) The Nation began publication in 1993 in the wake of the important social and political changes that took place among the Eastern James Bay Cree following hydroelectric development in their territory and the subsequent signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975 (see Convention 1998). It is published bi-weekly and distributed to all nine communities and beyond. Cree legends have appeared over the years as a regular feature of The Nation in its attempt to promote traditional culture and teaching.

(2) The roots of the tallyman are regarded as manifold by both Native and non-Native observers. In the Eeyou language, the designation of the tallyman as 'amiskuchimaaw' literally translates as 'Beaver Boss' or 'Beaver Manager'. While ethnographic data strongly suggest that this cultural figure precedes European contact, archival research shows that the Hudson Bay Company influenced the role of the tallyman toward that of a local resource manager, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s when the beaver population was alarmingly low (see Francis and Morantz 1983; Morantz 2002; Scott 1986). During this period, the tallyman's job was to tally (count) beaver houses within his hunting area. Under the Beaver Preserve system, these tallies were then used to assign annual trapping quotas to hunting groups (Whiteman 1998). The Cree Trappers' Association was incorporated in 1978. Its chief purpose is to protect the interests of trappers in Quebec but also to promote conservation and foster greater understanding of the Cree traditional lifestyle. See

(3) This transfer should be understood within the context of the Cree relationship to the land where 'property'--if it can be referred to as such--derives from a complex set of duties and responsibilities toward the community. The article in The Nation states: 'The CTA believes that the main principles of land ownership are to keep traditional law and order, to ensure that the land is not abused, and to oversee the sharing of the wealth of the land. Traditionally, a trapline is passed on to the most knowledgeable member of the family, the one who can best care for the land. According to the CTA, that person is always a man. Therefore, it's a delicate situation when a woman asks for a trapline' (Valade 2003, 41).

(4) Eeyou Istchee ('Out land/the people's land') is the Cree designation of the territory generally referred to as 'James Bay.' Increasingly, the colonial terms of Cree and James Bay are being replaced by 'Eeyou' ('Eeyouch' in the plural) and 'Eeyou Istchee'. I used them both in this article, depending on whether the context is one of external colonial definition or self-definition by the Eeyouch. See Figure 1 to view the location of the nine communities, five coastal and four inland, across the region.

(5) These events are chronicled by Boyce Richardson in Strangers Devour the Land (1975). Through the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the Crees removed themselves from the legal framework of the Indian Act to enter into a new administrative structure in terms of their land and government, In addition, the agreement addressed the creation of institutions dealing with health, social services, law enforcement, environmental management and economic development while also implementing a new income security programme for hunters and trappers (see Convention 1998).

(6) Bodenhorn (1990) has addressed this issue demonstrating how the Inupiat, a hunter-gatherer society located in Alaska, contradict four commonly held anthropological models of gender relations: men hunt; men dominate Inuit societies; men control the public sphere; men 'work' (see also Saladin d'Anglure and Chalifoux 1998).

(7) By contrast, non-Aboriginal women who married a status Indian would gain access to the Indian register. For the integral text of the Indian Act, see index.html. For Bill C-31, see bill_c31.html.

(8) Nadine Schuurman (1998) has examined women's agency and strategies for dealing with such colonial forms of patriarchy in the context of British Columbia.

(9) The curricula can be viewed at trappers/training.htm (accessed 30 May 2006).

(10) Women do review skills such as how to assess ice thickness, how to drive a snowmobile on a variety of terrains or what to do in emergency situation, but they do so toward the end of their training, which is when they also learn firearm safety and the basics of traditional medicine.


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Author:Desbiens, Caroline
Publication:The Canadian Geographer
Article Type:Author abstract
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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