Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Amidst the rise of identity politics, polarization and emphasis on what divides us, I am reworking my introduction to a book that explores the contours of our shared humanity, as revealed in moments of crisis, on the edge of humanity and in the face of inhumanity, epitomized in Cree tradition in the monstrous cannibal wihtiko. This book is also an intellectual history: an exploration of the philosophical anthropology and moral philosophy of the James Bay Cree, especially as it unfolds over the last three and a half centuries of encounters and relations with newcomers from Europe – relations now embodied in such things as Orkney-Cree fiddling tunes. Here, in draft form, are the opening lines (comments and feedback are welcome):
When the strange tracks first appeared I do not now recall. It was probably minoskamin – “blooming time” or late spring – 1985. The subarctic terrain was soft in many places, not only because of the season, but also because the schoolyard had been re-landscaped recently. Moose Fort School and Horden Hall, the old Indian residential and day school buildings where my classmates and I had started our education, had both been torn down in the previous two years and replaced by Moose Factory Ministik School – ministik meaning “on the island” in Omushkego Cree. The tracks, though human in form, seemed superhuman in size and depth, with pointed indentations at the tips of the toes. Whether this describes what we saw, what we wanted to see, or what we feared we saw, is another question.
Sasquatch! Bigfoot! The tracks required no fertilization to seed their makers, first in our young imaginations, and then in the shadows that moved more quickly beneath the rustling leaves of poplars, and more stealthily among conifers on the James Bay lowlands. Everyone was talking about it, and not only at school. From very credible adults came reports of strange sightings at the estuary of the Moose River, where this north-flowing river blended into the deep south of the Arctic Ocean.
Not surprisingly, some of the younger school children were too scared to walk home on their own. Regardless, the tracks were not easily explained away, at least not to those of us who found relief but little intrigue in the prevailing explanation that a prankster – possibly one of the out-of-town construction workers – was making the tracks at night. Reports of new tracks and sightings continued at intervals through the summer and into the fall, with our trepidation piquing around Halloween and the beginning of mikiskaw – freeze-up. The old tracks were soon blanketed by snow, and no fresh ones replaced them. I do not recall how it all concluded or if it simply dissipated. Neither do my friends and old classmates or their parents.
I do remember one thing very clearly, however: that the most compelling explanation was the one offered by my Cree language and culture teacher, the late Stella McLeod. She too thought the tracks were likely a prank, but she was open to the possibility that they might not be. They could also be made, she explained, by a monstrous or giant category of person – usually of semi-human or once-human origin. Because of their transformation, such people, or their ancestors, had from human community after misconduct or mishap of some kind that prevented from returning to normal human form. Some were said to seek out human community – especially in blooming and mating time – desiring relationship, but fearing it as well. These category of atush – this is the Cree term she used – were not usually dangerous, unless cornered and frightened. These tracks, she reassured us, pointed to this kind of a person, if they were not simply a prank.
There was no indication that these tracks belonged to a very particular and much more sinister kind of atush, a wihtiko. I can’t recall now what specific Cree terms Stella used. It was likely one of the first times I had heard them. They weren’t vocabulary words that appeared on flash cards in Cree class. Nor were they spoken openly in the community – even less so, perhaps, to the son of a non-Cree clergyman. It is Stella’s son Paul who confirmed that she used the term “atuush” to describe what we saw. I do remember, however, that Stella made allusion to Nanask’s Stone, a large red rock on the mainland shore, visible from the southeastern bank of this island community, where I was born and raised. This rock was a short paddle from both the school and my home, and quite close to a small campsite where I overnighted frequently, on what is known as Poplar Island. I might have chosen a different site had I fully appreciated Stella’s allusion to the story of Nanask’s Stone. I did not know the full story, however, and Stella did not tell it at this time.
Little did I know that the story of Nanask Stone and others like it, would one day figure prominently in a decade-long study of Native-Newcomer common ground on the edge of humanity – of which this book is the result. By “common ground on the edge of humanity,” I refer to the difficult, life-and-death, edge-of-humanity crises that often thrust Natives and Newcomers onto common ground in a subaractic environment, regardless of significant cultural, linguistic and other differences. It was in such crises that they encountered the atuush, the wihtiko and the very real phenomena that these Cree concepts seek to explain, and which remain elusive to any culture’s full understanding. More importantly, “common ground on the edge of humanity” also refers to any common ground Natives and Newcomers formed despite their differences, or which are revealed beneath them, on how to define the edge of humanity.
More to the point, this book asks whether Cree or Algonquian and European responses to the threat of dehumanization reveal a shared understanding of humanity or at least its edges. This is a question of intercultural philosophical anthropology and moral philosophy, but it is explored with a historical methodology amidst the contested contemporary confluence of particular strands of Indigenous and Western intellectual, cultural, religious, socio-economic, political and environmental histories. How I came to this question is a story in itself, one that Cree and non-Cree friends have insisted I share. Rather than make this personal a focal point, however, I have woven threads of it into the book, especially in the introductory and concluding chapters.
In the years following the 1985 incident, I heard snippets of the Nanask Stone story – as much as most of my classmates heard. It was only two decades later, in 2007, that another Cree teacher and elder, Moose Cree First Nation’s first woman chief and a longtime family friend, Nellie Faries, would share more details of the story with me. Even her account, however, was brief compared to the version of the story I discovered four years later in an obscure file in the archival records of an ethnobotanist at Laval University, some 1,000 kms away.