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Opening lines of book manuscript: Contesting Wihtiko: Common Ground on the Edge of Humanity

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

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):

Exactly when the strange tracks first appeared I do not now recall. It was 1985 and probably minoskamin – “blooming time” or late spring. The subarctic terrain was soft in many places, not only because of the season, but also because the schoolyard had been re-landscaped not long before. Moose Fort School and Horden Hall, the old Indian day and residential school buildings where my classmates and I had started our education, had been torn down in the previous two years and replaced by Moose Factory Ministik School – ministik meaning “island” in Omushkego Cree. The tracks, though human in form, seemed superhuman in size and depth, with pointed indentations at the toe marks. Whether this describes what we saw, what we wanted to see, or what we feared we saw is another question.

Sasquatch! Bigfoot! The tracks quickly germinated visions of their maker, first in our young imaginations, and then in the shadows that moved more quickly beneath canopies of rustling poplar leaves and more stealthily among the conifers of the James Bay lowlands. It seemed everyone was talking about it, and not only at school. From seasoned hunters came reports of strange sightings at the estuary of the Moose River, where this north-flowing river spilled into the deep south of the Arctic Ocean.

As my one of my closest childhood friends recollects, some of our younger schoolmates 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 they were the fabrications of a night-time prankster, possibly a young out-of-town construction worker with a mischievous sense of humour. 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, however, and no fresh ones replaced them. An informal survey of others’ recollections has confirmed that the matter never concluded, but simply dissipated.

Yet I do recall one thing very clearly. 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 category of person of once-human origin and often abnormally large stature. Because of their monstrous transformation – usually through misconduct or mishap of some kind – such people, or their ancestors, had withdrawn from human community and were unable to return to normal human form and size. Some were said to seek out human community – especially in blooming and mating season – desiring relationship but fearing it as well. Such an atuush – this is the Eeyou Cree term Stella used – was not usually dangerous, unless cornered and frightened. These tracks, she reassured us, pointed to this kind of person, if they were not simply a prank.

It is unclear whether Stella thought these tracks might belong to a much more sinister kind of atuush: a wihtiko. I cannot now call back from memory the precise Cree terms she used; neither can most classmates. It was likely the first time many of us had heard them. This was a former fur-trade hub, established by the Hudson’s Bay Company more than three centuries previously at what remained a seasonal Moose Cree gathering site. Company-affiliated bi-cultural or inter-cultural families often spoke English as a first language and Cree as a second language. Even among those families who had only recently shifted from seasonal to permanent residence in Moose Factory, there were two distinct Cree languages. Moose Cree, a dialectical variation of Omushkego Cree, was the Indigenous language of the Moose River basin. Eeyou Cree had been brought over with people from Eastern James Bay. This was Stella’s first language, but she was fluent in Moose Cree – which she taught us in school – and English, and could also speak Anishinabemowin (Ojibwe). Cree classes were much needed, because English had become the common language for many in Moose Factory, especially with the influence of school and television, and a first language for almost all my peers. This situation contrasted with other Omushkego and Eeyou communities around James Bay, where any non-Cree children born and raised in the communities would have quickly learned one or another Cree language. Although the sounds of spoken Cree were very familiar, my knowledge remained limited to common words and short phrases such as mola ninisitohten – I do not understand.

Regardless, atuush and wihtiko were not vocabulary words that appeared on flash cards in Cree class. Nor were they spoken openly in a community that included five Christian Cree congregations – even less so, perhaps, to the son of a non-Cree deacon. Caution with such words, however, may have been even stronger in pre-Christian Cree tradition, when there were fewer safeguards, according to some elders, against ambivalent or malevolent human and other-than-human beings. Regardless, it is Stella’s son Paul, elder brother of a classmate of mine, who has confirmed that she used the term atuush in explaining these mysterious tracks and sightings.

I do remember well, however, that Stella made allusion to Nanusk’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. It was almost directly across from Moose Factory’s iconic Saint Thomas Anglican Church, where Stella and most island residents had been baptized, married or both. This stone was also a short paddle from my own home – adjacent to the much smaller Catholic Church down the road – and even closer to the small campsite where I overnighted frequently in those years, on what is called Poplar Island. On one such occasion, I was abruptly awakened by explosive breathing that seemed to originate immediately outside my tent. Beluga whales, I quickly discovered, were riding the incoming tide on a fishing trip upriver. I might have interpreted these sounds more fearfully, especially at a campsite so close to Nanusk’s Stone, had I fully appreciated Stella’s allusion. However, my knowledge of how this rock had acquired its name was limited. And it was only later that I heard a more detailed account of how natives and newcomers alike in my home community had been forced, a century or more earlier, to contest a cannibal wihtiko and to find common ground on the edge of humanity.

As it turns out, these stories, experiences and relationships would eventually draw me into an intensive and extensive exploration of Cree, Christian, Indigenous, Western and other answers to a fundamental question: “what does it mean to be human and to live well in relation to our human and other-than-human world?” This is the theme of this book – and of an intellectual journey that has also proven to be deeply personal, relational, spiritual, and ultimately unfinishable. Even “the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence,” to borrow the words of Albert Einstein, “… in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man.” Mystery – translatable to Cree as manitu – permeates all things, the fact that anything exists at all, that anything is knowable to any degree, and that it transcends our capacity to know. Nevertheless, like others, I find inspiration in the Eeyou Cree term for hope, ehbebukdaet, which “translates literally into English as untying something, like a knot – plus the quality of a revealing insight or perception, expressing some new knowledge.”

In the years following the 1985 incident, I heard more snippets of the story of Nanusk’s Stone – especially from another close childhood friend and neighbour, the grandson of two former Moose Cree First Nation chiefs and councillors: Gilbert Faries, and his wife Nellie, also a former Cree teacher. Two decades later, while interviewing this long-time family friend and neighbour about her life history, I learned more details of the story. Even Nellie’s version of the story, however, was still brief compared to the account I discovered four years later and a thousand kilometres southeast, in an obscure file in the archival records of Jacques Rousseau, a French Canadian ethnobotanist who had spent many summers with Eeyou Cree in the 1940s.

This account – quoted at length below – is a translation, transcription and blend of two narratives originally shared in Moose Factory, likely between 1956 and 1966, and recorded by an eye doctor who was stationed there. One of the narrators, an Omushkego Cree-speaker named Willie Frenchman, was born here in 1882, around the time of the incident. At the time, Moose Factory was the most important Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trade post in James Bay and the headquarters of the Anglican Diocese of Moosonee. The other narrator, Samuel Iserhoff, was a bi-cultural and trilingual Eeyou Cree clergyman ordained in this same diocese; born in Waswanipi, he had served various communities in Eeyou Istchee (Quebec Cree territory) communities before relocating to Moose Factory in 1956.

This is a true story which I pieced together from Canon Iserhof and my friend the Indian, Willy Frenchman. This is a true story which happened about seventy years ago. It has happened before, that when men are hungry they turn cannibals, and this was the case with people who got lost in the bush. Some say that people who are cannibals go mad, others that they go thoroughly wicked.

A little before this time a family of Indians from Moose Factory disappeared in the bush. Then a series of extraordinary events occurred. Firstly on the bank of the river, to the west of Moose Factory, there is a large stone and on this someone hung furs. The Hudson Bay Company heard of these furs, which increased from day to day, so they took them and laid stores of sugar, tea, etc., on the stone in return payment. These would disappear and more furs would appear, and the rumour spread that these were left by a person so wicked that he daren’t meet his fellow men. The people remembered the family who had disappeared, and they reckoned that one had eaten the others, and was afraid to be seen by men as he knew that the penalty was death. Or perhaps he had become mad. He could not live without certain foods, and he trapped his animals and laid the furs on the stone hoping for an exchange of goods.

One day when the men were collecting the furs to take in to the Hudson Bay Company, they heard a voice saying, “Tell the Boss to send shot and powder.” They were very startled, but could see no one. On the next occasion that they went to fetch the furs the same thing happened again, and they then told the Hudson Bay Manager, who, however, decided to leave well enough alone. Then a nasty incident occurred. An Indian woman went up the river in a canoe, fishing. She landed, and was standing on the shore fishing, when she felt uneasy. She looked around and saw a strange figure watching her with a hatchet in his hand. She sprang for her canoe, and the man sprang after her, but luckily slipped on the sand and fell. She pushed off from the shore, for it was plain that the man had meant to kill her. She arrived back at Moose Factory in a state of terror; then the people began to talk, they remembered the stories of those who had never returned from solitary hunts, and the rumour ran round the village that there was a cannibal abroad. The children were kept from straying on the river bank, and the wives implored their men not to hunt alone in this region. Finally the news came to the ears of the Hudson Bay Manager. He decided that something must be done, and he laid his plans accordingly. He took a large canoe in which four men with rifles crouched in the bottom, whilst he sat openly with an Indian paddling the canoe. In his hands he held two bags of sand, and he had told the men that he would try and reason with this man; if he was mad they must restrain him, but if really bad and dangerous they must shoot him. When they came near the shore and the stone, he stood up in the canoe holding a bag of sand in each hand shouting, “Nanusk (which was the name of the lost family) here is your shot and powder, come and get them.” After he had shouted several time, when the canoe was at the water’s edge, a voice was heard saying, “Put them on the stone.”

“Come and get them,” said the Hudson Bay Manager, “Or I will take them back with me.” There was a silence and he waited, then cautiously, stepping round the tree trunk, the unkempt figure of a ragged, gaunt man appeared. His matted hair hung on his shoulders, he had a long straggly grey beard, his eyes were bloodshot and protruding, foam flecked the edges of his mouth, and the only clothes he had were the remains of ragged buckskin trousers. He stepped forward cautiously, stopped and then said, “There are men hiding in the boat, I will come no further.”

“Come on,” said the Hudson Bay Manager, and stepped on shore holding up the bags. The man’s eyes glistened with desire, and he wet his lips with his tongue, but slowly, cautiously with his eyes on the boat, he began to step back into the bush. The Hudson Bay Manager gave a signal to the men waiting in the boat, who also had a couple of dogs with them, and they sprang ashore. Then, this is what Willy told me, they shot him many times in the head and body, but he ran on pressing bits of leaves into his wounds. The dogs ran after, clawing bits out of him, but still he ran on, although he should have been dead many times over. Finally he fell to the ground, and they finished him off with their knives, but he took a long time to die. By now they were convinced he was really wicked, and therefore he must not be buried, otherwise he would come to life again. So they burnt him, and even then his heart would not burn, and, “Do you know why?” said Willy, “It was because it was surrounded by ice.” And there the Nanusk stone stands to this day, and the people are afraid to go near it for they buried Nanusk’s evil heart near the stone.

In her shorter narrative, Nellie used the term that was lost in the translation of this one; Nanusk had gone wihtiko – either by transformation or possession, wickedness or madness.

This book is like this narrative and the wihtiko concept itself. Although rooted in a particular intersection of cultural place and time, they all grapple with a nexus of questions about free will, moral responsibility, madness and evil that continue to perplex highly specialized scholars of diverse cultures and traditions – among them philosophers, theologians, neuroscientists, criminal psychiatrists, and anthropologists. Although it attained mythic proportions in Cree and other subarctic Algonquian traditions, the wihtiko concept originated and developed as a unique explanation of exceptional but very real incidents of extreme mental or moral incompetence, especially starvation-induced madness and violent cannibalism. Moreover, the concept, the phenomena it seeks to explain, the incidents and the narratives, and the history of these incidents and narratives are entangled in contested interpretations of Indigenous and Western histories and cultures, and their intersections, divisions and differences. So too is any exploration of them, this one included.

In terms of scholarly discipline and field, therefore, this book is a historically grounded interdisciplinary study of Cree, Christian, Indigenous and Western epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, theology, philosophical anthropology, and psychology, as well as the intersecting trajectories of their intellectual, cultural, religious, social, legal, medical, economic, environmental and political histories and historiographies.

Such an ambitious scope is bound to provoke questions about feasibility, perhaps not in the context of more holistic Cree or Christian scholarship, but certainly amidst the specialized divisions of contemporary Western academia. Moreover, where a frequently polarized and essentializing politics of identity and difference holds sway, my “non-binary positionality” seems inescapably contentious, even if it considered utterly ordinary in other contexts. The same can be said of my unambiguous engagement with intellectual traditions that some have dismissed as unworthy of the term. Perhaps because they are interwoven with, or embedded in, spiritual and/or oral traditions, or these traditions' unfamiliar concepts, languages, contexts and sources simply pose too great an epistemological, linguistic or methodological barrier.

On the other hand, some traditions or sources may be dismissed or scapegoated because of their entanglement in colonialism or other quests or contests for power. But what cultural, intellectual or spiritual tradition is free from such entanglement? The more authentic an idea or ideal, the more authority it has, the more power it holds, and the more deeply entangled it becomes in what philosopher Michel Foucault calls the “problem of power.” There is no escape from such entanglement, even in Foucault’s refusal to offer solutions – ideas or ideals – in favour of an emphasis on critique, for the deconstruction or critique of problems is never a power-neutral exercise, just as relativism and tolerance as ideologies can be radically fundamentalist and totalitarian. In other words, the entangled struggle between our quests for human and moral authenticity and our quests for power cannot be escaped, even by a focus on sophisticated critique or a politics of diversity, and certainly not by engaging in scapegoating or “cancel culture” of any variety or name.

Any attempt to avoid or ignore this problem would require dishonesty about the nature of the fundamental questions evoked and revealed by wihtiko stories, or about the people, ideas, stories, and experiences that have profoundly shaped the evolving perspective I bring to these questions. More profoundly, it would require dishonesty about our shared human condition. Reflecting on his personal experience, as a Gulag prisoner, of the human capacity for inhumanity, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn wrote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” To contest the wihtiko without recognizing our common ground on the edge of humanity is to risk going wihtiko. Nanusk’s stone could be our stone, regardless of who we are or where we come from.

. . .

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