Reflections on Emersion in Canada’s oldest continuous Indigenous-European "Middle Ground"

Updated: Jan 26

Some brief excerpts from my latest article (in peer review), entitled: "Envisioning Research based on Reciprocity: Reflections on Emersion in Canada’s oldest continuous Indigenous-European 'Middle Ground.'"


... To be clear, my perspective is that of a non-Cree born and raised in what was for me a predominantly Cree world. But I use the term emersion and not immersion, because in contrast to my parents and others who were immersed in this world when they moved here, it was in this broader Cree-centred world that I emerged. It is a world, moreover, that remains one of two primary focal and reference points for my scholarship and work, my relationships, my overall quest for understanding, and my sense of self-in-relation. My perspective is profoundly shaped by Cree elders, leaders, scholars, mentors and role models, both in their articulation of their own traditions and their engagement with ideas and ideals that originated elsewhere, Christianity especially. Finally, I have learned as much from non-Cree elders, scholars, leaders, mentors and role models who have engaged no less seriously with Cree intellectual and spiritual traditions. In addition to these positive models and lessons, there have also been negative models and lessons. This echoes Cree elder and scholar Louis Bird’s observation about traditional Cree and Judeo-Christian narratives: they recount, time and again, what happens when people abandon or distort what they know to be true and right, including the ethical principles that find unique expression in these traditions and in their mutually transformative encounter.


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Ultimately, I found the best way to resist the interpretive imperialism of binary conflict paradigms was to remain grounded in the community that I still call home, not because it is free of such problems, but because this community sheds unique light onto these same problems while also containing – within its history, culture(s) and people(s) – profound answers to them. In this regard, I have increasingly come to appreciate this home not only as one of Canada’s oldest continuous Indigenous-European middle grounds but also as a significant Indigenous middle-ground. In this context, questions of “indigenous” or “aboriginal” identity take on diverse meanings with different reference points and need to be relativized.


Moose Factory and Moosonee constitute, in some way, a microcosm of Canada, in different proportions. As one zooms in on these neighbouring communities, overlapping and sometimes competing Indigenous identities come into focus that do not coincide neatly with jurisdictional or treaty boundaries. Some of the Cree who live here have their traditional hunting grounds in the Moose River watershed; others have origins or family connections in neighbouring or more distant parts of Omushkego Aski of Eeyou Istchee and speak distinct dialects of Cree (a total of four or five if one includes R-dialect Cree). As noted already, few are without some European ancestry. Others have sometimes been identified by it; once known as “halfbreeds,” the majority of them now have “Indian” status. Finally, some have no Cree ancestry, but may be Indigenous or intermarried with Crees. In the end, few people and relationships fit neatly into various categories that, for some, represent the diversity, richness and complexity of the community, but for others, its divisions.


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When returning to Moose Factory, Arnold Cheechoo, Sinclair Trapper and I got a taste of Washaw’s danger. Pummelled by the combined force of wind and waves, one of our two boats cracked a rib and began to sink. We managed to transfer its cargo and outboard motor, before cutting it loose. I was the last one off. As we continued on to Moose Factory the waters gradually grew calmer, and so did we: although we laughed it off, we did not take our close call lightly. Then, two weeks later, a great tragedy occurred in the same area where we had had our relatively minor accident: two boats were swamped by towering waves tossed up by a fierce north wind. Only the strongest made it to shore. Although this tragedy claimed eight lives, the rescue and recovery efforts brought together the local and regional people and jurisdictions in ways that dwarfed any political or other divisions that sometimes surfaced between them.


The Washaw tragedy of 1999 showed that the ethic of reciprocity had far greater strength than any local divisions or frictions. Ultimately, my research into the Washaw tragedy of 1832 also revealed the same, not only with respect to any alleged or real divisions between Omushkego and Eeyou Cree, but also with regard to apparent Indigenous-European divisions. Both tragedies also showed how the land acted as a stern teacher for Cree and newcomer alike, providing repeated reminders of the need for personal competence – mental, moral and practical – as well as the interdependence of all life and the need for others. Living in this land for millenia, since time beyond memory, has profoundly shaped, though not determined, Omushkego and Eeyou Crees’ philosophical anthropology – their understanding of who they are in relation to their human and other-than-human world – and their ethic of reciprocity.


Living in this land according to this ethic of reciprocity demands epistemic integrity and prudence: careful discernment of reality, be it the thickness of river ice, the changing of the weather or seasons, the movements of animals, or the intentions of a newcomer. It also requires self-governance, which often makes the difference between life and death in an unforgiving subarctic environment. Yet, as noted already, traditional stories repeatedly warn against failures in this regard. Dire circumstances have often forced stark choices between reciprocity and its inversion or perversion. Manipulative and extremely individualistic, this anti-ethic does not hesitate to reduce truth and others to mere objects of power in the pursuit of narrow self-interest. In Cree tradition, the antithesis of the ideal okimaw (“leader” or “elder”) is the person who is so power-hungry, afraid, and ethically or mentally unhinged that he or she transforms into a cannibal wihtiko (windigo). Thus, some Cree interpreted the main instigators of the 1832 attack on Hannah Bay House as having turned wihtiko. This interpretation led me deeper into Cree intellectual and cultural history.


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Reciprocity does not impose an obligation on Indigenous people to share everything and be absorbed into other institutions and traditions. On the contrary, it means recognizing that Indigenous scholarly institutions and traditions have value and existence in their own right, with their own research protocols, independently of their relationship with Western scholarly institutions and traditions. As noted already, to assume that Indigenous intellectual traditions are marginalized unless Western institutions integrate them or are indigenized, is to doubly marginalize Indigenous traditions. On the other hand, reciprocity, solidarity and magnanimity also means recognizing that Indigenous intellectual traditions are important not only for Indigenous people, but because they have something uniquely valuable to contribute to universal human knowledge.


In this regard, one of the most meaningful ways of fostering reciprocity magnanimously (cultivating and sharing the best in each other) might be for Canada’s research Tri-Council to augment its three primary grant application evaluation criteria challenge, feasibility and capability – with a fourth criterion, that of reciprocity. To do this across all Tri-Council funding competitions, based on inspiration from Indigenous ethical principles, would be a powerful and substantive recognition and promotion of a key teaching shared by Cree and other Indigenous cultures. It is not that Western traditions or researchers lack any articulation or consideration of reciprocity. On the contrary, Indigenous knowledge-keepers have found an adequate Western concept and term “reciprocity” – to translate or convey their own Indigenous concepts and terms. And there are other overlapping ethical principles, two of them highlighted in this article, that have deep roots in Western and other traditions. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from giving reprocity the same emphasis it currently has in many Indigenous cultures, and from drawing out the specific nuances and insights embedded in the various terms found in diverse Indigenous languages. This will encourage all of us – Indigenous and nonIndigenous alike – to dig into our own traditions for ways to enrich our shared understanding and practice of reciprocity, solidarity, magnanimity, wahkohtowin, kayanerenkó:wa, or whatever term we use to articulate similar ideals and principles. Most importantly, in and beyond our research, it will give greater incentive to envision, articulate, and enact a more explicit and tangible commitment to see, emphasize, cultivate and share – in a spirit of service – the best in ourselves, each other, and our shared humanity.

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© 2020 by Cecil Chabot

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