The Cree of northern Quebec go back at least 5,000 years—though some prehistoric rock paintings may be even older. Their territory comprises nine communities, from Waswanipi in the south to Whapmagoostui, above the 55th parallel.
Scattered throughout what is today mostly boreal forest, the Cree continue hunting, fishing and trapping in the land of their ancestors. But their existence remains hidden.
“People down south don’t really know us as a people—our history and traditions,” Sherman Herodier, president of the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association (COTA), told authors Louise Abbott and Niels Jensen as they put together Eeyou Istchee: Land of the Cree/Terre des Cris in 2010.
Setting out to change that lack of perception, COTA commissioned husband-and-wife photographers Jensen and Abbott to document the Cree way of life. The project was a way not only to attract visitors but also to bridge that knowledge gap. What started out as an image-gathering mission turned into a book, which COTA published.
The result is a breathtaking tour of the remote lands where the James Bay Cree have lived for millennia. And it is trilingual, being written in English, French and Cree, starting with the title: “Eeyou Istchee” means “the People’s Land.”
In a juxtaposition of ancient and modern, the book offers such gems as a 1947 photo of Cree pulling up to the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post via canoe in what is today called Mistissini, at the southwestern point of Lake Mistassini. The photo beneath shows an aerial view of modern Mistissini, on the same site as the trading post, now long gone, as most Cree communities are. A 1948 photo shows a Cree couple traveling to their winter bush camp, pulling sleds of provisions. It offers a marked contrast with the picture of an Air Inuit Twin Otter bush plane, the modern-day means of traveling to goose-hunting camps, parked next to a tipi.
The book thus shows a mix of old and new: Cree women stretching hides but dressed in parkas; traditional hunters employing rifles and snowmobiles instead of dog sleds. However, the ancient ways shine through—as Eeyou Istchee guides us around the land and the people, it shows us that it is only the outer trappings that have changed.