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December 11, 2003
 Research

 


Tracking Cree traditions

Dr. Adrian Tanner
Dr. Adrian Tanner

By Deborah Inkpen
The traditional hunting practices of the Cree have held a long-standing fascination for retired anthropology professor Adrian Tanner. The Cree practiced a form of religion called animism, in which everything had a spiritual entity. One of the fundamental beliefs of the Cree is that animals give themselves willingly to the hunters.

“The Cree feel there is a moral agreement – that animals don’t avoid being killed on the condition that hunters treat them with respect,” said Dr. Tanner. “They believe in the principle of reciprocity – hunters owe something to the animals and the animals will repay that by giving themselves.”

Dr. Tanner, who retired from Memorial in September 2003, has been observing and interacting with the Mistassini Cree of Quebec since the 1960s and was adopted by a family elder of the tribe who treated him as a son and brother within the community. Dr. Tanner wrote the book Bringing Home Animals: Religious Ideology and Mode of Production of the Mistassini Cree Hunter on the relationship between hunters and animals in the early 1970s.

“The Cree are not ignorant of the biology of animals, what we in western society consider the science of animal nature. They have learned about animal biology through long-term observation,” he said. “But inter-mingled with their observations is this more humanization of animals, the assumption that this animal is a person that is a thinking being and belongs to the same moral universe as humans.

“The way we can show this linguistically is that there is no term in Cree for what we call nature. Nature being that part of the world separate from human existence. They see the animals as part of their own universe.

“In English, we use the word hunting, but it does not aptly describe what the Cree do,” said Dr. Tanner. “They gather information and plan where to encounter animals with very high probability.”

Part of this tradition includes rituals such as divination – attention to dreams, as well as drumming and singing to animal spirits and usage of animal bones that foretell the future. Dr. Tanner explained that there are many rules which the Cree adhere to while hunting, such as not walking in the tracks of the animals, which is considered an offence and after butchering an animal one must clean up the snow.

“You share your game, there is no hoarding of animals,” said Dr. Tanner. “If two hunters are together and only one is successful, he must give the entire animal to the other person, then that person shares it with the entire group so everybody gets some. They feel they must never waste food, never take more than you can use. There is a level of these rules that you can see are profound common sense underlying these religious beliefs that ensure that the animals will continue to thrive.”

Dr. Tanner said that much has changed in the last few decades: People now get into the bush by truck, roadways have been constructed over traditional hunting grounds and people don’t spend as much time in the bush. Most significantly a large portion of the population have converted from Anglicanism to Pentecostalism.

“The initial impact of Pentecostalism was to teach them that their traditional religious ways were evil,” said Dr. Tanner. “However, I did ask one of the elders who was a Pentecost whether animals gave themselves to the hunters he said, ‘Oh yes, that is what I believe.’ I have seen a lot of increasing tolerance towards the traditional ways of the Cree.” The Pentecostal church in the community is now run by the Cree.

Over his career, Dr. Tanner has continued his research with the Cree in a variety of forms including self-government, land claims, environmental impacts and native rights. His research is now unfettered from teaching obligations and he plans to continue working with the Cree. He spent last September in the bush with Cree elders and youth.

“It was as if everything had come full circle for me — I was teaching these young Cree people how to do anthropology, how to interview their elders,” said Dr. Tanner. “There is considerable interest in passing on their knowledge.”

Dr. Tanner is currently working with the Cree agency, Nadoshtin, looking at the East Main River, an extension of the James Bay Project which will be flooded for hydroelectricity in three years. The area was once a rich hunting and trapping area for the Cree. The community asked Dr. Tanner to help train the youth of the community in using ethnographic techniques such as video-taping and interviewing. The project’s aim is to help youth to learn about their elders and about their land that will no longer exist. Dr. Tanner plans to work with others to produce a book about the experience.


 


 
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Next issue: January 8, 2003

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