The keepers of the conifer forest
Since time immemorial, the Cree, Algonquin, Atikamekw, Innu and Naskapi have lived in the vast conifer forest dominated by black spruce, fir and birch trees. The forest extends from the boundaries of the northern zone to the deciduous forest further south.
Nomads par excellence, these peoples are all part of the Algonquian linguistic family. They share many cultural and linguistic traits, while remaining unique in their diversity.
These peoples used to travel in winter across vast family hunting grounds in search of game and fish. In summer, they gathered near a stretch of water, in a place that became a site for community reunions, trade, exchanges and festivities. Even today, the tremendous network of lakes and rivers in the conifer forest constitutes a gateway to a country in which these forest dwellers hunt caribou, moose and geese, fish for trout and whitefish and gather Labrador tea, blueberries and cloudberries.
By water, you can access the hunting grounds for caribou, moose and goose. It is also the fishing spot for char and lake herring, and where you can harvest Labrador tea, blueberries and cloudberries.
Known as uskui by the Cree, ushkuai by the Innu, wikwasatikw by the Atikamekw, uskuy by the Naskapi and wîgwâs by the Algonquin, the birch tree has many related names, and its bark is employed extensively for many different purposes. In these people's worldviews, animals and trees are so alike, that it also seems appropriate to talk about "the skin of the tree", especially in reference to birchbark. Animal skins are used as shelters, containers and sleds; and so is birchbark. For many centuries, furs were popular goods for trade; and birchbark was much sought-after for canoes and houses.
The summer season has always been a time of reunions, exchanges and festivities for Indigenous peoples. Some Algonquian communities used to settle for the summer near a watercourse or lake to exchange information, trade goods, perform marriages and make plans for the year to come.
The community lived off the resources of the water and waterfowl, and gathered plenty of fruit. The camp was a time of intense activity, as birchbark or canvas canoes were built. In such gatherings, the usual type of accommodation was a conical tent known as a miichiwaahp by the Cree and Naskapi, innu-mitshuap by the Innu, pikokan by the Atikamekw and wigiwam by the Algonquin. Such tents are built of wooden poles that used to be covered with caribou skins or birchbark, but are now made of factory-produced canvas. A carpet of fir or spruce branches, replaced frequently, provides a fresh odour.
Even today, families, communities and nations come together to strengthen their relationships over the territory and celebrate. Summer is still a time of fishing and berry gathering, as well as a time of reunions. Québec's Aboriginal games, Innu-Nikamu, a festival in Maliotenam, on the North Shore, the Pow-Wow Trail across Québec, the National Indigenous Peoples Day and the Montréal First Peoples' Festival are some of the unifying summer festivities.
On the North Shore, Innu families gather uishatshimina, the "bitter fruit" (mountain cranberries) in October, on top of the hills. They spend all day at their task, quickly erecting a tent, building a fire to make tea, and piling branches on which to sit. A similar stay takes place in August in Abitibi, where the Rapid Lake Algonquin install veritable camps as a base for their blueberry picking. The blueberries, known as min or minadjiciwatik.
The fruits of the conifer forest are gathered year-round. Known as iiniminaan by the Cree, the "real fruit" (the low sweet blueberry) ripens in summer. Known as shikuteu by the Innu, the cloudberry is picked in August. Known as mokominatik by the Algonquin, "the bear fruit tree" or mountain-ash produces edible fruit in the fall. The small cranberry is known as mickekominan or "fruit of the muskeg" by the Attikamek, and can even be eaten in the spring because its fruit, softened and wrinkled by the rigours of winter, nevertheless preserves its pleasant, slightly acid taste.
A season for each plant
Every plant has its season, which must be learned and respected. Pineuminanakashi, "the partridge fruit plant", the Innu name for creeping snowberry, provides tea in the spring, fruit in the summer and food for the partridge in winter. Câcâgômânâbak (the Algonquin word for bunchberry) provides tea in the spring and fruit in the summer. Kanisopakak (the Algonquin word for goldthread) is used to make herbal tea, and both its leaves and roots are consumed. There is a common belief that all traditional foods are also remedies; this applies to all plant-based drinks consumed for preventive purposes, as tea or as a decoction.
Habitats and shelters
According to an Innu and Cree legend, eternal winter used to reign over the Earth, and the changing seasons were only restored after a long search. The purpose of the search was to free the birds of summer, precursors to the warm weather and new plant growth. The heroes of this legend were all animals, Beaver, Otter, Muskrat, Mink and Deer amongst others, the same animals that Aboriginals encounter today, from fall into winter. The quest for the summer birds also evokes the continual movement of the Native people, like the Cree and the Innu, punctuated here and there by semi-permanent or temporary camps with a variety of installations, including a conical tent made of bark or sphagnum, dome-shaped bark tents, long huts made of caribou skin, and lately, log cabins in a variety of shapes.
Another remarkable facility, the sweat lodge, is still used today, and is also made of curved poles. It is known as mitutissan by the Cree, matotosowin by the Atikamekw, matutishan by the Innu, and mitisaan by the Naskapi.
Conifers with multiple uses
The legendary spruce and balsam fir are of vital importance to the Aboriginal people. Their wood is used to make canoes, snowshoes and toboggans. Their branches cover floors, and their roots serve to sew baskets and canoes. The black spruce cones are used to dye nets, and fir gum to waterproof canoes. Spruce gum is chewed, while fir gum is a cough remedy. The Cree Elders can distinguish the white spruce from the black spruce by its twigs, which give off a skunk-like odour when crushed.
Lakes and rivers
In the rippling current, resources abound, trout, whitefish, sturgeon and salmon, waterfowl and marine mammals. Over the centuries, nations have organized a thousand and one passages from lakes to rivers. Summer fishing, using a line, spear or net, often requires a canoe, an outboard motor or another type of boat. Nets, formerly made of leather strips, willow bark or Indian hemp, are now bought from manufactures. In winter, fishing takes place on the ice, using a hand line or set line tied to a small conifer with its branches trimmed off. The Cree and Naskapi mix flakes of fish with small berries to produce a tasty national dish known as shikumin.
Other activities also take place in the marine environment. The James Bay Cree hunt geese in the spring and fall. The Hudson and Ungava Bay Inuit hunt marine mammals all year round. The North Shore Innu and Gaspé Mi'gmaq hunt marine mammals and fish in the waters of the St. Lawrence Gulf and River.
Mosses and lichens
Sphagnum, ground lichen and rotting wood have an astonishing range of forms and uses. The Aboriginal people refer to them as belonging to the domain of the Earth (aski for the Atikamekw, assi for the Innu, aschii for the Cree, aki for the Algonquin and aschiiy for the Naskapi). Their most notable feature is their lack of roots. In fact, the Aboriginal people describe sphagnum as "earth that grows", and offer as proof the former portage trails, now hidden beneath earth "that has grown over them" or the muskegs that grow year after year.
Many different sphagnum varieties are found in Québec red, green, yellow, short and long and they have a wide range of uses. Their absorbent properties have led the Innu and Anishinabeg to use them as diapers, toilet paper and disposable towels. The Cree take advantage of their insulation properties by using them to chink their log cabins. The Atikamekw and Innu use sphagnum as compresses to treat certain illnesses.
Reindeer lichen used to be eaten by the Cree and Innu during times of famine.
Known as uatshinakan by the Innu, waachinaakan or waachinaakin by the Cree, uakinagan by the Algonquin, and waachinaakin by the Naskapi, the tamarack, the only conifer to lose its leaves in winter, carries its name well. Taken from uatshin, meaning "hand-made curve", "the tree of a hundred curves" has often served the Aboriginal peoples.
The strenght of tamarack wood or its bark was well suited for making Innu and Algonquin sled runners. It was used as well as Innu snowshoe frames and the hoops of their traditional drums.
The Cree used its curved branches to make goose decoys, and the Innu would hollow out part of the stump to make a viewing device, which they used to divine the movements of the caribou herds.
The "fruit of the earth plant" or black crowberry, known as aschiiminaahtikw by the Cree and the Naskapi, assiminanakashi by the Innu. The cervidae eat the spring shoots. The Aboriginal peoples gather its edible berries. Other plants provide food for the caribou in winter, including the bearberry, known as atikuminanakashi or "fruit of the caribou plant" by the Innu. Its berries are also eaten by the Anishinabeg, whose ancestors used to hunt the caribou, so wide was the cervidae's distribution. The Labrador tea, known as kaachepukw or kaachaapukw by the Cree, is another example. Its leaves are also used to make an excellent herbal infusion by the Attikamek and other nations.
American dune-grass or ivigaat and cotton-grass or suputik, become for the Inuit veritable signs of the caribou. Trampled looking American dune-grass show the Inuit where the cervidae herds have been. When the cotton-grass seeds start to blow away, Inuit say the caribou skin is at its best for making clothing.
Grouped into small shrubs where only a few leaves grow at the ends of the stems, Labrador tea (rhododendron groenlandicum) grows near peatlands and in the tundra of Nunavik. When flowering,Labrador tea displays an umbel of delicate white flowers.
Called mamaittuqutik in Inuktitut (from mamaittuk, "which tastes bad"), it is also found in the boreal forest among James Bay's Eeyou Crees, who call it kachichepukw, and among the Naskapis, who call it iihkuta. It is also found further south, where the Abenakis call it azonakwiz, which means "small swamp plant". The Maritimes' Wolastoqiyik (Malecites) call it pusipga/skil.
Used by several Indigenous nations across Québec and Canada, Labrador tea has multiple uses and virtues. Whether as an infusion, decoction or poultice, it is an essential medicinal plant in the indigenous pharmacopoeia.