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Conifer Forest

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Black spruce (Picea mariana)
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Normand Fleury)

The keepers of the conifer forest

Since time immemorial, the Cree, Algonquin, Attikamek, 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. Naskapi, "People of the place beyond the horizon", Innuat, "Aboriginals, human beings", Atikamekw, "Whitefish", Mamiwinik, "Downstream people" and Iyiyuu, Cree in syllabics, also "Aboriginal, human being", their names reflect the vastness of the land and the human beings that inhabit it. Nomads par excellence, these First Nations are all members of the Algonquian family and share many cultural and language features, although each is unique in its own way.

These peoples, hunters and gatherers, 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.

The skin of the tree

Known as uskui by the Cree, ushkuai by the Innu, wikwasatikw by the Attikamek, uskuy by the Naskapi and wîgwâs by the Algonquin, the birch tree has so many related names, and its bark is employed so extensively for so many different purposes, that the societies using its resources are often described as the "civilization of the birch". In these peoples' 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 animals speak in myths and dreams ­ and so does the birch, like many other trees.

An Attikamek legend...

Very many years ago, when the Earth was created, the Ancestors held a meeting of the great council. One told the others, "I want to become a birch to help humans. I am rich, I will tell them to take my cloak and use it for their own purposes ­ canoes, houses, baskets. Through me, they will understand the importance of communicating with nature."

Reunion time

The summer season is almost always a time of reunions, exchanges and festivities for the Aboriginal 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 Attikamek 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.

Today, the summer is still a time of fishing and berry gathering, as well as a time of reunions and festivities, including Québec's Aboriginal games, Innu-Nikamu, a festival of Aboriginal song, and Tciman Kijican, the "Canoe Day", an Algonquin festival held at Lac Simon to commemorate the annual dispersal of families over the territory.

Gathering berries

At La Romaine, 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 ceremony 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, are then sold to wholesalers or tourists.

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 and eaten mixed with lard, bear grease, caribou grease or seal oil. 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.

Bed and board for the animals

In saltwater and freshwater lakes and rivers, aquatic plants abound and are used by animals and humans alike. The rhizome of the variegated pond-lily, known as cikitewekak by the Algonquin, is said to be a favourite food of the beaver and moose, and is also good for their lungs. Like the rhizome of the fragrant waterlily, it used to be eaten boiled, but today is used mainly as a remedy. The rhizome of the larger blue flag also serves as a remedy. Its Cree name, wachiskwaayaaskw, comes from wachishk, meaning "muskrat". The Innu call it amuapukun, "the flower of the bees".

The common cattail, or passwekanak in Algonquin and pisekan in Attikamek, provides an ideal habitat for the muskrat. Its roots used to be consumed by the Algonquin as a remedy. The mature spikes still provide "cotton" that is used to fill mattresses and pillows. One plant that is extremely important to animals and humans alike, is wild rice, the favourite food of the aquatic birds. Wabanominack in algonquin, it is used mainly by Aboriginal peoples in Ontario and Manitoba, but is nevertheless known to the Algonquin and other nations.

Plants in their prime

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, as among the Algonquins.

The gathering of plants is also ruled by the laws of Nature. The Algonquians gather medicinal plants at specific times because of the perishable nature of certain of their products. However, illness can strike at any time, and they have more than one plant for each complaint. The Innu use only tshitshue atapukuat, the "true", flowerless bluebead-lily as a remedy; they distinguish it from the "false" bluebead-lily, which flowers in the spring. The Naskapi prefer to gather their medicinal plants on spring mornings, at the renewal of their life. The mood and prayers of the person who gathers the plants also matter.

Where have all the summer birds gone?

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. Known as mitutissan by the Cree, matotosowin by the Attikamek, matutishan by the Innu, and mitisaan by the Naskapi, it now serves for hygiene or personal care. In the past, however, it had another purpose, namely divination, as the Aboriginal people tried to locate game for hunting. In addition to divination, they scanned the forest for signs of animal presence, such as branches broken by bears, tree trunks gnawed by beavers, trees de-barked by porcupines, and sphagnum dug by cervidae. Plants and animals are thus always related.

The trees of a hero

The Algonquians of the conifer forest had a hero named Tshakapesh in the Innu language, Tcikapec in Attikamek, Tcakabesh in Algonquin, Chikapash in Cree and Chaakaapaas in Naskapi. His outrageous projects were equalled only by his courage and temerity. Whole trees served as his bows and arrows, and a huge spruce tree served as a ladder to the firmament. From the stomach of the giant monster that ate his parents, he managed to extract their hair and his father's testicles, which he tossed into the conifers, where they changed into old-man's beard and resin vesicles.

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 used as a 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. The cree word for the witches' broom that grows on top of the conifers, ushtikaamaskw, the "wooden head", points to the affinities between trees and human beings.

In the rippling current

In the rippling current, resources abound, trout, whitefish, sturgeon and salmon, waterfowl and marine mammals. Over the centuries, the Algonquians 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 Micmac hunt marine mammals and fish in the waters of the St. Lawrence Gulf and River.

Earth that grows

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 Attikamek, 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 Algonquin 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 Attikamek and Innu use sphagnum as compresses to treat certain illnesses.

Reindeer lichen used to be eaten by the Innu during times of famine. Today, they still use rotting wood as emergency diapers for babies and as smoke generators to colour hides.

The tree of a hundred curves

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. It was ideal for making Innu and Algonquin sled runners, 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. There is an Innu legend that explains why straight tamarack trees, supple enough to bend without breaking, are so difficult to find in the North.

An Innu legend...

Wolverine, sprayed by a giant skunk, went down towards the sea, his head hidden in a bag. He could not see, and walked into every tree on his route, asking them in turn for their name. "Uashinakan" said the first. Wolverine, in his anger, twisted, tore and deformed it. Tossing it aside, he said, "In future, you will always grow like this."

On the path of the caribou

Berries, leaves and grass, small northern plants all whisper the same name, that of the caribou. They include 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 Algonquin, 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.

But further north, the whispering of the plants is more and more elaborate. Grasses that are of no use to many Algonquians, including 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.

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