“So what are you hoping to see up North?” I ask Celestino as we make our way along Highway 167, through the dark, boreal night to Oujé-Bougoumou.
Celestino pauses and then smiles. He turns to me with a grin. “I want to find the other moose horn. I need to complete the set.”
We laugh for a bit and then try to get some sleep. Our destination is still several hours away.
Celestino already has one moose antler and apparently it’s quite a hit in Panama’s Ngöbe-Buglé, the Comarca where Celestino Mariano Gallardo makes his home. The Comarca is the autonomous province and traditional homeland of the Ngöbe, Panama’s largest and most politically active Indigenous group. Celestino is one of their leaders and last year he came to Canada as part of an ongoing research exchange between various Canadian professors and Indigenous groups from across the continent. While he was here, he met with Algonquin activists from the communities of Barriere Lake to discuss the shared experiences of government betrayal and resource conflicts between their two peoples. As a parting gift he was given a moose antler.
But Celestino had trouble holding on to the moose antler in the beginning. “I had such a hard time getting it back,” he told me. “The customs official in Mexico tried to confiscate it. He had no idea what it was, what animal it was, but figured it was probably illegal. He had to go through a whole book to see if moose were banned before he let me keep it.”
Back home in the Comarca, Celestino’s moose antler sits in his house in a place of pride among various other objects from his travels: an Iroquois flag, an Aymara wiphala – an emblem representing the native peoples of the Andes – and a poster of Bolivia’s first Indigenous president Evo Morales. All of which are testament to a growing movement: Indigenous peoples across the Americas, North and South, have begun to share knowledge, to share stories of resistance. Celestino’s moose antler is not just an odd gift; it is a symbol of Indigenous solidarity.
“We don’t have animals like this in Panama, the people of the Comarca look at this antler and they have no idea what this creature looks like. That’s why I want a picture of the moose as well. I really want to see one.”
I smile and nod, but then remember stories of moose running across highways and smashing little cars like ours to bits. I want to see a moose too, but perhaps not quite yet.
Celestino is back in Canada to deliver a speech at a conference about Indigenous people’s environmental governance and alternative development. His speech looks at the way in which the Ngöbe people’s traditional way of electing leaders has been manipulated and undermined by a neoliberal government keen to exploit the Comarca’s ample mineral and hydrological reserves. Since the 1960s the Ngöbe people have been locked in a fierce battle with the Panamanian government to prevent the development of mining and hydroelectric projects in their territory. In 2012, the Ngöbe captured international attention by staging a two-week blockade of the Pan-American Highway – the country’s main artery – to protest the granting of new mining concessions. Despite the government’s brutal repression (two Ngöbe were killed and many more wounded when riot police stormed the barricades), a partial victory was attained and mining development halted for the time being, but the threat still remains. Celestino, a traditional Ngöbe leader and lifelong activist (he helped found a coffee pickers’ union at the tender age of 18), was, of course, heavily involved.
So why are we going to Oujé-Bougoumou? Or first of all, where is Oujé-Bougoumou? A Cree town of population 700, nine hours north of Montreal can often escape the attention of the wider world.
Now we are heading to Oujé-Bougoumou, one of the ten Cree communities of Northern Quebec. Celestino has been invited to visit the new Cree cultural institute there and to meet with members of the community to share stories of struggle, of the land and of the fight to preserve that which makes and maintains them as Indigenous. And so the five of us – Celestino, myself, my professor, and two other students – set off.
We’re all a bit sleepy, what with only having
arrived in the town at 3 a.m., as we join Gaston Cooper, a Cree artist and photographer, for lunch in Oujé’s one restaurant. Luckily the conversation and the coffee soon liven us up.
“What’s to eat?” Celestino asks.
“Well,” I say, translating the menu, “there’s goose soup, salad, trout, oh, and moose stew.”
Celestino’s eyes light up. “I’ll have that then.”
I explain Celestino’s interest in moose to Gaston, and one of the people who works at the cultural center. “He knows about moose!” Gaston says in surprise.
And so, Celestino begins telling Gaston about his antler, and about how he really wants to see a moose. And Gaston replies by telling him everything he knows about the animal, where to find them, their behaviour, their mating, and how to hunt them.
“The Cree are a hunting people,” Gaston explains to Celestino. “Even today most people in the community get most of their food from hunting.”
Gaston explains to Celestino the ways in which the Cree still share the animals they hunt. “I’ll go out and shoot a bull moose and by the time it’s dressed and butchered I’ll only have a small bag of meat left, I’ll have given the rest all away. But that’s okay because I know others will do the same for me. You don’t even need to barter with people, sharing is expected. It’s part of the culture.”
“The Ngöbe too used to hunt a lot,” Celestino replies. “Now there aren’t that many animals left. People have hunted them too much, people have forgotten the respect they used to have for them.”
Celestino then begins to explain to Gaston the way in which overhunting was prevented. Every animal, he explains, has a cacique, or a chief. A chief of the deer, a chief of the tapirs and so on. This cacique would protect the other animals of his species and punish hunters who took too much. Celestino told us the story of story of a hunter who liked to hunt conejo pintado (lowland paca, a large rodent). “All the time he would go to the same spot and hunt conejo pintado. One night, he went to where he had set a trap up in the mountains, and all of a sudden he saw the eyes of a conejo pintado glowing in the dark. He shot and the eyes grew dim and fell. The hunter then got up and went over to pick up the body but there was nothing there, no blood or anything. All of a sudden he heard a laugh behind him and he was so scared he ran all the way home. It was the cacique of the conejo pintado playing a joke on him for taking too much.”
Gaston explained to Celestino how there exists a similar concept in Cree culture as well as a belief that all animal populations rise and fall in 100-year cycles, natural limits that must be respected.
The two men conclude that when it comes to hunting and the environment, their two peoples are very similar. The only big difference they can see is that with the Ngöbe only the men hunt, while the women stay home. “We could, never do that,” Gaston says. “It’s so cold here, we need the women to come with us to keep us warm!”
While the Ngöbe and Cree experiences with hunting may be quite similar, their experiences with government-imposed natural resource development have been very different. The Ngöbe have fought long and hard to resist all such projects on their territory, but the Cree approach has been more heavily focused on conciliation and negotiation. In 1975 the Cree signed the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement, a modern treaty that ceded portions of Cree territory for hydroelectric development in exchange for recognition of Cree self-government and a very generous revenue sharing scheme. The consensus among most scholars is that the Cree did very well for themselves. Certainly compared to most Indigenous peoples in Canada, the Cree of northern Quebec have a level of political power and material well-being that is far higher than the average. Oujé-Bougoumou itself, with its well kept new houses and beautiful pine and glass cultural centre is certainly not what most Canadians would imagine when they think of life in Indigenous communities.
There is then a slight feeling of awkwardness when Celestino meets in the main hall of the cultural centre with the former chief of Oujé, Abel Bosum, a man whose community has benefited so much (at least on paper) from projects his compatriot has spent his life working to oppose.
Abel is quick to point out though that the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement itself was hardly a gift from the government, but the result of the long struggle of the Cree people.
“The [Quebec] government didn’t consult us [about the hydro project]. We had to fight to be included. The government wanted to use the James Bay Agreement to destroy Cree rights but the leadership has used it to wield influence instead.”
Abel goes on to describe projects that the Cree have successfully halted, such as the massive Hydro-Québec expansion on the Great Whale River, which they, in conjunction with Inuit activists, were able to stop in the 1990s.
“There is a story,” Celestino says, “of this time the Devil made a mill to crush sugar cane. “It was only when he was done that he realized the mill was in the shape of a cross and ran away screaming.” “It was the same thing when the government of Panama created the Comarca,” he said, “it appears to be the same thing with your people and this agreement.”
Abel agrees but the fact remains that many Cree find themselves employed as part of the region’s extractive economy, with the new Goldcorp mine in Wemindji employing practically the whole community. The mine in Malarctic is also a major employer of Cree in the region.
As the meeting ends Celestino offers Abel a word of warning: “The government offering development in exchange for natural resource exploitation is like a man who offers to help a sick woman only if she agrees to sleep with him.” As far as Celestino is concerned, Indigenous peoples should not be forced to accept natural resource projects if they want government assistance. “The government, whether here or in Panama, has a duty to help Indigenous peoples regardless as part of the debt owed to them from the pillage of Indigenous peoples, from Chile to Canada.”
As we make our way down the steel steps back to the car I ask Katherine, one of the other students on the trip, what she felt looking at a new gold mine in Malarctic owned by Montreal-based mining company Osisko. “It made me sick,” she replies, “physically sick.”
Malarctic is a small town of about 6,000 people, a few kilometres west of Val-d’Or, the centre of what has been a major gold and copper mining district since the 1930s. At the far end of Malarctic is a pretty little church and right behind it a long embankment, like some prehistoric moraine, hovering above the town. On the other side is the 1.44 km² square pit of Osisko’s Malarctic mine. It is a huge operation; in fact, it is the largest open pit gold mine in Canada. Enormous dump trucks bring ore from deep within the pit, moving up toward the horizon. There is an endless chatter of drills and the dull thud of distant dynamite. Celestino surveys the scene bellow; “sulia” he says, the Ngöbe word for cockroach and for white settler, as he points at the trucks that scuttle insect-like around the mine.
Later in the car, I ask jokingly whether the visit changed his opinion about mining. “The mine convinced me of nothing,” he replies. “I have seen mines before in Panama, I’ve heard about ones in other countries. We have a clear idea about the social and environmental effects of mining, of the health effects of an abandoned mine, of the contamination. We have clear information about the impacts over time. Now the company may say, ‘look the mine right next to a town and there’s no contamination, there is no sickness.’ This doesn’t convince me however, the mine is only three years old; the environmental impacts and the contamination often take much longer to appear.”
“Also,” he says smiling, “This company says the mine is bringing benefits to the town but the mining museum we tried to go to wasn’t even free! It’s ridiculous!”
Alongside moose and mining there was another reason we came to Oujé: to see the new cultural centre that has been built here. The centre hopes to preserve the memories, the histories, and the artifacts of the Cree. Since its opening, the members of the centre have sought to document all they can, to preserve and breathe new life into those traditions that persist, and to remember and revive those that have been lost. To do so, they have conducted interviews with elders across the Cree territory and gathered recordings to digitize and preserve. It is extremely difficult; we are told some of the recordings are so old they are often destroyed as they are played one last time. Through their work, and the work of archaeologists such as David Denton and Dario Izaguirre, a richer and more complete history begins to emerge, a history that colonization has neglected or tried to erase, but that stubbornly survives. The centre’s Cree language expert Kevin Brosseau proudly told us that about 95 per cent of Crees still speak their native language and the old traditions of hunting and living off the land still remain.
That being said, many in the community still feel the pressures from settler society, and especially worry about how to ensure these traditions are passed onto the next generation. According to Gaston, they need to make the culture seem relevant to the youth, as he tells us about the ways videos, apps, music, and plays have all been used to capture the youth’s attention. Ultimately, though, it’s the culture itself that’s the real attraction.
As we leave the centre Celestino thanks Gaston and the rest. “The work you are doing helps all Indigenous peoples, I feel as if you are doing work for my people.”
“When you’re a child you’re always interested in the culture,” Harold tells me, while showing me how to make a moose call out of birch bark. “Then when you’re a teenager you leave it for a while, but you always come back.” Harold, a lifelong Oujé resident who we met at the cultural centre, is one of these returnees, who has recently set about trying to revive the art of basket- and, hopefully one day, canoe-making out of birch bark in the community. The tour of the centre is over and there are now about 15 of us sitting outside: people who work at the cultural centre, friends, family, kids, dogs, chatting and laughing, waiting for the trout to smoke in the smoke house. Four hours ago we cut and cleaned it and soon it should be done. The late afternoon sun shines low over Lake Opemisca, the scraggy pines along its shore bristle in the wind. The entire air of the town is still and at peace. I understand why people love the land so much here.
The fish is done now. It’s smoky and delicious and tastes great with bear grease. More people show up and they eat and share stories as 1990s R&B plays on the generator-powered radio. When I get back to Montreal my jacket still smells of smoked trout and I can’t bring myself to wash it.
In our last night in Oujé-Bougoumou, Dorothy Stewart, a Wemindji resident visiting for a conference at the cultural centre tells Celestino about the Cree walking out ceremony, in which a child is not allowed to set foot on Mother Earth until they are one year old. “Until that time,” says Dorothy, “they just observe, experience the world around them. Then at one they set foot on the earth. The boys dress as hunters and using a toy gun kill their first goose. This way they can know the importance of hunting and a relation with their land.”
Celestino tells Dorothy about the importance of keeping these kinds of traditions alive, how in the Comarca many of the rituals surrounding children and childbirth are beginning to die out. Then, so as not to be in her debt, as he says, he tells her of a story about his culture. He tells her of his dream.
“With my son,” he says, “I had a dream before he was born. I had a dream about an AK-47 and that the river beside my house overflowed and the sky filled with dark clouds and rained. I dreamed this every night. Thinking about the grandfathers, about their knowledge, I knew if you dreamed this it was because the child would have some sort of power but you would have to take care of it. And so I wasn’t surprised when the child was born, it was born with two teeth.”
Celestino is a man, it would appear, of many dreams. On the road home he tells me a few of them. He dreams of a day in which Ngöbe students from the Comarca can come to Oujé-Bougoumou and learn how to preserve the culture, to learn about archaeology so they can come back and prevent the government from stealing their history and instead keep it and protect it as the Cree have done. He dreams of Cree students coming to the Comarca to study and learn and live with them. He dreams of a Comarca free of mining and hydroelectric exploitation, of the multinational corporations, the great monsters ¬ as he calls them – that control the Earth. He dreams of all these things and wishes to live to see them all come true.
“Anything else?” I ask.
“Yes, I need to come back again,” he says smiling.
“I need to come back because I never got the other antler for the moose!”