Cree Hunting Songs

from northern Manitoba and Quebec, Canada
Collected between 1970 and 2000, by Lynn Whidden:
William Jack, George Pepabano, Joseph Rupert


Download Fox-hunting

by William Jack, June 1982

I used to love going fox-hunting.
I saw a fox very well built, a healthy fox.
He was orange, he had an orange-brown back.
I went to check out my traps to see if the orange-back was there.
He was caught in my trap, the orange-back.
I sang this song when I started out hunting in the morning.

The Partridge

Download The Partridge

by George Pepabano, June 1982

This song is about the partridge bird.
The partridge, and how he runs through the snow.
His feet are able to carry him through the snow on top, without sinking.
The hunter compares himself to this bird, to a partridge.
When he has on his snowshoes he is able to run
Like the partridge on top of the snow.

The Speckled Trout

Download The Speckled Trout

by Joseph Rupert, June 1984

This song is about a man when he gets up early in the morning.
As soon as the sun comes up.
I'm going to sing about a fish, when you go fishing.
A speckled trout song.

Editor's comments:

A few of the Cree songs I recorded in the Chisasibi area [in northern Quebec, Canada] focused on the terrain and weather, seeking such things as a change in the wind direction, but it is the animals – mammals, birds, and fish – which the Cree hunters favoured as song topics. The basin of La Grande River offered a wide variety of animals for them to sing about because this region is a transition zone between the middle and high subarctic. Southern fauna live alongside northern species such as the Arctic fox.

Because of the diversified habitats, the soundscape is alive with wildfowl and river birds. Six of the eighty-six songs I recorded were about Canada geese, an important source of food for the Cree. Other songs were about the loon, the partridge, the snowbird, and the migrating brant geese. The hunters also sang about fish – local species include whitefish, cisco, longnose suckers, pike, walleye, white suckers, rounds, burbot, and speckled trout (Berkes 1983, 5) – and the commonly hunted animal species, such a beaver, muskrat, lynx, otter, red fox, black bear, mink, rabbit, red squirrel, and martin. I recorded eight fox songs, five beaver, four otter, two porcupine, one muskrat, one hare, one deer, one lynx, and one whale. The white fox seemed to be of particular interest to the Cree, perhaps because of its scarcity in the Chisasibi area. Beaver was important for the Cree economy, reflected in the number of beaver-related songs and stories.

Not only did the Cree hunters know all the sounds the animals make, but also the appropriate sounds a hunter must make to attract them. Several hunters showed how fox and muskrat are attracted by the hunter's imitation of mouse sounds (a kissing sound made with the lips), while geese responded to imitation goose calls. A beaver was called by a sound that mimicked the noise of another beaver eating branches.

The James Bay Cree based their subsistence economy on these species. When I was recording these songs, hunting game still determined the lives of at least half the male population of Chisasibi, although it no longer dictated their dwelling place – only a few families chose to live year-round in a bush camp. Most now maintained a permanent dwelling in the town, and lived only temporarily in camps established for hunting.

The hunting songs (niitooh-nikamon) are a personal expression of emotion, yet not one of the eighty-six that I recorded expressed sadness or regret. The hunter William Jack said, "I sing when I'm happy." The songs predicted successful outcomes for an occupation that is challenging and exciting in the extreme. The vivid images in the songs show the hunter's appreciation of the animals and all of nature.

Songs provided facts about the animals and the local environment; they contained ancient wisdom, yet were readily changed to deal with new situations; they were prayers, aiding communication with the spirit beings of the animals and thereby ensuring animals for the hunt; they energized the hunter and, at the same time, their frequent humour must have made bearable the uncertainty of capturing wild animals; they were mental play, bringing disparate subjects together, as well as artistic creations.

Although the words are often tantalizingly obscured, their meaning is not secret. The hunters took great care to explain the songs. This cumulative knowledge arrived at through shared experiences and validated over long periods of time and across wide areas, renders the songs and stories authoritative. They are part of the framework of communal activity. All westerners recognize song as art – songs are learned and patterned cultural behaviour. But to the Cree, they are not just artistic objects, they are a technology. Cree use of song suggests that the predisposition to create song, like language, is rooted deeply in human genetic inheritance. Despite the severity of the Subarctic and the considerable physical energy required to drum and sing, hunters chose songs as an essential part of the hunt.

It is not enough, however, to think of the songs simply as storehouses of local information or scientific knowledge. The performance of a song stimulated the intuition and the creative power needed to capture a wild animal. Beyond this, and most importantly for the Cree hunters, the songs also allowed the hunter's spirit to communicate with the spirits of the animals. Some of the dream songs are personal and endure a lifetime. The hunter, when a youth, would dream of a particular animal, perhaps a caribou. From then on, the caribou song would become part of his hunting ritual. After he died, other singers would sing his caribou song. These dream songs (anikamaotahnibat) would continue to appear throughout one's life. They were once highly valued as a source of knowledge and power.

from Lynn Whidden, Essential Song: Three Decades of Northern Cree Music, with original CD recording of more than 50 Cree hunting songs, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007. Essential Song received the Foreword Magazine Bronze Book of the Year Award–for Music, and was shortlisted for the Manitoba Historical Society Margaret McWilliams Scholarly Award.  Qtd by permission. Lynn Whidden is an ethnomusicologist who has researched the music of Aboriginal peoples on several continents. She teaches in the BUNTEP program at Brandon University. Cree Hunting Songs are part of the Creative Writing and Canadian Literature curriculum at Brandon University.

Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Canada —
Foreword Magazine —
Lynn Whidden —

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