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Ethnohistory 48.1-2 (2001) 357-359

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Book Review

Defending the Land:
Sovereignty and Forest Life in James Bay Cree Society

Defending the Land: Sovereignty and Forest Life in James Bay Cree Society. By Ronald Niezen. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998. xii + 148 pp., illustrations, foreword to the series, acknowledgments, bibliography. $20.00 paper.)

Defending the Land is a volume in the series Cultural Survival Studies in Ethnicity and Change, edited by David Maybury-Lewis and Theodore MacDonald, intended for use in undergraduate courses and by interested nonspecialists. Those seeking a thoroughly referenced and exhaustive scholarly work should look elsewhere–and it would take at least two or three books, in the extant literature, to cover the same set of issues adequately. Happily, Defending the Land does a fine job for its intended audience.

The book opens with an introduction that begins to develop the relationships between sovereignty and living on the land, the overarching theme of the book. Several specific ideas are clearly introduced here: the Cree are depicted as a "people who have largely succeeded in defying . . . a pattern of cultural homogenization" (2), by creating " a bridge between their forest lifestyle and the demands of administrative development and political struggle, between tradition and bureaucracy" (3). Ronald Niezen then introduces a fine term for a kind of process far from unique to the Cree: "politics of embarrassment, the use of media and public relations to expose the inconsistencies and injustices of government action" (4, emphasis added). Contemporary politics, history, and cultural traditions are shown here as deeply interwoven–as is always the case but sometimes seems conveniently neglected in much scholarship. Changing cultural traditions and individual agency are clearly introduced here and developed in successive chapters. [End Page 357]

The presentation of the book reverses the order of topics from its subtitle; the introduction is followed by a cultural and historical discussion of the ways and meanings of Cree living on the land, before considering selected elements from the history of interactions (nicely encapsulated by the chapter titles, "Negotiated Transformations" and "Crisis and Accommodation"). Extended consideration of sovereignty issues takes up the final chapter before the conclusion. The book is drawn from experience in the field in James Bay Cree communities, but this is not an ethnography in a traditional sense. Much of the work was done during evaluation research for the Cree Board of Health and Social Services, but the arguments are sound and well supported. Niezen’s use of translated transcripts from the Cree radio program Chischaiyu Aitimuum ("the mind of an elder") is particularly notable, allowing the English-language reader to "hear" the Cree themselves speak through the text.

The emphasis throughout is relatively pragmatic; more abstract analyses are not the subject of this work. But a feeling for Cree culture is nonetheless developed. Niezen presents the history of the fur trade and development of a "dual lifestyle," a way of life that involves both community and bush living, for the reader to understand the significance of threats and developments of extractive industry, particularly in the form of hydroelectric projects. Cree adaptations of health services and education are detailed, as are the social pathologies and crises attendant to relocation and cultural change; Cree attempts to respond to those challenges are characterized as adaptations of imported administrative features, creating a Cree administrative autonomy without rejecting Canadian institutions–the same pattern, Niezen argues, that pertains in the realm of political sovereignty.

Cree sovereignty became an international issue in the 1990s, with the efforts of Québécois separatists to withdraw from the Canadian federal union. Were the Cree, Inuit, Ojibwe, and other Native peoples to be Canadian, or Québécois? This was one of the opportunities the Cree exploited through politics of embarrassment, catching Québécois leaders on the fence: if Québec should be free to disassociate from Canada, the Native peoples should be free to disassociate from Québec. The long history of nonconsideration of Native peoples in provincial (and federal) discourse and legislation was brought into sharp relief...


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