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Manitoba History: Review: Flora Beardy and Robert Coutts, Voices from Hudson Bay: Cree Stories from York Factory

by Patricia McCormack
School of Native Studies, University of Alberta

Number 35, Spring/Summer 1998

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Flora Beardy and Robert Coutts (editors and compilers), Voices from Hudson Bay: Cree Stories from York Factory. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996. Vol. 5 in the Rupert’s Land Record Society Series. pp. xxxvi + 158, illus., ISBN 0-7735-1440-6 (cloth), 0-7735-1441-4 (paper). $17.95 paper.

This useful little book reflects the happy joining of two partners: Parks Canada, which sponsored the York Factory Oral History Project, and Cree elders from York Factory. The project’s goal was to document the experiences of Cree people who lived in or about York Factory in the first half of the twentieth century. As Robert Coutts, a Parks Canada historian explains, despite the large archival resources for York Factory, “... it is narrated life histories that can put the meat on the bones of cultural experience” (p. xiv). For these Cree elders, “... their life stories, the shared memories of family, community, and daily life, define their past. Their telling enlarges our understanding of what constitutes historical truth” (p. xiv). And, as Flora Beardy points out, not only were the elders willing to share their stories, they were eager to do so: “Some said this should have been done a long time ago while there were more elders alive to share their experiences” (p. xii).

York Factory was a socially complex fur trade community on the west side of Hudson Bay that persisted from the late seventeenth century to 1957, when it finally closed. Flora Beardy lived there herself as a child. In her preface, she explains the process used in identifying and interviewing elders who had formerly lived at York Factory. In all, fourteen elders were formally interviewed, and it is their stories, translated by Beardy, that constitute the core of this book. The book includes brief biographies of the elders, with sketches of their faces in lieu of the more usual photographs.

Robert Coutts provides an historical summary about York Factory and its Cree inhabitants and reviews the written documentation available about York Factory and the local Cree population. He also addresses issues about the interviewing process and processes of transcription and editing. The editors developed a list of general questions to guide the interviews; those interested in the oral history process itself might have been interested in seeing this list, which could have been included as an appendix. Endnotes were added to provide the reader with supplementary information. One of the treasures of the book is the large number of black and white photographs, many loaned by the elders and published here for the first time. They are a welcome addition to the documentary evidence and provide details about clothing not touched on in the narratives.

It is always a dilemma in such oral history work to decide upon presentation style. The interviews were not published in the original Cree or as complete texts. For those who wish to consult them, the original interview tapes will eventually be deposited in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba and can now be accessed through Robert Coutts, at Parks Canada in Winnipeg.

Cree women with handiwork at the mission house at York Factory, circa 1910.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

The authors chose eighteen subheadings to provide an organizational framework for translated excerpts from the interviews. About a third of the interview material was included in the book. While some overlap among sections exists, it is a useful way to look for topical information. The content of the stories will be broadly familiar to readers working in subarctic and fur trade contexts, and many stories are noteworthy. For example, in “Food, Clothing, and Shelter,” David Massan provides a nicely detailed description of how a birch bark canoe was made. Two sections (“Women’s Lives and Activities,” “Seasonal Life in the York Factory Area”) contain narratives about women as hunters, a topic that resonates with the life history of Ellen Smallboy, (see Regina Flannery’s Glimpses of Smallboy’s Life, published in 1995), a Cree woman from Moose Factory. One particularly interesting story told by Albert Hill, in the “Work and Wages” section, portrays an organized women’s sewing group. He refers to the woman in charge as the “boss” of that group (pp. 18, 20). For this story, and in some other places, the Cree term used by the storyteller would have been a useful addition.

Cree terms are used occasionally, though not always with exact translations. For example, the term “bad boss”—Kihci-pocow (p. 21)—may be a local idiom or reflect the local Cree dialect. Cree-speakers from other regions would find additional translation informative.

Given the impacts of Treaty No. 5 and government expansion during the life spans of the elders interviewed, it is surprising that there are relatively few stories about such subjects. That may be an artifact of the interview process, the story selection process, or both.

Voices from Hudson Bay reads easily and will appeal to those interested in Cree peoples and the northern fur trade. It pairs particularly well with The Most Respectable Place in the Territory, Michael Payne’s study of everyday life at York Factory to 1870. Voices could be used as a textbook for courses relating to twentieth century Canadian, northern, Native, and fur trade history and in courses about oral traditions. Although there is no bibliography, there is a guide to further reading, and the notes are helpful.

York Factory was declared a national historic site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada “...primarily for its role in the French-English struggle for control of Hudson Bay ...” (pp. 147-8). The oral traditions reveal another, more long-lasting side to York Factory, as a unique fur trade-focused community of English, Orcadians, and Crees, equally worthy of commemoration as a national historic site for its distinctive social history.

Parks Canada should be congratulated for its foresight in sponsoring this project in cooperation with the York Factory elders. It is to be hoped that budget cuts will not prevent Parks Canada from sponsoring similar projects in the future and seeing them through to publication.

Page revised: 13 October 2012

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