Saturday, February 23, 2008

Peawanuck and the rest of the wide world

By some people's standards I live in a remote location, but face it, I've got a paved road in front of my property and high-speed internet service over my phone line (and it works real good). But I get the feeling of remoteness sometimes: the occasional wolf-howl in the distance, the fact that I can see hills in the distance that are in a roadless part of Quebec, my inclusion, on CBC Radio, in a broadcast area that includes the James Bay coast. Sometimes I hear about conditions Peawanuck near Hudson's Bay.

Phil Paine knows Peawanuck better than I do
and uses it as an example to make a point, much more effectively than I did sometime ago on this blog: we think pre-modern people were immobile when in fact many of them saw the opportunities and even the pleasures of long-distance trade and travel, and were perfectly capable and willing to make long journeys. My examples were kings and generals and warriors. His are "ordinary working people," people who live in the same province as Phil and I. His example is the stronger one, because these people do, and have, covered vast distances to do ordinary things, like buy tobacco. Says Phil:

The people of Peawanuck, the Weenusk, form part of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation and are governed by the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council. Most people there live by hunting, fishing, and trapping, or by guiding the occasional adventurous tourist to see the polar bears and other wildlife, or to fish in the Winisk river system. It’s a fine little place. It has some social problems, and young people must leave to find work, but culturally, it is strong, and traditional language and customs thrive.

The reason I bring up Peawanuck is that, until the 1950’s, there wasn’t much about life in the village that would have been out of place in Mesolithic Europe. Certainly, in the 19th century, life in Peawanuck would have been almost indistinguishable from a settlement in the far north of Europe in 6000 BC. When I look over the maps and site reconstructions in archaeological reports from, say, the Ertebølle culture of ancient Scandinavia, everything about them looks familiar. Everything is comprehensible. I have no trouble visualizing the lifestyle. That’s why, when I read discussions among archaeologists about prehistoric Europe, sometimes they ring true to me, and sometimes they don’t.

What rings the most false to me are the assumptions that prehistorians make about mobility, travel, and trade. There is no question that there was extensive trade across prehistoric Europe. The distribution of artifacts shows this. But it is still customary for archaeologists to assume that people didn’t travel any significant distance, and that trade was "not really" trade. ... [T]his image of a pre-modern, or a prehistoric person existing in a tiny cocoon of ignorance, unable to move or think outside of a few acres, simply doesn’t accord with what I know about a hunting and gathering lifestyle that still exists, and existed in relatively pristine form, only a short time ago.

We know exactly how much Peawanuck's people traveled, traditionally, and how far. Normal connections of trade, family visits, friendship, and political contacts on a personal level extended from the Winisk river (the “homeland”) as far east as western Quebec, as far west as Norway House in Manitoba, all along the Hudson’s Bay coast as far as the Chippewyan territories in the northwest and the Innuit settlements in the northeast, and as far south as the height-of land in Algoma, and the shores of Lake Superior. This is still the rough area within which people are likely to have some relatives, or other personal connections. This area is larger than France.
There's more detail at Phil's blog under February 20.

Image: A map of Northern Ontario. I live very near the bottom right corner, near but not in the North (as Ontarians reckon it).

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1 Comments:

Blogger Phil Paine said...

Unfortunately, in that blog entry I did not make it clear that the present settlement of Peawanuck was only created after a flood destroyed the original settlement, Winisk, in 1988. The whole village was moved a short distance upriver and was renamed. So there was, in fact, no "Peanwanuck" in the 19th century. However, it was the same people at nearly the same place.

5:14 PM  

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