Favourite Films: Cree Hunters Of Mistassini

by Paul Kirtley

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To watch the film press the play arrow at the bottom left of the image above. Click on the box second from bottom right for a full screen view.

Cree Hunters Of Mistassini

Directed by Boyce Richardson and Tony Ianzelo, this is an anthropological documentary about a band of Cree hunters from Mistassini, Quebec who travel to live and hunt on their traditional hunting grounds.

It’s a sympathetic film made during a time when these people’s traditional lands were under threat from hydro-electric development and the associated infrastructure. It puts across the Cree point of view about their traditional way of life and philosophy.

For the student of northern forest bushcraft, this is a treasure-trove of techniques, skills and knowledge.

In almost every scene there is some nugget or take-away. As such it is one of my favourite films of its type.

In my opinion it’s one of the most useful bushcraft-related documentaries ever made.

At the time of its release it was also more widely appreciated, winning Best Documentary Over 30 Minutes at the Canadian Film Awards as well as the Robert Flaherty Award for best one-off documentary from BAFTA.

When I see grainy black and white or sepia photographs of First Nations from the late 19th Century I’m intrigued. I’m intrigued by the people in those photographs, what their lives must have been like and the massive changes they were going through. But I view these in the same way I might view a photo from Victorian Britain. It’s an age long gone by, outside of living memory and increasingly unrecognisable compared to our own modern lives.

When I watch Cree Hunters Of Mistassini, however, it strikes me that this film was released in 1974, the year after I was born. The winter depicted is the winter of 1972/73 in which I was born.

So, unlike the grainy Victorian photographs, the way of life shown here in colour film was still happening within my lifetime. In that sense I feel connected with it, at least temporally. Yet it exhibits a skill-set and outlook on life which is increasingly alien to the vast majority of people living in the developed world.

I also feel a connection with this film due to my love of the northern – or boreal – forest. Whether it is snowshoeing and hot-tenting in the winter or canoeing in the summer, the boreal forest (also known as taiga) is a wonderful environment. As well as the sentimental value of reminding me of my trips there, this film has practical value as well in that it is pretty much a masterclass in many of the skills for that environment, whether in North America or Eurasia.

I’ve watched this film many times and on re-watching it, I still pick up on details I hadn’t consciously noted before. I probably watch it at least a couple of times per year, even now.

As well as all the practical elements this film contains, it also illustrates an attitude and productive industry required to actually live from the land and demanded of the people in the film. There is no messing around. They get on with things. They do things in straightforward ways devoid of the equipment/technology obsession of modern outdoor lifestyle marketing. The Cree people depicted in the film have basic kit and clothing, all solid and reliable, along with an understanding of their environment and the no-BS ingenuity to marry the two.

I often make the mistake of assuming that other people interested in bushcraft are familiar with many of the resources which are out there in the public domain. With respect to this film, however, I often discover that they haven’t seen it, or even heard of it. So, I’m sharing it here on my blog – something the National Film Board of Canada make easy – in the hope that more people can benefit from what it holds. Plus in writing this accompanying text I hope I’ve managed to describe why I think it’s such a valuable encapsulation of an aboriginal outlook and skill-set.

In the comments section below let me know what your favourite scene from this film is…

Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog:

Winter Magic: Return To The Northern Forest

Surviving A Winter’s Night in the Northern Forest: How To Build An Arctic Lean-To

Arctic Lean-To Revisited

Six Men, Three Boats and The Bloodvein: Canoeing A Wilderness River

The Difference Between Foraging And Living Off The Land

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

 

{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Denny

Good morning,

Not sure if it is just me but I cannot get video to open?

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Denny,

What type of device are you using?

Cheers,

Paul

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Chris Gibbs

Admired red indians since a toddler. Wish I could spend a few years living and learning from them. Truly a magic nation where you can learn important and fast fading lessons …. Thanx Paul, and may the Cree Tribe win there legal battle….!

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Martin Price

Thank you Paul. A treasure of a film.

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Vee

Hi Paul, it was a very interesting film, thank you for sharing it and how you relate to this film and its importance to you.
I think you asked about the piece of film i most enjoyed. I think it was those scenes where the everyone was working together collecting moss to fill in the cracks in their strong and impressive log cabin they had built. I have always enjoyed that sense of ‘battening down the hatches’ against the winter and though for the Cree hunters this was not ‘fun’ but a case of survival, the quality of unity and shared humour and camaraderie in the film really shone through. I will be watching this film again soon to pick up on the skill sets which the Cree have embedded in their daily lives.

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Mick

I loved this film; thank you for bringing it to my attention. I shall watch it again tomorrow. So much of it was so good but i particularly liked:
– The laid back way everyone just does what they have to.
– The children using axes.
– The acceptance of the situation, good or bad, does not seem to bother them, it just is what it is.

I am happy with hunting and killing animals for food but I was a little disturbed when the baby moose came out; just seemed sad to me, but I do understand, just my soft modern upbringing showing!
Anyway, I am sure that the next time I watch it I will find different things that come to the fore.
Brilliant, and why can’t we have some free land like this in England???
Mick

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Gene Clayton

Paul,
Enjoyed watching this movie. I think my favorite scene is where Ronnie is using a crooked knife to make a snow shovel and Sam is bending wood in a frame to make a snowshoe. Have wondered many times how the Native Americans kept the peace in their lodges/homes in such large groups. This film also shows how much land is needed to have a hunting lifestyle and not kill off all the game. These Natives do not farm anything, but subsist on hunting alone. Champlain tried to convince them to take up agriculture, but what would they grow, so far north. You are correct almost every scene has tidbits of information on how to live in the wild, not just survive. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Gene Clayton

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Denis Watson

Hi Paul,
What a fascinating film. Things I noticed are the deft way they skinned and butchered the kill. This was second nature to them. The children playing ” cats cradle” just like we did in England. I love working with wood and have total respect the way he made the table with such basic tools. Their respect and love for the land is a lesson all so called ” civilised ” counties should learn, though I am sorry to say, I think its too late .
Thanks for sharing this Paul,
Denis.

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Chris Davis

Loved it Paul, really, fascinating.
Just what I needed after the excesses of the Yuletide period!
A lot of wool going on, and some fantastic looking Mukluks!
Happy new year to you.

Best.

Chris.

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Steve Colsell

Thanks Paul, I thoroughly enjoyed this .
If I was to pick one thing that stood out for me, apart from the warmth and sense of kinship within and between the families it would be the following quote:

“A man is told that he owns the land. But even if he says he does, he cannot because he eventually dies. In this way nobody can really predict anything.”

I think many people on your blog will echo those sentiments on land ownership, but unfortunately, I was able to predict something from the closing minute of the documentry. A little research on the James Bay Hydroelectric Project revealed that concerns about its threat to the Cree way of life, expressed during the closing credits, seem to have been well founded.

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Jim

Thank you for posting this movie which is a staple for Canadian wilderness canoers. Needless to say, much of this life has passed, and the winter tents are apt to be made of large polypro tarps, with a 45 gal drum modified into a heater. Planes and skidoos only – dogs are for tourists. You might be interested in a less well-known NFB film about a winter hunting expedition in Quebec on snowshoes with Montagnais called Attiuk which is listed on the NFB catalogue under http://www2.nfb.ca/boutique/XXNFBibeCCtpItmDspRte.jsp?a=b&formatid=11266&support=DVD . Unfortunately I have not found a fee online copy of the movie.

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Hils

Hi Paul
Thank you for showing this film, it was facinating.
Just some of the things that struck me…
The peaceable way everyone just got on quietly with the jobs that needed doing.
The way each family kept their own family unit and space in the cabin, but thoughtfully shared if need be. The reins on the littleun, tethered to the roof.
The skill of the hide preparation and using the axes, even the kids.
The girls hanging out together in one corner and laughing over skinning rabbits and other tasks.
Cats cradle… just like I used to.
The pleasure on the faces of the hunters when they had killed the moose and were having a quick feast before they came back to camp.
The respect for the land and animals on it.
The way their gloves had strings on, just as we used to as kids but we get laughed at now, even though it would be really useful (and in those temperatures essential) not to lose a glove.

Thank you again, it was really good, can’t wait to watch it again tomorrow.
All the best.
Hils

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carina

Thank you for posting this very interesting and important film. I liked the whole film as a “whole”, showing that everyone is important to keep the family going. That we are and need to learn to work as a unit if we are going to survive the challenges we stand before with the diminishing resources of the world.
It is easy to forget that we still lives out of the land.

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Jim

The Innu of Labrador/Quebec continue this lifestyle. See http://www.nametauinnu.ca/en/nomad/detail/32/36 for a modern version of camping with canvas and a tent. The other videos in the series are also worth watching.

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Cate

Another gem – thanks Paul.
I love their open-ness to selected ‘imports’ from ‘our’ world (steel axes, chainsaws, sugar), alongside their absolute integrity to the best of their traditional way of life. They change what can be improved, but they keep the best of their own ways – their respect for their environment, and their deep understanding of the husbandry required to live within its resources. Do we know what happened to them? Have they managed to keep their way of life to the present day?

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Tommy

Great film Paul. I see this as an important record of a way of life that has sadly gone. If fact it reminds me of Wilfred Thesiger’s writing.

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Jim Watkins

Hello Paul and Friends
This video of Cree foraging is a treasure that needs preservation. Outside Canada and Alaska few
Native Americans can pursue their ancient heritage. The social harmony and skills shown should be
a firm lesson to all outdoorsmen regardless of experience. Interestingly the Indians spend summer
harvesting berries and other w oodland foods. Its’ also very difficult in many areas to travel except
by boat or floatplane during summer because the woodlands , etc. become muskeg.
Best Regards
Jim Watkins- Pacific Northwest

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Diego

Great film Paul.I liked the whole film too, from the scene where the build the log house to the way the salute before the family left.Great.Happy new year from Southern Spain.

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Octavian

I wish you A HAPPY NEW YEAR !
Thanks a lot Paul.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tt2AYafET68#t=462
May be a surprise or not … you may see
Octavian

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Octavian,

Yes, interesting story. I saw the video when it was being shared around last year or the year before. There’s a bit of controversy about the story but it still interesting.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Mark H

Hi Paul,

Thank you for bringing this video ‘to light’. I thoroughly enjoyed it !

It conveys a very ’rounded’ and wholesome existence. The people in it almost appear unspoilt by the trappings and ideologies of modern society.

One common theme that comes through on watching many of these ‘first peoples’ films/documentaries is their approach to basic skills. For instance knife and axe ‘work’.
Every time I watch these people who are so connected to their natural environment I am awestruck by their ability to use their tools so skillfully. And yet on many occasions I see them doing things in a manner that might cause great concern around the campfires of many of the leading Bushcraft providers here in the UK.

I can remember watching a leading UK Bushcraft personality humbling the quality of a tool used by a leading Canadian outdoor and canoesman. I felt slightly awkward after having watched it…..The tool/knife had obviously performed in a satisfactory manner to its owner….

There seems to be a point where formalised teaching here in the UK takes primitive skills one step further to make them safer and more compartmentalised.

Are we using our axes in a safer manner as opposed to more native peoples using them in a more skillful manner ?

Thank you once again,

Best

Mark

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Paul Kirtley

My absolute pleasure Mark. Knowing you, I could have guessed this would be to your taste but nevertheless I’m glad you found it so enthralling.

When you teach the use of cutting tools, you have to instill good practices. Over time, however, you develop a sense, or a gut feeling for what is safe and what is not. I’m not saying this is perfect and most people who get to this stage have had some accidents but it still stands that there are things that make an experienced person uncomfortable to do and so they avoid putting themselves in that situation.

This should not, though, be mistaken for the “I’ve always done it that way” attitude where practices are perceived by the user as safe only because, by chance, they’ve never had an accident.

I don’t think skill and safety are mutually exclusive but I do think many users who have been taught safe practices need to go out and, thought much more regular and repeated use, obtain what might be termed “fluency” with the tool in question.

All the best,

Paul

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Iro

on youtube I found the videos-experiments of Les Stroud with his wife, and the one already mentioned with the Russian woman in Siberia.

Les Stroud says in his video that even 2 people cannot re-create the life of prehistoric survivors in these conditions because it was a family work or large team-work to survive, not a 2-persons work… And he admits his experiment was madness to do so, with only 2 ppl.

The video you shared here demonstrates exactly what Les Stroud says. But then there is Richard Proenneke who lived as a hermit in the same area of wild canada, with aeroplane supplies in part,wild hunting in part, and his own woodsman skills as only ‘job’.

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Bastiaan Kuijt

Hi Paul,
This is fascinating to watch.
Do you know if they achieved their goal of keeping their land?
Thanks for sharing this.
Bests, Bastiaan

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Nick

Hi Paul,

I remembered you shared this again recently so thought I’d pop back and add some thoughts as I’ve just returned from a trip to visit the Cree in Ouje Bougoumou, not far from Mistassini.

The culture they practise and are very keen to keep alive and pass along to their youth is still pretty much the same as in this film, which I was very excited to see!

The Cree from Ouje Bougoumou now have modern houses in a village – they have as much wish as any of us to access the advantages of modern stuff. The village has modern amenities, healthcare and a great museum(!). The village is ruled by their own Cree authority which seems to make sensible decisions based on the will of the Cree people it serves.

With the modern stuff comes the pressure (and perhaps the desire?) to have a “job” (as we would know it!) so many of the younger people don’t have the time to hunt and live on the land as they used to.

However, many people still maintain their hunting territories and camps and spend as much time as they can at their camps or inviting others from the 9-to-5 world to come out and enjoy their traditional lifestyle.

Spending a week in the bush with guys who were born in a wall tent in the woods was a humbling experience. Everything is hard but seems effortless. Just watching one of the hunter’s expression as he watched us splitting frozen knotty pine told me everything I needed to know about expertise!

Hopefully I might even get round to writing a few articles about it. I’ll keep you posted 😉

Nick

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Paul Kirtley

Hey Nick,

Thanks for posting this – a very interesting insight into how things are now.

Please do let us know if you write some articles about your visit.

All the best,

Paul

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danny barrett

what a great video and a good insight in how these people live.love it!

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Paul Kirtley

Glad you liked it Danny 🙂

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Dave

Fantastic film. Didn’t realize this existed even though we have been using the NFB for years.

Added this to my “Resources” page. 🙂

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Peter Lariviere

Hi Paul,

I remember this film well. The first time I saw it was probably in 1976 or 1977 and on 16mm film in class. As most students in class where ‘white’ euro canadians there where a lot of comments throughout the film. I sat there wondering what the issue was since much of how the Cree live is similar to my people the Algonquin. So watching a beaver being skinned or Moose butchered for me was no issue but the other kids found it off putting. Anyway thanks for reviving this old NFB classic. Another great film is Bill Masons Waterwalker.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Peter,

Thanks for sharing your recollections of this film. It is a classic that clearly stands the test of time. I hope some enlightened teach is still showing it to the young people of today….

I agree that Bill Mason’s films are also fantastic. He was well ahead of his time…

Warm regards,

Paul

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Peter Emerson

Hi Paul,
I liked how every one worked and helped each other. People had their place in the community, nothing seemed to hard and they survived with out all the modern conveniences and were happy!

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David Eardley

Thanks for this Paul,I enjoyed the little one with the axe and the fact that the film makers had resisted put too much voice over or any music. This added to the feeling of the woods and the authenticity.

regards, David

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Bearpaw

The Natives lived with the land so well it is hard for modern day people to even imagine. Sad my Great Grandpa died on the trail, and Grandma had to flee to KY to raise her kid’s as ” white Indians ” where we mixed with Irish decent.

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Greg Zummo

This film was so well crafted that I am unsure why we never watched it in school. The clean, simple lines of their tools and and the quiet determination of their work reminds me of seeing the tour of the King Tut
Exhibition in New York. While the Egyptian tools, jewelry, and statutes were of finer manufacture, you can feel the same timelessness and oneness with the universe. Amazing stuff, and thank you for the early Christmas gift. Please let me know if you ever do a trip with these folks.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Greg, I’m glad you so enjoyed this film. It is a timeless classic, as are many of the skills depicted.

I will let you know if we ever head that way with an organised trip.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Remco

i can watch this over and over great
thank you

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Mary

Great film and the message that came across to me was respect!
Respect the land and it will take care of you, provide animals for hunting plus respect your fellow man. All can and will get along together, working and sharing.
It is something that is being forgotten in this new world of take and not allowing replenish.
These skills are sadly being lost and its this type of film that is a reminder!
Cheers Mary

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Evan

Great video, being from Ontario myself it pointed out some key things like how they used moss for chinking and roofing also a couple other things that you dont get from watching YouTube videos set in the states. Also enjoyed the stick in the beaver nose, saves carrying a 30-60lb beaver!
Thanks for the great video.
-Evan

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Orchardbob

It was very interesting to see some of the things that the Cree hunters chose to buy (clothes, cordage, plastic sheets, tablecloths, axes and a chainsaw), and awesome to see how much they gathered and manufactured in situ with minimal equipment.
My favourite scene was building the communal shelter. My least favourite scene was some rather dodgy use of the chainsaw!

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