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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Archaeologist Jim Chism reflects on his decades recording the material history of the Cree

BY Neil Diamond Apr 21, 2023

Jim Chism is busy digging through boxes and opening files filled with documents and photographs when I meet him at the Waskaganish Cultural Institute. Jim has been digging around Cree territory since the early 1970s, just after the James Bay Project was announced. His is a familiar face for people from Chisasibi, Eastmain and Waskaganish.

Jim was born as a heat wave baked his parents’ small town of Conway Springs, Kansas, during the Great Depression. “They thought I wasn’t gonna make it,” he remarks. His father fashioned an air conditioner by hanging wet straw over an open window and blowing a fan through it. 

Jim’s father was a truck driver, drove a taxi, worked in a pool hall, a grocery store, in the prairie oil fields building wooden oil derricks, and eventually ran a tree nursery and flower shop. His mother worked as hard as his father.

Jim also worked after his lessons in a one-room schoolhouse that held two groups of students. He graduated from high school after the family moved to Anthony, Kansas.

“High school was pretty easy. I hated maths and algebra and things like that, but I liked geometry and physics. I could never remember all those formulas. I liked sciences. I had the toughest science teacher you could ever imagine. She would browbeat the students and ridicule them.” But years later he and his fellow students remembered her as their best teacher.

Jim entered university in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1956 with the intention of going into medical genetics. All through high school he read everything he could about biological sciences.

“I got it in my head that I was going to discover how to make people live forever. Do away with old age. Now I’ve decided that it would be the biggest mistake in the world, to have people living too long. We already have an overpopulation problem. Imagine what it would be if no one was dying off and people still wanted to have kids.”

Before beginning his second year of university, friends were all taking a course in anthropology. They told him it looked like it might be a lot of fun and why didn’t he come take it with them? 

“Unfortunately, it seduced me,” he laughs. “That summer I volunteered to go on a dig in Buffalo, New York. I had to get from Anthony, which is almost in Oklahoma, so I hitchhiked all the way.”

The following summer they asked Jim to come back, this time for a paying job. He bought a small 1950s red Cushman Eagle motor scooter to get him to Buffalo.

“I’d never been on a scooter in my life. The first day I had it, my dad was in the front yard with me, and I cranked it up.  I couldn’t control it and I bounced over the curb. My dad did not look very happy!”

This was before the days of America’s interstate highways when it was just backroads and narrow two-lane highways. On the three-day trip to Buffalo Jim slept by the roadside and under bridges and trees when it rained.

Later Jim rode that scooter through Arkansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas visiting archaeological sites.

In Buffalo, Jim worked at a construction site which had an early-contact Iroquoian burial ground with a lot of grave goods and artifacts rescuing them before they were destroyed by bulldozers and backhoes.

Before completing his BA in 1960, Jim enlisted in the US Army and found himself stationed in Nuremburg, West Germany. The Berlin Wall was being built; the Cuban Missile Crisis was heating up.

“We were a little concerned because our base was the old SS barracks next to what was supposed to become the ‘capital of the world’, sharing this honour with Berlin, and we knew we were zeroed in because that base had two nuclear warheads. We knew if anything did happen, we would be the first to go.”

After a few years, Jim moved to Winnipeg as a research associate at the University of Manitoba handling contracts with Parks Canada. He worked at Lower Fort Garry for three years before moving again to Ottawa for National Historic Sites. “I ran around all over Canada checking on excavations or doing reconnaissance, looking for old fur trading posts.”

He travelled the Peace River by boat to trappers’ camps, getting stuck on sandbars. There were grizzly bears and black bears around and when he’d see bear poop, he would sing loudly to scare them off.

Jim was offered a job in South Carolina to excavate the Charleston colonial settlement.

“There were parts of that deal that didn’t appeal to me. It was mainly a racial problem, a paternalistic problem. I was informed that everyone working for me would be Black. I was expected to be their patron. If they needed cigarette money, I was expected to take care of them, look after them like some kind of godfather.”

He thought it rather a strange way to work, so he was not disappointed that the funding fell through.

Then Jim came to James Bay, the other end of the environmental spectrum. The James Bay Project had only recently been announced.

“I looked around and nobody was doing anything about the archaeological question at all. I went to the National Museum and said, ‘Look, they’re getting ready to build a road up through James Bay and nobody’s even looking! Why don’t you give me a contract to follow the route from Matagami up to Fort George?’” Jim was hired.

With two others, Jim headed north with a backpack, a 30.30 rifle, inflatable boat, freeze-dried food, sleeping bag and a light tent.

“We would come wandering into construction camps with hunting knives and our rifle and they would look at us and say, ‘Check your guns at the bar, boys!’”

Jim and his companions were sometimes airlifted to sites by helicopter. At recently abandoned Nemaska, it looked like the people had just left the day before.

On Peat Island upriver from the Rupert River bridge, they found a beautiful large winter camp with everything still standing. Different kinds of tents, racks for storage.

“Everything was laid out for you like you stepped back in time,” he marvels. “Archaeologists spend half their lives scraping around trying to figure out the pattern of how people lived, what did these ancient camps look like, and dig and dig and dig. All we had to do was look and there it was just laid out. It was pretty darn clear it was done on traditional patterns.

“We started wandering around on lakes to see what we could find, and we’d record it.” Then Jim asked himself, “Why aren’t we doing this in the company of the people whose hunting territory it is?” So, they found some Cree people to work with.

They camped at Caniapiscau far inland from Fort George. They lived with Job and Mary Bearskin, David Pashagumskum and his wife Daisy, Frances and Abraham Pachano, Johnny Fireman Sr. These people would become their teachers.

The Bearskins, the Pachanos and the Pashagumskums weren’t just showing them places where archaeologists had gone to look for old camps.

“Swamps!” exclaims Jim. “Archaeologists keep forgetting there’s snow in the winter and you can camp at places you wouldn’t think of camping in the summer, right? There’d been an otter winter camp there. Not in a million years would an archaeologist think to look there!”

Jim was on the water with Johnny Fireman when the old trapper stopped the boat telling him this was his spring camp.

“We were in the middle of the lake so the plane could see him. There were no radios yet. We had a better chance of understanding how the Cree were using the land than the archaeologists coming and finding a summer camp.”

They were shown different camps in the area from five years before and even from 100 years before that. “I wouldn’t dream of going in the bush and trying to do something without someone knowledgeable of that area.”

Jim hired two young Cree, Steve Pashagumskum and Fred Georgekish, recently graduated from a Native Studies program at Trent University to be interpreters and work with the Elders.

“David Pashagumskum said he liked that arrangement because it gave him his first real chance to have his young people with him in the bush and to explain what they were doing and how they were living. It was also a way to pass something on to another generation, the generation responsible for recording it and feeding it to us so we could understand.”

Jim remembers especially Job Bearskin.

“Job’s house in Fort George was organized just like a bush camp! The door faced east. The woodpile was in front of the door just like in camp. You came in, and he had his fire closer to the door than the back of the house. His stove was sitting on a ring of stones with sand and in the back was where you would sleep, and he had stuff stored around the perimeter. It could have been a tent. You could have taken away the walls, put up a frame and canvas and it could have been a bush camp.”

Jim went on to excavate sites in Eastmain, Waskaganish, Washagami, Eastmain, Sakami Lake and the old trading post across the river from Fort George Island. In Waskaganish, he helped find Iroquoian-looking pottery at a prehistoric site by the canoe factory. There were old pipe stems near the La Sarre Air Services base and other 17th century objects lying on the open ground. He also located two English forts by the river’s shore which hadn’t been clearly identified in archives. They were also signs of skirmishes between the French and English when the two nations vied for control of North America.

Jim now has semi-retired to a small village in Denmark. The place where his distant forefathers might have come from. According to the Dictionary of Surnames, Chism is an Ulster corruption of the Scottish Chisholm, which the book traces back to the Norsemen term for “The Chief”.

What’s clear is that the “Chief” loved working with the Cree. And Jim considers himself lucky that there was a generation of people who could teach him about our culture.

Then a sad tone enters his voice. “Every time one of them passes away,” he says, “it’s another volume in the library that just got burned.”

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Neil Diamond is a filmmaker, writer, founder and owner of the Nation. He currently resides in his home community of Waskaganish.