Defining and Preserving the Well-Being of the Cree: waamistikushiiu v. miyupimaatisiiun

Defining and Preserving the Well-Being of the Cree: waamistikushiiu v. miyupimaatisiiun

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Defining and Preserving the Well-Being of the Cree: waamistikushiiu v. miyupimaatisiiun

For the Cree, health is more than individual physiology. Health is definied by miyupimaatisiiun, a complex word that refers to an individual's enriching connection to his community and his natural environment. Miyupimaatisiiun can be interpreted as "being-alive well," a condition that includes the safety and security of family, friends and tribal members, as well as for the resources the Cree depend on to survive. Thus, the health of the Cree becomes a political entity, defined through challenging “environmental, social, political” as well as physiological threats to traditional life. Politcially, the term signifies “the ability to negotiate the obstacles that threaten the survival of the Cree” (57).

To understand the significance of Cree health, there is much to be said for cultural definition through opposition. The key element of waamistikushiiu, or "whiteman health," that distinctly separates it from the miyupimaatisiiun is its numbing divorce from the earth. Removed from a lifestyle of hunting and dwelling in the bush, waamistikushiiu life is by and large unattached to the intimate land-life story of the Cree people. Without such a story, “whiteman health” is alien and blind in Adelson’s ‘Being Alive Well’. Perhaps most significantly, waamistikushiiu health stubbornly denies the existence of other definitions of human health. Defined by individual physiology, waamistikushiiu health is universally evaluated against simple biomedical standards and “determined in proportion to a relative absence of disease”(5). Cree miyupimaatisiiun, however, is not a “biased and incomplete” standard of fitness, but a complex process comprising social relations, land and cultural identity (4).

In Whapmagoostui, “accidental and suicidal deaths, drug and alcohol related illnesses, infectious diseases, and chronic diseases such as diabetes mellitus and cancer are all found- sometimes in disproportionate number-in native communities across Canada” (14). By waamistikushiiu standards, such health conditions are deplorable; yet for the Cree, these ailments readily signify a deeper, perpetual ache of land and culture. For centuries, influences of waamistikushiiu culture have altered Cree living. Devastating fur trades, land usurpation, mercury poisoning in fish and waterways, and flooding damage are only a few of the casualties to Cree life in the whiteman’s pursuit of happiness. As “the only way to acquire [miyupimaatisiiun] strength is to eat Cree food, and the only way to get Cree food is by hunting,” the Cree are bound to defy whiteman devastation of their land and assert rights to survival on their own terms (94).

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Although pushed into village life, the nine communities of the Cree continue to seek and “partak[e] in all that bush life offers” in goose hunts and annual retreats to shore sites (108). Since the 1975 James I damming project, the Cree people have suffered the loss of precious hunting grounds and community gathering lake shore sites. Rallying together against James Bay II, the Cree people politically affirm their cultural right to healthy, thriving land and water ways. Thus, contending with the Quebecois government grimly serves to reinforce Cree identity.

The political value in Cree health is in providing “a means by which adult Cree can articulate their distinct status in opposition to the persistent encroachment of whiteman upon themselves and their land” (110). Through opposition, the Cree learn how to sustain their common idea of “being alive well”. Local schools emphasize certain aspects of Cree identity, though only in “artificial” settings (107). As the essence of Cree health is internalized through oral histories recounted by elders, in sharing stories of legend and land, families show their young the potent link between the past and the future. Yet to enliven and preserve a common understanding of ‘being alive well’, traditional educational opportunities must be open for all children, both white and Cree. Educational outreach programs to public schools and youth groups will spread knowledge and respect for the Cree way of life. All children must be taught, for all children, working together, will determine the future of Cree miyupimaatisiiun.
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