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Interview with John Bishop, toponymist for the Cree Nation Government

A Cree-language reference map of Akaamaschii (Charlton Island) is featured in Esri Canada’s 2023 Map Calendar. It’s the first map we’ve received over two decades of submissions that documents place names in the Cree language. The map is part of a series of 28 Cree-language reference maps that cover the eastern James Bay and southeastern Hudson Bay coasts from Moose Factory to Tasiujaq (Richmond Gulf). I was curious about the story behind the map, so I had a chat with its author, John Bishop, toponymist for the Cree Nation Government. Here’s our conversation.

John, can you tell me about your role at work?

I’m a toponymist working for the Cree Nation Government. That means I’m responsible for documenting Cree-language place names on the territory. I’ve been working with community members to document place names in the Cree language for nine years.

The Cree Nation Government is a regional government that brings together ten Cree communities in northern Québec—often referred to as the James Bay Cree—as well as one community on the Ontario side of the border. They call themselves either Eeyou or Eenou. Collectively, these communities refer to themselves, their political grouping or their territory as Eeyou Istchee. The territory is about the size of a large European country, comparable to Germany.

What’s the intention of creating this series of maps with Cree-language place names?

The primary goal of these maps is to be useful to Cree land users and ensure that this information gets transmitted and is accessible to younger generations of Cree. Cree families can look at them and make use of them when they go into the bush together. It also provides young people with Cree language materials so that when they’re working with elder land users on planning, plotting, seasonal harvesting or whatever else they’re doing, so that they have access to those names and the knowledge.

The whole reason the Cree Nation Government wanted to have this program and do this kind of work is they want to ensure that these place names continue to be used, and that people in the communities have access to them. The place names are a major way in which Cree people can transmit their knowledge about the land—ecological knowledge, historical knowledge, relationships with people and family. For that reason, we need to figure out the different ways that we can disseminate these names.

Static maps are one way—maps that land users have on paper that they can take to camps or into the bush as they plan their seasonal activities. Of course there are other ways as well, like digital maps and other online means. This particular map is published as part of a series that we produced of the James and Hudson Bay coasts, up to Richmond Gulf, north of the Cree community of Whapmagoostui.

For non-Indigenous people, this mapping project reinforces the fact that this country has its origins in these Indigenous communities, and that these Indigenous communities pre-date the existence of Canada and Québec. It’s important to be aware that the place names exist and to respect that. A lot of official maps are made with French and English names, which are being increasingly used in Indigenous communities. I would suggest supporting efforts to have these Indigenous place names afforded official recognition by non-Cree governments, provincial and federal alike.

What’s the level of effort involved in creating these maps?

It’s a fairly large project. It involves work with 10 communities and over 300 family traplines, which are the units of territory that are managed by the Cree themselves. We’re approaching 20,000 place names being documented. The Akaamaschii map is one small part of that larger project. We interview knowledgeable elders and land users, and document those place names. We also have a database that everything goes into.

There are historical collections of place names done in the 1970s and 1980s so we were also able to take advantage of that. Everything was then validated and corroborated with the families.

Was there anything surprising or that stood out for you in the process of documenting these place names?

It’s a privilege that we still have the opportunity here to work closely with elders in the communities who grew up for the entirety of their lives on the land, a pre-residential school generation that benefited fully from a traditional Cree education in the bush. That generation of elders are mostly monolingual speakers, have an absolutely incredible ability to know territory—huge swaths of territory—and have an incredible geographic intelligence which they have acquired by physically moving over this land and traveling on foot or by canoe.

Akaamaschii is the largest island on the eastern side of James Bay, is located in the southern part of James Bay and is stewarded by Cree families from Waskaganish. For this map of Akaamaschii, we worked with Edwin Jolly and Bill Jolly from Waskaganish, who’ve spent their lives on this island and know every little corner, every little lake, and care deeply for these places. They can speak at length about the island and convey the richness of their knowledge and immense care for the land. I’m very privileged to work with them. It's the part of the job that I think I love the most, and I take the responsibility of accurately recording the place names and related knowledge very seriously.

Is there a next phase of your project?

Our work so far has involved a lot of heavy emphasis on research and doing the actual work, interviewing and documenting the place names. Now we're at a point where we need to start thinking more and more about what to do with the place names [and] how to make them more accessible, because it doesn't make sense to just let them sit in a geodatabase.

Want to learn more about the Akaamaschii map and see it in full size? Visit the Map Calendar Hub page for January 2023.

About the Author

Guan Yue is Esri Canada’s Manager of Community Outreach. She works with a wide variety of communities to learn about their evolving needs and help them see the benefits of integrating spatial thinking into solutions. Her journey with GIS started over 10 years ago when she came from China to pursue a master’s degree in Environmental Science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where she used GIS to map traditional knowledge on urban bird habitats. She sees spatial insights as vital to better understanding businesses, organizations and more broadly, our world, but believes their value is under-recognized across sectors. Guan loves trying different food, going on hikes, exploring art events and reading to her daughter at bedtime.

Profile Photo of Guan Yue