The following blogpost was originally published on October 13, 2014 on another blog of mine. Save for a few typographical modifications, the post is presented here in its original form.
Only recently have I noticed how Waswanipi’s community emblem was changed from its original design. This must have happened years ago, but somehow it managed to escape my attention. I can distinctly remember the original emblem from my youth, with its torch suspended over the water. But the torch has now been replaced by the moon, which appears to be a better fit for the common, but erroneous, translation of ‘light on the water.’ For those not familiar with the design of the original emblem, here it is on a pin.
The above emblem evidently pointed to the meaning of the name, which must have naturally been understood by those who designed it. The name, spelled Wâswânipiy using a standard orthography, literally translates into ‘torch-fishing lake,’ in reference to a traditional method of luring fish with light, hence the central position of the torch in the community’s emblem. The meaning, however, has largely faded into obscurity as the practice it describes was abandoned, probably in favour of more productive harvesting methods. Already a distant memory in the minds of elders in the 1970s, the practice of fishing by torchlight was eventually forgotten by the community who instead adopted a simplified “light on the water” translation for the community’s name. The result is a new emblem where the moon figures centrally over a lake, obscuring the original meaning of the name.
The word wâswânipiy is composed of wâswân, meaning ‘torch-fishing place’ and …piy, a contracted form of nipiy used in reference to lakes (examples include mašcekopiy, ‘a pond surrounded by muskeg’ and amiskopiy, ‘a beaver pond’). Wâswân is itself a noun derived from the verb stem wâswe-, meaning ‘to fish by torchlight using a leister.’ In the not-so-distant past, this traditional fishing method was common throughout Cree country. The word is recorded as early as the late 1600s in manuscript dictionaries of the Cree language compiled by Jesuits Antoine Silvy and Bonaventure Fabvre. In the early 1700s, the Jesuit Pierre-Michel Laure again notes the word, translating it as ‘je vais au flambeau pêcher…’ But it is the Jesuit Paul LeJeune’s description from the Relations in the earlier 1600s that deserve attention. The following is a translation of LeJeune’s description, taken from page 311 of volume 6 of the Thwaites edition of the Relations.
This harpoon fishing is usually done only at night. Two Savages enter a canoe,—one at the stern, who handles the oars, and the other at the bow, who, by the light of a bark torch fastened to the prow of his boat, looks around searchingly for the prey, floating gently along the shores of this great river. When he sees an Eel, he thrusts his harpoon down, without loosening his hold of it, pierces it in the manner I have described, then throws it into his canoe. There are certain ones who will take three hundred in one night, and even more, sometimes very few. It is wonderful how many of these fish are found in this great river, in the months of September and October; and this immediately in front of the settlement of our French, some of whom, having lived several years in this country, have become as expert as the Savages in this art.
Aside from his questionable use of the word ‘Savages,’ LeJeune’s description beautifully details the performance of this nocturnal harvest, which Paul Kane captures on canvas in 1845.
While fishing with leisters is a tradition that has continued into modern times, the practice of doing so at night using torches has been lost in Waswanipi, as in most of Cree country. There are regions, however, where the practice has been remembered, and others where the practice has continued. In fact, the online Innu Dictionary continues to list vocabulary associated with the activity. In 1995, our relatives in what is now called Labrador took some students out on the land to experience our traditional culture. Included was torch-fishing with leisters. The following is a photograph of the students learning this age-old tradition.
This picture perfectly illustrates the meaning of Wâswânipiy, a lake where our people fished with leisters by torchlight. With the growing interest in our traditional culture, now might be the time to reintroduce this tradition. Either way, putting the torch back on the community’s emblem would be a good start!
A Glossary for Torch-Fishing
anihtokan. noun (inanimate); the barbed point of a leister
anihtoy. noun (animate); a leister
anihtoyâhtikw. noun (inanimate); the wooden handle of a leister
tahkamew. verb (transitive, animate); s/he spears it
wâswâkan. noun (inanimate); a torch used for night-fishing
wâswâkanaškway. noun (inanimate); a birchbark torch used for night-fishing
wâswân. noun (inanimate); place where people fish by torchlight using leisters
Wâswânipiy. place name; lake where people fish by torchlight using leisters
wâswâniwiw. verb (intransitive, inanimate); people are fishing by torchlight using leisters
wâswetotawew. verb (transitive, animate); s/he harvests it by torchlight using a leister
wâswew. verb (intransitive, animate); s/he fishes by torchlight using a leister