The year was 1965, and John Blueboy, a 35-year-old Cree Indian, was recovering from tuberculosis in the Moose Factory General Hospital. To fill in time during his year-long convalescence, he came up with the idea of making souvenirs, which he sold to the nurses. In so doing, he turned an ancient Cree goose-hunting lure into an elegant and graceful art form that has become a major source of income for the James Bay region Indians and brought them international recognition as artisans and sculptors. More importantly, it served to preserve the Cree heritage and bears witness to the ingenuity of John Blueboy's ancestors.
Tamarack goose decoys are delicate wood sculptures of various sizes made, not by carving, but by binding the fragrant twigs of the tamarack tree into a likeness of the Canada goose.
Moose Factory and the neighboring community of Moosonee have become the principal production centres for these bird sculptures. The communities, located at the mouth of the Moose River, are the gateway to the Arctic via the enormous inland seas of Hudson Bay and James Bay. When the Polar Bear Express, a summer excursion train, rolls to a stop at the Moosonee railway station, it has literally reached the end of the line.
Visitors to the area will discover a region with few developments, fewer people and an unyielding landscape.
Here, where nature can be so unpredictable, there is at least one constant â€“ every year, the Canada geese return to signal the end of the long winter and the beginning of the spring hunt.
For centuries, the Cree had fished, trapped and hunted, making use of ingenious ruses such as the coarse willow-twig decoys. Hunters made these lures for the spring hunt by forming a ball of twigs into a body core then covering them with an outer layer of longer twigs in the shape of a goose, with a large open "eye" in the head. When seen against the snow, the eye mimicked the white cheek patch of the Canada goose. For the fall hunt, mud and wooden decoys were the custom. But when plastic decoys that could be purchased easily and inexpensively became available, the handmade varieties fell out of favor and yet another link with the Cree past was threatened with extinction.
Enter John Blueboy with his ingenious idea of making miniature decorative birds into souvenirs. He began using the rough drab willow twigs of the hunting decoys, but quickly realized the golden aromatic tamarack twigs produced an infinitely more appealing product.
When the Polar Bear Express rolled into Moosonee in the summer of '65, tourists were intrigued to find a young Cree sitting by his tent at the side of the road binding tiny twigs into graceful geese. That same year the manager of the local Hudson's Bay store placed a large order for decoys to sell as souvenirs. Two years later at the request of the Ontario government, John demonstrated his craft at Expo 67.
Eventually, he would teach his eight sons his craft and today, three generations of John Blueboy's family, including brothers George and Ronald, their sons and daughters and two grandsons produce decorative decoys, each in a distinctive style. John makes broad-backed birds with slender necks and blunt tails. George's, by comparison, are delicate and sensuous and Ronnie tends to make stark, stylized square-chested birds.
Traditionally, hunting decoys were made only by men. So it was natural that John Blueboy first shared his idea with his male friends and relatives. Ronnie's initial amused reaction to his daughters' desire to learn the craft was quickly replaced by stern teaching when he realized how keen they were to learn.
"I wanted to ask lots of questions," said his daughter Marjorie Enosse. "But he would only say 'Be quiet and watch."' Ronnie, who won the Ontario government's Eedee Craft Design Award in 1973, has always taken great pride in his work. "If you're going to make something to sell, you better make it right because the family reputation is at stake," was one of his few verbal instructions.
Peter Kapashesit, 30, a lifelong resident of Moosonee, is typical of the many artisans working in the area today. "I asked my older brother to teach me because I thought it was a good hobby." Now 10 years later, Peter makes a few hundred decoys annually, supplementing his income as a fish and wildlife technician by selling them locally to tourists and filling orders from southern retailers.
It takes from one to three hours to shape a decoy, depending upon size, but this doesn't take into account the time it takes to collect and prepare the twigs. Peter usually gathers them in fall or on milder winter days. If the weather is below -10 degrees Celsius, the twigs are too brittle. Summer presents the problems of the mosquito-infested bush and having to strip the needles from the twigs.
Once home from collecting, Peter sorts the twigs of similar lengths into piles on his kitchen table. He scrunches tiny short twigs into a ball for the body core, securing them with heavy thread. Longer twigs are laid parallel across a heavy cord, and the ball is placed in the centre of the bed of twigs. It requires a practised hand to wrap the twigs evenly around the ball, at once securing them with the cord.
To form the tail, Peter uses another heavy cord, pulling the twigs together firmly around one end of the body core. He forms the neck in a similar manner using waxed brown twine to stitch the twigs together and hold the shape. Peter uses a hunter's needle to stitch-a heavy curved needle used for stretching beaver skins on a hoop. The holding cords are removed once the twigs are stitched together. Then, he shapes and trims the tail with a sharp knife. Three heavy tamarack twigs, whittled to a point at one end, are driven into the base of the body to form the legs.
Shaping the neck and head into graceful fines is very difficult and separates those with a sure hand and artistic eye from those who are merely good technicians. "Not everyone can shape a head," says Marjorie Enosse. "Sometimes two family members will work together, with one person doing only the neck and heads. It's hard work and your fingers get raw stripping the little buds off the twigs."
In the past 20 years, John Blueboy's techniques have been shared â€“ father to son, to brother, to sister; friend to friend â€“ until today no one can estimate how many artisans derive part or all of their income from tamarack goose decoys. Each craftsman peddles his own â€“ to the 20,000 tourists, who each summer ride the Polar Bear Express to Moosonee and to boutiques and galleries in southern cities. Without a marketing structure, it's equally difficult to determine the economic impact these decoys have made on the community. But Moosonee residents will say with a laugh, "Whoever says money doesn't grow on trees has never heard about tamaracks."