The Cree, whose collective territory stretches from the Labrador coast west to the Canadian Rockies and south to the Great Lakes, are one of the few peoples who have had a long-standing relationship with wolverines. The relationship has existed long enough to become enshrined in the origin stories of some Cree groups. These stories are recorded by anthropologist Robert Brightman in his book Grateful Prey, about the Rock Cree of Manitoba, and by anthropologist Rémi Savard in his book Carcajou et le Sens du Monde (Wolverine and the Meaning of the World; available in .pdf form in French here) about the Montagnais-Naskapi of Quebec and Labrador. In these tales, Wolverine is a trickster and an occasional buffoon, but he possesses powers strong enough to shift the course of events for humans and animals alike. Like most tricksters, Wolverine is sexually voracious, socially inept, a bringer of chaos and trouble, but ultimately indispensible to the functioning of humanity in the world. In Brightman’s work, Wolverine – Omiðacis in Cree – defeats a monstrous Great Skunk who is threatening the world, marries a wolf, convinces the other animals to give up fire and, by implication, culture (placing them at a disadvantage relative to humans), and eventually annoys his wolf in-laws so much, by stealing meat from them, that they kill him, along with all of his children except for one that looks and acts like a wolf. In the Montagnais-Naskapi tales, Wolverine has affairs with human women, defeats the same monstrous Great Skunk with a combination of sorcery and strength, gets into a mountain-climbing contest with a rock, tricks a whole flock of ducks into his cook pot, and then loses his dinner when he falls asleep, leaving his anus (yes, I’m pretty sure I have that translation correct…) on guard; the anus fails to warn him of other people taking the food from the pot, and when Wolverine wakes up, he’s left with nothing but bones. Another set of stories details Wolverine’s further adventures in obtaining food. In one version, he visits Beaver and asks to be fed, at which point Beaver kills and cooks his son and gives him to Wolverine to eat. At the end of the meal they put the bones into the water and the young beaver reincarnates. In the version of the story in which the hungry Wolverine visits Caribou and asks for food, Caribou cuts off a piece of his wife’s dress (her hide?) and serves it to Wolverine. Later, when Caribou is hungry, he visits Wolverine and asks for a similar favor in return, but Wolverine is unable to live up to his obligations. Not only does he cut off the entire back of his wife’s dress, exposing her backside and embarrassing her, but her garment turns out to be inedible to Caribou, who leaves, disgruntled by Wolverine’s inability to reciprocate his social responsibility.
Wolverine in these stories serves as a powerful reminder of both the strengths and the pitfalls of individuality in the face of pressure to conform to social expectations. An individual hearing these tales could chose to be a wolf or a caribou or a beaver – well-socialized, adapted to living in groups and cooperating – or could chose to be a wolverine – a trouble-making, occasionally brilliant but more frequently destructive being incapable of living in harmony with other animals or fulfilling his social obligations.
These stories are fascinating, but the Montagnais-Naskapi tales evoke more than morals about social order among the Cree; they also reflect ecological change over the past century. Wolverines are believed to have been extirpated from eastern Canada, perhaps in conjunction with declines in caribou herds and the development of southern Ontario and Quebec. Likewise, wolverines have long been considered extirpated from Cree territory in southern Ontario, although Audrey Magoun’s surveys, conducted between 2003 and 2005, found them to be present in northwestern Ontario.
Then, sometime in January, a trapper near the coast of James Bay, in southeastern Ontario, began seeing strange tracks along his trapline. His marten began to disappear from his traps. Stories began to circulate through the town of a tough, crazy animal that no one around there had seen before. Eventually, they realized it was a wolverine. The trapper finally caught and killed it, although not before the animal had become legendary. At an educational conference for the Mushkegowuk Cree two weeks ago, writer Joseph Boyden chose to use this wolverine’s (tragic, if the events he narrates are accurate) story to illustrate the toughness of the landscape and of the Cree themselves. In the full piece, which deals with broader issues around Aboriginal rights in Canada, the wolverine’s story is found under the section entitled Act 2. I’ll excerpt it here:
Here’s a lesson from the land that is Mushkegowuk:
My friend William has been trapping marten all winter. One day in early January, he began to notice that a number of his marten traps had been destroyed and their contents eaten by some sort of powerful animal. It was strong as a bear, managing to pull traps right off the trees, traps hammered on by four inch spikes. But clearly, it wasn’t a bear. And a fisher wasn’t powerful enough to do this. Soon, when he identified the tracks, it dawned on William. A wolverine had come into his territory.
About that time, stories began to circulate about this wolverine. Another trapper had actually snared the wolverine but it somehow managed to fight its way out despite nearly severing its own head, cutting itself to the windpipe. And then, a few days later, the conductor on the Little Bear surprised this wolverine and the animal, not having seen a train before, ran down the tracks to try and escape it. But the train caught up and hit the wolverine so that it flew into the bush. He survived this, too, scampering away into the forest.
And, so, the wolverine kept destroying William’s traps, devouring the marten. For a month, William tracked it and set conabear traps for it, and for a month, the wolverine tried to heal from its wounds and kept escaping the wily William. But finally, its luck ran out. William and his son Ben finally managed to snare the animal. They found it, still alive, in a conabear trap one morning. Knowing how ferocious the animal was, they didn’t want to get near enough to club it, so Ben shot it in the neck to try and put it out of its misery. Once he did that, Ben approached the wolverine, now lying on its back, and poked it with a stick. The wolverine flew into a rage, managing to grab the stick in his paws and pulling it from Ben’s hands. That’s when William walked up, and finally ended the mighty struggle with one more bullet.
That’s a true story. And the lesson here? That’s an easy one. You got to be tough to live in Mushkegowuk. And wolverines are nicknamed demon bears for a reason.
I read this story a couple of weeks ago and I thought it was just another trapping tale, until I stumbled across a story about Joseph Boyden’s brother snowmobiling 800 miles to go to a Tragically Hip concert. Buried in the text of this story was another reference to this wolverine, giving it a location – which, as it turns out, is a place where wolverines haven’t been confirmed for many, many years.
What does it mean? One of the tricky things about science is the fact that we can never prove a negative. Are wolverines really gone from Labrador? Were they really extirpated from southern Ontario? We don’t know for sure – maybe they’ve been hanging out there all along and no one’s seen them. Or maybe this animal – hungry, injured, obviously trying to eke out a living – was the first of its kind to venture through the region since the days when Wolverine was still the great Trickster of the Cree. The wolverine in question, tough as it was, is dead now, and maybe no one will see one for another generation or two. On the other hand, maybe wolverines are coming back, making themselves more visible, ready to become part of our stories once again.
As part of that effort at visibility, here’s a video from the Scotchman Peaks wolverine project, where USFS recently captured a gulo on film in the Cabinet Mountains. And here is a video of Jasper the wolverine, of Chasing the Phantom fame, in an upcoming National Geographic television show, “America the Wild.” An episode entitled “Wolverine King” will air this Sunday, March 11th. A second clip features Jasper “rescuing” the host of the show from a contrived avalanche. Enjoy.