for National Geographic News
Bill Namagoose was just a boy when government-dispatched bulldozers came 30 years ago to bottle up the energetic flow of the La Grande River in the remote region of Quebec where he and his fellow Cree live.
Now, long after losing a legal bid to halt that dammingand after decades of fighting alongside environmentalists and concerned citizens to block other hydroelectric projects on native landsthe High Council of the Cree has surprised many people by a recent move: It's supporting a project to divert much of the Rupert River.
The government-owned power company that built the La Grande River project now wants to redirect much of the Rupert River's flow to a massive hydroelectric plant that is already underway. The plan would flood 400 square miles (900 square kilometers) of land on which the Cree live and hunt and would reduce the river's flow by at least 80 percent.
Despite the impactand unlike in the pastthe tribal leaders have given their stamp of approval. In a new deal dubbed the Peace of the Braves, Hydro-Quebec has agreed to share the profits from the hydroelectric plant with the Cree in exchange for the tribe's acquiescence.
Namagoose, now the executive director of the High Council of the Cree, defends the agreement against some environmentalists' claims that it is a sale to the devil. "They want us to go down fighting for the sake of environmental protection," he said. "[But] every nation should be allowed to benefit from the extraction of its natural resources. That's the concession we see in our present situation."
The alliance between Hydro-Quebec and the Cree's High Council once seemed highly improbable, especially after the Cree's bitter experience from the La Grande River project.
After the La Grande dam began operating, it flooded 6,750 square miles (15,000 square kilometers) that included vast tracts of prime land in surrounding river valleys. The Cree saw much of their fishing and hunting grounds disappear, and the flooding displaced about a third of the 9,000-strong Cree Nation, which has since grown to 14,000 members.
The effects of the damming and flooding led to high concentrations of mercury in local waters. Fish were found to be heavily contaminated with the toxic metal, forcing the Cree to suspend all fishing in the affected region.
"Fish is really spiritual food in our culture," said Namagoose. "It is the first solid food given to a baby and the last food given to an elder before they pass on."
A third of the Cree economy is still based on fishing, hunting, and trappingsubsistence activities that tribal members said were heavily damaged by the dam's construction.
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