“Requiem for the Last Indian”, a novel, is set largely in the frozen, inhospitable land of the Cree Indians bordering the James and Hudson Bays in northern Canada. This is an area which drew brave European explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries in search of the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Coast of Asia. Many of the explorers perished in what came to be known as ‘Voyages of Delusion’, one of the most notable among them being Henry Hudson whose crew mutinied in James Bay in the spring of 1611 and cast him adrift with his son and several officers. Their ultimate fate remains unknown.
Among the Cree and some other Indian tribes in northern Canada legends have grownnot only about Henry Hudson but also about occasional servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company, founded in 1670 as a British commercial enterprise to obtain furs, with trading rights over a vast region of Canada, then known as Rupert’s Land. One such legend surrounds a woman named Isabel Gunn who came from the Orkneys disguised as a man to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which did not allow white women among its employees until the early 19th century.
When “Requiem….” opens, we meet Charlie, a great grandson of Isabel Gunn, being interviewed by the police in the northern Quebec village of Chisasibi, bordering James Bay, in connection with several murders which followed the brutal death of Charlie’s Cree lover, Rosie. At the end of the 20th century, the grip of the Hudson’s Bay Company over the Cree has slipped altogether. In its place, a powerful Francophone province of Quebec has laid seige to the land of the Cree, its wilderness, its raging rivers, for its own ends, mostly having to do with the generation of electricity and its sale to the USA.