THUNDER BAY – I lost my mother Susan Kataquapit recently as she passed from this world on July 23 at the age of 73. My brothers and sisters, her many grandchildren and great grandchildren are also feeling the loss of our matriarch and our connection to our traditional past.
She is one of the last of a generation of Elders from Attawapiskat born and raised on the traditional Mushkego lands of the James Bay coast. She was born on the Nawashi River, 100 kilometres north of Attawapiskat. During a visit to this river 20 years ago, our grandmother Louise Paulmartin, had pointed out where and when all her children had been born on their traditional lands near the mouth of the river. She explained that it was the Paulmartin women and an extended distant family of mothers and aunts who acted as midwives in the wilderness to assist in bringing my mother Susan into this world on March 11, 1943.
She was born into a strong hardworking family of hunters and trappers. The Paulmartin men were always well known for their ability and skill in living off the land. The women were equally as hard working and they were the ones who maintained a close knit family bond that better ensured their survival in the wilderness. They were the glue that held everyone together.
Mom often told us stories of her early life in the north. When she was just a girl one of her chores involved regularly heading out in the canoe with one of her sisters to fetch fresh water and tend to the fishing nets. In the winters, she snowshoed or dog sledded far into the wilderness with her parents and her siblings to gather wood, tend to traps or snares and to collect snow for drinking water. At times the family would travel 30 kilometers north to the nearest Hudson Bay trading post at Lakitusaki or as it is known in English, Lake River.
Mom had an adventurous life with her family in the remote north. They hunted, fished and trapped in the winters and travelled south every spring to spend their summers on the shores of the Attawapiskat River. She grew up to excell in all the traditional activities that were the norm back then. She could trap and snare, tend to fishing nets, maintain a wilderness camp, gather water and keep her family warm and safe from the elements.
When mom most needed to find a life long partner, our dad, Marius Kataquapit entered the story. Dad, who was born and raised on the Attawapiskat River, was considered an adventurous boy who had left the north to work in the southern non-Native world at only 16 years of age. When he returned to court our mom, Susan, the Paulmartin clan were reluctant to support the pairing. Mom must have really fallen for this upstart young Marius, who persisted and worked hard for her affection and the support of her family. He got his wish and they married. For the first few years, they lived in Moosonee where dad found steady work. Life in the rail head town of Moosonee, where the modern met the traditional, was not easy in the 1960s. The young couple returned home to Attawapiskat in the 1970s where they felt more secure in raising their children close to their own extended families.
Dad left us often to do the heavy tasks of hunting and trapping but he always reminded us that he would never have been able to do so without knowing that his family was well taken care of by an intelligent, strong and capable mother. She kept us healthy, safe and cared for. As we grew, she taught us to be strong, to be hard working and to be kind. There were nine of us all together and we marvel now at how she was able to care for us so well. There was no running water back then so maintaining a modern household with nine children with no sinks, showers or toilets was not an easy task.
In the midst of raising her family, mom made time to take on a job as a cook for a few years at the local hospital to earn an income to help support such a large family. Even at home, in her spare time between cooking, cleaning and minding children, she sewed, stitched and beaded decorative moose hide mitts, gloves, hats and coats to sell and add further to the family income.
As our teacher, she guided us in her own quiet way and preferred to lead us by example. Even as she grew old with debilitating arthritis, she fought constantly against the disease to help her children and later her grandchildren and great grandchildren. As she worked and made our lives comfortable we learned from her that with effort anything was possible.
In the early 1980s, she suffered her first major loss when her father Xavier Paulmartin died of a sudden stroke. It was a great sadness for their family but with a growing circle of young children, it was easier to heal the pain. The only time I ever really witnessed mom falter was when she lost her 16 year old son, my brother Philip on a tragic Christmas night. Years later, she again felt this pain with the loss of her wonderful little grandson, Nicolas.
Even with all the pain she must have carried in her heart and in her body, mom was a powerful spirit in our lives. Of all the turmoil, hardship and difficulty we faced in our lives, she was always our rock, our foundation and our solid base that we could count on, no matter what. Now that she has gone from this world, I feel that she is still in my heart, in my memories and in my thoughts.
I know I will always feel guilty for not spending enough time with my mom and dad and for not doing enough for them. Yet, I realize also that she was proud and happy for myself, my brothers Lawrence, Mario, Anthony, Philip, Joseph and Paul. My sisters Janie and Jackie were more than daughters as they were also her best friends. As she taught us over so many years we must gather our selves, keep busy and positive and do our best to make the world a little better if we can.
Her spirit now roams the land where she was born and raised and in those distant shores, she has regained her strong, young and vibrant body. She is able to run again across the flat tundra of the Nawashi River where her parents and her ancestral Paulmartin clan wait for her. Her husband Marius is there too, ready to make her laugh once more and in her renewed strength, she is able to hold on to her young 16 year old son Philip again and bring to her arms, her grandson Nicolas.