ATTAWAPISKAT – My great grandfather John Chookomolin made history July 15, 2016 in England when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) engraved its first Cree inscription on a headstone in a major ceremony at the Englefield Green Cemetery in Surrey. My great grandfather died 99 years ago of the Spanish flu after being transported by ship from Canada to fight in the First Wold War as part of the Canadian Forestry Corps. When I first travelled to visit his grave at St Jude’s Cemetery in Englefield Green, in 2011 his gravestone was improperly marked under the name of Jakomolin.
Sadly, his recruitment by the Canadian government along with 23 other young men from Attawapiskat in 1917 ended in tragedy. His involvement in the war resulted in much hardship for his wife Maggie Chookomolin and their young daughter Louise who had been left behind. The daughter Louise, my grandmother, had a difficult life as she ended up as an orphan when her mother died soon after John left in 1917. On top of that the family never heard from John again and had no idea what had happened to him. They were not informed of his death or the circumstances of his passing and his location until the 1990s.
Thanks to the interest and research of my cousin George Hookimaw in 1994 our family finally found out what happened to our great-grandfather and where he was buried. Later my cousin Kathy Koostachin visited the grave site, took photos and informed us of where he was buried and how his name had been wrongly recorded. Our grandmother Louise was very happy when her grand-daughter Kathy informed the family that she had visited the grave.
I am very grateful to the people of Englefield Green, including Joan Wintoure and her family and Bob Green who made my pilgrimage to see my great grandfather’s grave such a rewarding and comforting visit. In particular myself and my family give thanks to Englefield Green resident, John Scott MBE for his care, determination and efforts to correct the misspelling of my great grandfather’s name and to lobby to have a memorial inscription made in Cree syllabics. We also give our thanks to Councillor Shannon Saise-Marshall and to Roy Hemington, CWGC Records Data Manager for helping us make history by doing the necessary work to ensure the gravestone featured a memorial in Cree syllabics. This is the first time this has been done in the history of war grave inscription in England.
Although I am grieving the passing of my mom Susan just a couple of weeks ago, it makes my heart feel good to know that she had contributed to her grandfather’s memory through her assistance in writing the memorial in Cree syllabics for his gravestone. When I visited her a couple of months ago we had many hours of chatting about our family and times gone by. During these chats she helped me in making sure the Cree inscription was proper and done with her knowledge of the original language. My brother Joseph, who is very knowledgeable in the written form of our Cree language, also had a hand in making sure the syllabics were properly written and presented. I know mom felt good to realize that her grandfather was being honoured and it also made us all very proud and satisfied to have contributed to his lasting memory.
I have so many people to thank for assisting me to have a good life and to be in a position where I can assist in giving my people a voice. That Cree inscription that made history on my grandfather’s gravestone in England recently was the result of the support, will and efforts of so many people in my life.
Perhaps this is also a good time for all of us to be reminded that war is no solution to any problem and that in every instance of such conflict through the ages it always had to do with the bad intentions of the very wealthy and powerful. War is always about making money, capturing resources and defeating any will of the common people to share the wealth of this planet and live in peace. No matter what trickery is used and how the cause of war is promoted we all know in our hearts and minds that war is wrong. My great grandfather John Chookomolin lies buried in a patch of ground far away from his home and the shores of the great James Bay as a memorial to us that war is never the right answer.
His history making inscription on the gravestone in Cree says it all, ìKi-na-ka-ta-o Ta-ni-s Ne-s-ta Ni-wi-ka-ma-ka-n Na-meh-ko-si-pi-k O-ma Ma-shi-keh-wi-ni-k O-chiî, which translates to English as ìI left my daughter and my wife at Nahmehkoo Seepee (Trout River) for this war.î
That was an immense and generational sacrifice which we continue to feel.
by Xavier Kataquapit