By Xavier Kataquapit
ATTAWAPISKAT – I don’t get the chance to visit with my family often these days. We are all living busy lives and far apart. We talk on the phone but it is not the same as being able to sit with them and chat. The strange thing is, no matter how much time has slipped between us, whenever I get together with them in person, I feel like we were never really apart from one another. I speak to them in our familiar Cree language which we grew up with as children. When I hear the words, phrases and funny things we say to one another, I am reminded of our parents, the world we grew up in and the people that surrounded us.
I had a short visit with my eldest sister Jackie and her husband Clarence Shisheesh this past week. It was her birthday recently so it was good to spend time with her. I enjoy being around Clarence as he is more like a brother I grew up with in my large family. They married in 1987 when I was eleven and they always remind of me of how bad they felt that I had to suffer through chicken pox during the wedding ceremonies that summer.
Jackie is more like an aunt or a mother to me than my sister. She was a big part of my life as a boy. She looked after me and my younger brothers Joseph and Paul, as she was several years older than us. As a teenager, she was tasked with taking care of we youngsters. I can remember spending weekend afternoons with my younger brothers playing in the living room, while Jackie tuned into a Saturday afternoon music program that featured the latest music videos. She would dance around to the latest eighties pop tunes to entertain us as she did her housework for mom, who was working as a cook at the hospital. Dad was out on the land or working with my older brothers Lawrence, Mario, Anthony and Philip. Jackie was always exciting, fun, energetic and ready to have a laugh.
I can’t quite believe she is now a grandmother with ten grandchildren. She is a dedicated caregiver who still has plenty of fun with her group of babies.
She and my sister Janie were part of a new generation of people in our community that had a firm grasp of our old traditional Cree culture and an eagerness to be part of a new modern world. They were capable of working in modern jobs in office settings or health care due to their education and good English language skills as well as Cree. At the same time they were ready and willing to work at home to help our mom Susan with traditional activities like preparing wild food, gathering resources or making traditional crafts.
Jackie and Janie had the benefit of being the last generation that mixed with a special group of Elders in Attawapiskat while also participating in the modern society. They got to learn from the older traditional Elders back then who had spent more time on the land than in the community. When I look back on it now, there was a relatively short period in our community when our old traditional Elders were mixed with a new generation of young people who were becoming part of a new world. My sisters Jackie and Janie were part of a fortunate group of people in our community who lived and conversed with those Elders during the fading years of their lives. When my sisters were teenagers, I can remember them having plenty of fun and laughter with those old people. By the time I became a teenager myself, those traditional Elders were becoming weaker and it didn’t take much time before many of them were gone.
Whenever I speak to my sisters now, I feel as if my Cree language is lacking even though I understand most of everything they say. They have a greater vocabulary and knowledge of the language than I do. I can hear the language of our distant Elders in the way they speak and I enjoy laughing at the twists and turns they make with the words and phrases.
In many ways Jackie is the product of the teachings and training provided by the Elders of their time. I can hear it in her words, see it in her kindness and laugh at it in her humour. I feel happy for her growing family as she is passing on that same knowledge to her children and grandchildren.
I’ve always thought of my sister as the greatest care giver anyone could have. I remember one summer evening in our home as the sun was setting at one end of our gravel road. She was keeping an eye out for her friends as she leaned out a window ledge facing the street. I wanted to look out too, so she took me up in her arms to show me the neighbourhood which was lit up in fading shades of yellow and orange. She said she was waiting for her girlfriends and told me they would be coming up the road soon. I recall feeling protected and cared for and it felt good. Happy Birthday Neemis (my sister) Jackie.