George was a special Elder in Attawapiskat

Northern Lights from the International Space Station - Image ESA
Northern Lights from the International Space Station - Image ESA

ATTAWAPISKAT – LIVING – It seems like every time I head out on a vacation for the past few years I get tragic news. Recently, as I was leaving the country, I heard my Uncle George had passed away. This made me very sad and my mind flooded with memories of my childhood back in Attawapiskat when I was surrounded by a very large family.

George was a special Elder in Attawapiskat and he had a rich and deep knowledge of the Cree culture and history of the James Bay coast. He was born and raised in a traditional lifestyle on the James Bay coast. At an early age, he travelled and visited the length of the James Bay coast as his family followed a nomadic lifestyle of hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering led by their parents James and Janie Kataquapit. They survived through bitter cold winters, warm summers in the mushkeg wilderness, through feasts of food they had gathered themselves and during difficult famines when the land grew empty.

Amongst all the brothers in his family, George was not the eldest, as his brother Thomas held that role. However, due to Thomas’s poor health and inability to hunt and trap as freely as his brothers, George was the one who led the rest of his younger siblings on the land. My father Marius highly respected his older brother. Dad always said that it was George that led them when they hunted and trapped together in the wilderness. All the brothers looked up to George for his ability to lead them in so many ways.

As a hunter and trapper, he was knowledgeable about the land around Attawapiskat and adjacent rivers and lakes that make up the wilderness around our community. He also had a very mindful and spiritual character with a strong faith in the Catholic church. Even with all the turmoil that the church may have caused his family through the residential school system, he still had great faith as a devout Catholic. Dad often told us that it was George who led them on Sunday prayers while they spent time together on the land. Even though they may have been miles away from their home church on the land, they always found time to maintain their faith in something greater than themselves.

As young children, we learned early on to respect our Elder and uncle George. He was a strong and proud character. In many ways, he was like the rest of his brothers. He enjoyed laughing at silly things people said or did. He was quick to point out and remember a fun story about himself and his brothers or times he spent on the land with his own family.

I was never happier to see uncle George as when his younger brother David came to visit us every summer when I was a boy. David lived a separate life in Moosonee from the rest of us in Attawapiskat but he visited us every summer when our Mooshoom, our grandfather James Kataquapit was still with us. Mooshoom lived with my family for a few years in our home and during David’s annual visits, my dad Marius, their brothers Thomas, Alex, Leo and Gabriel and their sister Celine came together for a game of cards in our home. Dad always set up the game table in the center of our living room, with all the brothers seated at what seemed like to me a grand gathering of great Elders. Celine seldom joined in the games as she was content like the rest of us to mingle with and talk to everyone there. They had great fun and there was plenty of joking, laughing and teasing, especially towards their father and matriarch, who was happy and content to see family around him. For we younger children, it was a windfall as we crawled around under the table and between the chairs to ask our uncles and our grandfather for a dollar or two.

George and his wife Cecilia bore a great family of strong individuals who have become essential to the fabric of our community in the north. I worked with his two sons, George Jr, Ernie and daughter Florence at the Northern Store during a difficult period of my life when we had lost my older brother Philip. They were strong comforting forces in my young life that helped me through a dark time.

Their daughters Jacinthe (Sasine) and Lucy and their sons Mark and Christopher were always individuals we could count on in the community or in the wilderness when we met to help and to share a laugh. I always admired the strong personalities they inherited from their father and the warmth and great sense of humour and kindness they got from their mother Cecelia. I will always remember their grand daughter RoseAnne, whom they raised as their daughter and who was a childhood friend of mine.

Last year, my family was again comforted by George and his family when we lost my mother Susan. His family helped my brothers and sisters in dealing with the lose of our mother. His daughters Celine and Laurette have always been a strong presence in my life in the north. Whenever I see them, I feel more like they are older sisters that have always been there to look out for us younger cousins. They took a leading role in organizing and managing our mothers funeral and their efforts were a great relief for my brothers and sisters.

I got to see Uncle George during that funeral and his words still echo in my memory. He said life was fleeting, that we never know what may become of us but it was our family that we live for and it was our faith in each other and in a higher power that keeps us together. He honored my mother for having led a spiritual life, for being a good wife for his brother and for having raised a good family.

Now here I am on this page of words to do the same for him. Chi-Meegwetch Nookoomis (Thank you, my uncle).

Xavier Kataquapit

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Under The Northern Sky is the title of a popular Aboriginal news column written by First Nation writer, Xavier Kataquapit, who is originally from Attawapiskat Ontario on the James Bay coast. He has been writing the column since 1997 and it is is published regularly in newspapers across Canada. In addition to working as a First Nation columnist, his writing has been featured on various Canadian radio broadcast programs. Xavier writes about his experiences as a First Nation Cree person. He has provided much insight into the James Bay Cree in regards to his people’s culture and traditions. As a Cree writer, his stories tell of the people on the land in the area of Attawapiskat First Nation were he was born and raised.