The First Snow – Under the Northern Sky

The Valentine's Day Memorial Walk brought out a small but determined crowd. These two shared time making snow angels and a hug.

The Valentine's Day Memorial Walk brought out a small but determined crowd. These two shared time making snow angels and a hug.
by Xavier Kataquapit

ATTAWAPISKAT – I spent the afternoon working around my cottage preparing for winter. I put away anything that was unprotected from the ice and snow. Then I stored anything that could freeze and sheltered anything that could be moved. I cleared a lot of brush and piled everything into a bonfire that kept me warm as I worked.

In the afternoon, rain started to fall but it was it was more like ice pellets. The thermometer was just hovering around the freezing mark and the clouds couldnít decide on whether to drop rain, sleet or snow. I kept working and as the day progressed, rain passed to sleet and sleet turned to snow. I did not really notice the cold until I stopped moving. The changing precipitation had soaked my jacket and pants. Now that I was wet I could easily feel the chilling wind pass through my layers of damp clothes and over my skin.

This wet, cold feeling was all too familiar. I had felt this same sensation many times up north on the James Bay coast. In the fall, my father Marius and my mother Susan would take us out on James Bay to enjoy a break from the community. When the weather became too cold to ride in our family freighter canoe, they would still take us all out for a walk into the woods for a campfire. Mom and dad taught us that the weather never really should stop anyone from wandering into the wilderness as long as they had the skills to survive.

I recall so many times being with family around a quickly made fire among the bushes and thick shrubs close to a forest of pine. Tall yellowed wild grass was tramped down and we quickly established sitting areas, a meal preparation area and space to serve food. The women made bannock cooked on a skewer and a goose was brought out to roast over the flames. A large steel pot of tea was heated over the fire and served with generous amounts of sugar and canned milk.

Our parents and Elders were comfortable in just being able to squat around the fire and often they placed a blanket, a jacket or a piece of cardboard on the ground to sit on. Sheltered by the bushes and the bodies of several adults, we children were happy to sit by the warmth of the fire as we listened to everyone share stories in our familiar Cree language.

There were times when the weather turned very nasty and dangerous during out outings on the land. Most of the time we were fast to make some shelter and stay warm and dry. The Elders always had an idea when to travel on the land and if it looked like there would be danger a trip would be postponed.

Dad never shied away from the cold weather or rain or sleet or snow. When I think about it now, he had lived through so much of this, it was normal for him. I can remember him smiling as he shouted out orders to us from the back of a noisy freighter canoe. He would have his cap turned back so it would not catch the wind as he squinted his eyes from the icy cold ocean spray. On cold autumn days, he stayed out for hours in cold wet weather underneath layers of warm clothes and a rain suit to get some job done and make a living to care for us.

So, being a little wet and cold doesn’t stop me from heading outside. That experience is almost a part of my DNA. I have learned from the best nomadic Cree traditional people how to survive in all kinds of situations. These days I realize how important it is for me to stop and give thanks to mom and dad for passing on their knowledge.

Out here on my land, at the lake, not far from the great James Bay I feel alive with the sleety snow bouncing off my face, while I cut brush and stoke the fire. It is almost as if I can hear the old ones voices in the blustery wind blowing through the tall pine. They seem happy with my fire.

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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.