Under the Northern Sky – Learning from the Elders

Under the Northern Sky

In our Weenabaykoo Ininew Peemahteeseewin, our James Bay Cree way of life, Elders play a pivotal role in the lives of everyone in a community. In the James Bay Cree culture, our language, stories and history are all passed down in an oral tradition. We learn from the time we are children by listening to the stories our parents share with us and the teachings we hear from our Elders.

It was important for us to spend time with our Elders. People from my parents age group were the last generation of Cree people to have been born and raised on the land along the James Bay coast. This generation of people are very dear to our families. Over the past decade many of them have passed on in quick succession and it is terribly sad when we lose them. When these Elders pass, we lose so much history, so much knowledge and such valuable teachers of our language.

Recently, my Aunt Theresa Hookimaw passed away suddenly in our home community in Attawapiskat. She was 86 years of age. Her passing was especially sad as she had a significant connection to our local Catholic Church which was destroyed in a fire recently. Aunt Theresa held the position for many years as our church organist and led the community in countless services. She played mainly on Sundays, major feast days and at every wedding and funeral that happened in the community.

Although we identified her closely with the church, Teh-nes, the Cree pronunciation of her name that we all knew her as, had a very strong connection to our traditional way of life on the land. She had a great knowledge of stories and histories that she learned from her mother Louise and father Xavier Paulmartin. Ten-nes was born on the Nawashi River, north of Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast to the Paulmartin family. They were a tight knit group of siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents that lived in the wilderness on their own.

My mother Susan, Teh-nes’s younger sister, told us often how their family lived out the winters on their own at cabins the men built on the Nawashi River. There were eight siblings altogether including Theresa, Eli, John, Mary, my mother Susan, Gabriel, Josephine and Cecile. They had difficult lives surviving in the remote north and to add to that hardship, government influence also meant that they were forced to attend residential school as children. It was a trauma they endured to receive an education in a Catholic school where they lived. It terrorized them to be taken away from their parents and the lives they knew in the wilderness.

In my early years as a youth in Attawapiskat, mom and her sisters were a prominent part of my life. Teh-nes was married to Michel Hookimaw and in our family we knew him as Meeshen. They lived close to our home and we saw them often because their family had decided that they would raise their grandson Bruce Hookimaw as their son. Bruce was the same age as myself and together with my two younger brothers Joseph and Paul and all our other cousins, we roamed the neighbourhood in play.

There were many spring goose hunts when our two families came together. Teh-nes and Meeshen set up a beautiful meegwam or teepee on their front yard every spring and mom was more than happy to spend time with her sister as we all prepared smoked goose and roasted birds for two weeks or more. It was very comforting to be in that meegwam with our families. Teh-nes was a serious and knowledgeable woman but she loved to laugh and she had a quick wit that poked fun at everything.

Teh-nes and Meeshen were a great couple. Although they presented as a rather conservative pair, in reality they were all about caring about others and making people laugh.  We were always welcomed into their home and space and in quiet moments around the smouldering fire of her meegwam, we listened to her and mom recount their lives on Nawashi River. Every year they left Nawashi River to spend the summer on the shores of the Attawapiskat River. I recall their vivid tales of paddling canoes out on to the ocean of James Bay. Often they would set makeshift sails to capture the strong breath of the wind on the bay. The last time they made that trip as a group was in 1967.

Teh-nes passed away recently and Meeshen went before her. Happily many of their stories live on through their children John, George, Raymond, Irene and Pauline. I like to think that their loving energy is still around in all of their children and grandchildren.  Kee-sah-kee-eh-tee-nan Teh-nes neshta Meeshen.

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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.