Under The Northern Sky – ‘Pee-Mah-Eh-Kan’ – The Thing That Turns

Under the Northern Sky

ATTAWAPISKAT – I spent the past few days inside my garage getting my old motorcycles ready for another season of riding. I enjoy working on these classic motorcycles including a 1998 BMW K1200RS  a 1992 Yamaha FJ1200 and an even older 1978 Honda GL1000 Goldwing. I’ve had these bikes for years and as they age, they need more and more servicing to keep them running in good shape.

For some reason I am very much at home at work in my 1950s era garage which is filled with all sorts of tools and bits and parts I’ve collected over the years. There is something very comforting and nostalgic about the old wooden building as it reminds me of my dad Marius’s garage years ago in my home community of Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast.

Dad’s garage was a classic mechanics environment and it always seemed to be untidy and disorganized. It was forever stuffed with engine parts, scrap metal, rope, chains, plastic parts, tools, gears, bottles of oils and fluids and old boxes, containers and buckets filled with nails, screws, bolts and fasteners of every kind. The thing is my dad knew where everything was located in this confused environment. The place only got organized and tidied up when myself or my brothers would take the time to put everything in an accessible way. This made dad really happy and it gave us a taste for appreciating that old garage and all the precious things it housed.

There were no small engine mechanics around so people like my dad had to learn to service motors and machinery on their own. As kids, my siblings and I grew up learning about ‘Pee-mah-eh-kan’ – the thing that turns, our Cree word for wrench or screw driver. There was also the word ‘Mah-koosh-chee-gan’ – the thing that clamps, the Cree word for pliers.

Dad also collected old farm tractors as well as implements and attachments to make use of those old machines. At one point he bought an aging saw mill and a planing machine that could be powered with the ‘power take-off’ (PTO) of a tractor. He rebuilt, serviced and maintained all these things on his own.

When his tractors broke down with a serious problem he sought the expertise and skill of his nephew Robert Kataquapit who was a self taught mechanic and capable of disassembling, fixing and rejuvenating old trucks and cars with nothing but a basic tool kit and a vehicle ramp made of logs. As kids, we often curiously went by his outdoor shop to watch him remove whole engines or transmissions.

One summer dad hired Robert to work on his old John Deere farm tractor to repair the transmission. Myself and my younger siblings watched from the sidelines as dad, Robert, my older brothers and several Elders dissected the old green tractor. It was like watching a play set on the stage of characters and machinery.  The group used blocks, logs, chains, ropes and brute force to move the heavy metal pieces around. All dad had in terms of documentation was a couple of pages someone had given him with diagrams of the inner workings of the metal parts. Tools lay scattered around everywhere and no one kept track of the nuts, bolts and screws that came off. Yet, somehow magically these fasteners and bits came back together as the show moved on. The cast of characters all provided their tidbits of knowledge so that the old tractor slowly rose from the dead and was resurrected. Much of the progress was through trial and error and featured much excitement, verbal collaboration and a lot of laughter.

The play was often stopped as new challenges arose and frustration ebbed and flowed as either something went wrong, things got lost or a part just didn’t fit. Cree mechanics share one thing in common with all mechanics in that they vent with a lot of creative Indigenous swearing in our Cree language.

These past few nights in my rustic garage  I felt like I was reliving those days back in Attawapiskat that starred Robert, my dad, some Elders and my siblings in the quest of bringing some machine back to life. The smell of the oil, the grease on my palms and the feel of the cold metal tools in my hands took me back to those early days.  In my case in the here and now  I had plenty of help with a shop manual, internet tutorials on Youtube and endless mechanic forums all concerning my Honda. Still, I owe any skill I have to all those Cree mechanics, my father Marius and my cousin Robert who taught me that you have to be willing to learn from your mistakes, ready to take a risk and always have an enthusiasm and the self confidence to want to maintain all your own machines yourself.


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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.