I was in Attawapiskat a couple weeks ago and was watching some kids playing hockey in a backyard rink when one of them fell.
“Gah jish-stuck,” he said.
Hearing that Cree expression brought a smile to my face. It reminded me of my youth growing up in Moosonee, where I used that expression extensively.
It also reminded me of how much I miss being in the James Bay area and how disconnected I feel from my culture.
This was reinforced when I approached some local teenagers to take photos. I spoke to them in English, and I suppose after hearing how well I spoke it, one told the others in Cree that I probably don’t speak the language.
“A-pii-sheesh, pokoo,” I said, Cree for “a little bit.”
They broke out in laughter, likely surprised I understood.
My roots are strong in the region. My grandfather grew up in Attawapiskat and moved to Moosonee, where he met my grandmother, who was from Fort Albany, and they had eight children, my dad among them. My mom is from Fort Albany and was visiting a relative in Moosonee when she met my dad.
My dad was an avid bushman, trapper and hunter, and he would take me out with him to check his traps, and our entire family – including my mom and two sisters – would go out to the camp to goose hunt in the spring and moose hunt in the fall.
And while I never grew to speak it fluently, I heard the Cree language all around me, from my parents, grandparents and other relatives.
Then when I was 14, we moved to Timmins. The ground I walked on turned from muskeg and dirt roads to concrete sidewalks. It was a struggle due to school, work or finances to visit home and to go on the goose or moose hunt with my dad.
Then more than two years ago, I moved to Thunder Bay, further from my home territory and where I know few Crees. I haven’t been hunting since I’ve moved here due to school and usually go only as far as Timmins to visit family.
While the Native population in this city is high and there are programs and events that help to keep in touch with the Native culture, it’s not quite the same.
And while there are many cultural similarities between the Ojbways, Oji-Cree and Cree people, there are nuances that differentiate the people. When I was visiting an Oji-Cree community for work, I was in a home surrounded by a family. Someone asked if I spoke the language.
“Uhhh,” I hesitated. “A-pii-sheesh, pokoo.”
I guess that word didn’t exist in the Oji-Cree language, as an Elder looked up and said, “Ohhhhh, Omushkego.” Then she made a comment, and everyone laughed, pointing out the other Crees in company. It was teasing in a loving way that all Native people do, and while I laughed along and appreciated the Native humour, it illustrated to me how we’re different.
A friend of mine shares the same sentiment. She moved to North Bay eight years ago to go to university. A Cree from Taykwa Tagamou First Nation, she’s also in Ojibway territory and finds herself missing home.
“I miss the north, the smell of skidoos, the smell of my grandmas room when she is beading, and the mysterious northern lights...” she said. She’s thinking about quitting her job and moving back north.
When I told another friend here in Thunder Bay who’s from Peawanuck that I was going to Attawapiskat, she expressed envy.
“I wish I could walk in the northeast again,” she said. “There’s something about walking on your homelands and hearing your language being spoken - it feels like completeness.”
I knew what she meant as I walked around the community. I saw the ski-doos driving around and smelled the firewood stacks and smoke that permeated the reserve. And I took in the Cree chatter I heard in the gymnasium, Northern store and community hall that was followed by laughter.
Damn, I thought. I missed this.
Then I reluctantly got on the plane and came back to Thunder Bay.
I’m urbanized now, one of the so-called concrete Indians. There’s no doubt about that. In two years, I’ll have spent more than half my life living in the city. I only came upon that realization now in writing this. It scares me because I don’t see myself moving back north in the short or mid-term, mostly due to lack of work in the field I want to work in.
So I’m worried now, about whether I’ll ever be able to speak Cree fluently, about how my dad’s hunting camp will be maintained, about how I can keep in touch with my culture.
I’m going on the goose hunt in April. I look forward to that, to being on the land my ancestors lived on over the centuries, to taking part in a traditional activity with my dad, brother and uncles. That’ll help me to reconnect, for the time being at least.
Many families along the James Bay coast are headed out onto their ancestral lands during this time of year. It is our most important season as so many...