To my Eabametoong Brothers of Bushtown…

To the Northeast of Thunder Bay, somewhere between here and the shores of Hudson Bay lies a quiet, desolate, yet majestic and scenic piece of land. It, like many of the communities and trap lines in the North sits between a bed of rivers, lakes, swamps and muskeg. Eabametoong, also known as Fort Hope First Nation is another treasure of Canada’s landscape I recently got to visit for my first time.

For many years I played hockey against the Atlookan and O’Keese boys, although rivals on the ice, we always remained good friends off of it, a respect for one another and relationship similar to that of brothers. After my meetings were done, which was my purpose for being there, my brothers from another mother took the time to gather up their gear, fuel up their boats and drive me to their traditional territory of Bushtown, hoping to see a moose along the way.

When we arrived at Bushtown it was through a narrow river that had the shape of an S and to both sides of me were tall weeds, a perfect place for moose to feed and they have on more than one occasion, according to my driver, Kurt Atlookan. He says to me, last year Leo (his brother) and him missed a huge bull there as he was crossing. He laughed as he shook his head, I could tell he was thinking how the hell did I miss that moose?! Any hunter could share a similar story of the one that got away.

Bushtown is historic in all of its elements with many of its log cabins still standing and teepee shaped smokers used for smoking moose meat and fish and if your senses are in tune with the land you could almost see the families gathered around the fire, the smell of campfire bannock as they sing songs of prayer asking for safety of their hunters and thanking the creator for the land beneath them, while appreciating the fresh air and water around them.

A pair of old skates hang from the tree and Derek Atlookan says to me those are my skates and this river is where we played hockey everyday. The Atlookans you see are very good hockey players, besides hunting and fishing, hockey is the thing they most love to do. Many battles have been won and lost against them on the ice, but from those battles and rivalries, friendships were formed, which brought me to their land that day and an excitement from all of us that I was visiting a place so sacred to them.

Kurt takes me around the cabins telling me stories of their childhood, one of how they used to jump through the fires and get in trouble by their parents, or the day his uncles and father went hunting taking all the rifles with them while moose walked into their camp and all they could do is sit and watch them play. He told me about the previous winter, in which two moose crossed the river when they all jumped on the skidoo and his brother Leo jumped in the sled usually attached to the back of it. However, the sled was not attached this time and by the time they realized he was not on it they were halfway to the moose, so their brother Leo missed out on that one. Kurt says to me he was still sitting in it ready to go when they came back, he chuckled looking up in the sky, realizing this will be a story told for many years.

Bushtown is the source of many of these stories, a place where many laughs and memories were created and shared, a place of many cups of tea, somewhere they could sit by the fire every fall season and overlook the bays surrounding them to see if the moose had come out to provide meat for them or hunt geese every spring or fish for an abundance of walleye every summer. Kurt continues to tell me many stories in his Oji-Cree dialect, a beautiful tone of humor and language unique to his people and land. His stories were many, the laughs many more, ones that are his to share with whom he chooses, grateful he chose to share them with me that day.

As I sat and watched the brothers build another log cabin with a mixture of hockey, hunting and Northern humor, in which one made fun of the other, our laughs never stopped; a relationship with each other and the land that is similar, almost identical to that of my family, jokes sometimes directed at me at my expense, in which I was reassured of why I love my people so much.

My Atlookan brothers love the land just as much as any person in the North does and in them I could see the warrior traits of their Ancestors, graceful smiles and offers of friendship, but fierce protectors of their land, which gave me the sense that the future our people and land is in good hands as they look to me provide protection using my legal knowledge and I look to them to provide protection in traditional knowledge. A good working relationship I say. An invitation to come moose hunting for a long weekend has been extended to me, one I will not pass up. Until then, take care Bushtown brothers….

A last farewell to my Uncle…

I am here in Big Trout Lake listening to the radio, Oji-Cree hymns followed by the sounds of the same dialect. A man giving the morning news every now and again, the main headline being a visit from Princess Sophia (daughter-in-law to the Queen), the Governor General and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. I think they heard that the moose-hunting season in our territories is set to begin or they just want to see the beauty of our land and the people in it. Actually, I think it has something to do with the adhesion to the treaty being signed here, one that was signed by my great grandfather, who was the Chief at the time.

My family and I are here for a different reason, a final dinner with my Uncle Bob whom many years ago walked the Northern land of all seasons. A man, whose adventures exist in our land like time capsules waiting to be opened, adventures that although grueling, lonely and hard at times, remain in the North where they belong. The sights and sounds he heard were many; the different forms of wildlife were his teachings, the rocks beneath the waters his grandfathers, as his messengers circled the skies often, overlooking the territories like guards, while carrying his prayers to the heavens above.

When I visited with him last night I could see in his eyes that he accepted what is to come as his grandchildren shook his hand, hugged him and planted kisses on his forehead. Standing before him was a generation being raised to take over his teachings, a generation empowered with Education and good parenting, a reason he couldn’t stop smiling I suppose. His body appeared frail and weak and gone is the days of hauling his kill from the most impossible of places or checking his many traps in the frigid cold, how he did so with such ease keeps me in awe.

Remaining is the strength of his spirit existent in his smile, as he anxiously awaits his return to the heavens, leaving behind a life blessed with memories and teachings, stories that will be told by his descendants, stories told through tears, songs and words, most often by the campfires alongside our rivers, beneath the dancing lights and stars. I don’t see today as our last dinner, but rather, a farewell or see you again, in which I will wish him well on his journey.

We were leaving Thunder Bay yesterday and as we got above the clouds we could see the sun on the horizon. It lit up the cloud ceiling which at that point became a cloud floor and it appeared as if a trail was leading to the sun. My 8-year old says hey dad, is this heaven? I asked what made him think that and he said because I think this is what it looks like. I told him, I think so son, I think you are right, so yes, I think this is heaven.

The only thing missing I told him was the abundance of wildlife sitting on the high banks of our rivers, a heaven similar to that of our traditional lands. Heaven my boy will look something similar to the trap line you will learn to care for so that your children and grandchildren can use it as you did. He said oh, too young to understand, but will learn to as he ages.

So I suppose it is time to wrap this up and prepare for our last dinner. The sun is rising beautifully in Big Trout Lake today. I think it will be a good day as I say farewell to a great hunter, a better mentor and an amazing grandfather. A beautiful man, who is a father, an uncle, a teacher, provider and protector, a man who will be missed but not forgotten, whose teachings will be carried forever from generation to generation.

A mother of the land soon gone….

I got a message from my Chief yesterday saying that her mom is really sick and that I should go see her because she does not have long. She told me that she asked about me and talked about me a lot. In my pre-teen years my grandparents had left my home community as they were getting old so they had moved to the City to be better cared for. Therefore, I had nowhere to stay but wanted to work and she took me in for the summer.

Those memories are strong because she cared for me when she didn’t have to and gave me a place to stay, cooked me breakfast, lunch and dinner and even looked for us at night. We always wanted to stay out late at night as most kids that age do, I was just entering high school so one can imagine what we were getting into. As it got late we could see a flash light jumping around the community, lighting up the best hiding spots it seemed, I think it may have lit up the skies too.

There was no hiding from that light or she, when it was time to come home it was time. She cared so much for us that she didn’t want us to be out late and she wanted to ensure we got a good night’s rest for the next day of work. It was a time that racism, prejudice and other forms of discrimination were introduced into my life, which was followed by confusion and many questions unanswered at the time, so her gentle presence was a necessary one.

She represented, as she does today, a symbol of love and compassion, a role model in which the people of our community strive to be. She wore an effortless smile and carried with her a big heart, a natural parent that never stopped being one and I knew then as I do now that if the world was full of people like her, it would be a better place. She is a great grand-mother, grandmother and mother to many, but that summer she was a mother to me and a positive memory soothing to my mind, heart and spirit.

I will go see her today and tell her that my heart is stronger because of her and that the community she will soon be leaving is also stronger and carries with it traces of her love and compassion. I will ask her to say hi to my grandparents, my brother and the many Ancestors who left as she soon will. Finally, I will promise to her that I will fight for and protect the land she could never leave. Her home was her community and her family were the people in it. A mother to me she was, a role model she will forever be.