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….