Waswanipi hosts the Nishiiyuu Council of Elders cultural gathering

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As part of its ongoing mission to preserve Cree culture and traditional practices, the Nishiiyuu Council of Elders held its eighth annual cultural celebration August 20-23 in Waswanipi.

This year’s gathering was a collaboration between the Nishiiyuu Council, the Cree Nation Youth Council, the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association (CWEIA) and the Anishchaaukamikw Cultural Institute, with each organization hosting workshops and activities on separate days.

“Many studies have found that suicide rates are higher in Native communities where residents  don’t know anything about their past,” said Janie Pachano, treasurer and one of the council’s three founding members.

“In communities where there’s a strong connection between Elders and the youth, even though they might not live like they used to, they still carry the values and speak their language. It’s very important to continue transferring our knowledge about our culture, about our history.”

Irene Otter, a member of the Waswanipi Elders’ Council, emphasized the importance of practicing, teaching and sharing the stream of knowledge that has flowed through countless generations in Eeyou Istchee.

“A lot of people say we’re losing our culture, that the youth aren’t participating,” said Otter. “But then you see parents bringing their daughters and their sons, and Elders sharing their knowledge with the youth. It’s totally awesome.”

Pachano and Otter described the different programs and activities held at the Waswanipi sports complex, with some workshops in the cultural village.

“There was sewing, storytelling, we talked about snowshoe ceremonies, walking out ceremonies, there was a waspisuuan workshop – making wraps for babies. We even had one guy sign up for that,” Otter laughed.

“There were several workshops going on, there was a sabtuan, people were sewing, making baby bonnets, moss bags for babies, another workshop on beading,” noted Pachano. “People got to see the process of cleaning and smoking moose hide, all the way through, starting from a hide that still had fur on it.”

The activities were relaxing, she added. “You just went from one workshop to another and it was a very natural setting.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Cree gathering without a ton of Cree food.

“We served mostly traditional food, that’s what the Elders love to eat,” said Otter. “We had traditional tea: cedar and Labrador, and of course the Elders all asked for chinookoojam, ‘You better make sure you make it!’ they said.

“A long time ago, people didn’t have a lot of butter or jam so they would just mix it all up together at weddings and other events, and that’s how people in Waswanipi started making chinookoojam,” she explained.

“Our feast was really big,” Otter continued. “One day it was a feast with all the different kinds of traditional meat, and the last day it was a fish feast, with sturgeon, trout and walleye.”

Otter said that Eeyouch from all across the James Bay came to participate in the activities, including Grand Chief Abel Bosum and his family, Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull and several chiefs from other communities.

Otter highlighted how an 11-year-old girl used the event as an opportunity to fundraise for her young friend Phoenix, who is in the hospital battling cancer.

“We opened the door for people who want to fundraise for special occasions and she called and asked if she could come,” said Otter. “The Elders all donated money towards her cause and she was thrilled. She sold all the desserts she brought to sell! I thought it was cute.”

For Pachano’s part, the highlight of the gathering was a presentation by Charlie Bosum, the Nishiiyuu Council’s board member from Ouje-Bougoumou.

“He spoke about his past and his childhood, and he came in with all kinds of different things,” said Pachano. “Different types of snowshoes, sleds, toboggans. He brought his first pair of snowshoes from when he was a child and then he showed us his second pair and then the first pair he made when he was an adult. It was very interesting, usually people don’t have all of the materials to show exactly what they’re talking about.”

Pachano credited Stella Masty Bearskin for bringing together the entities responsible for programming and for coordinating the various presentations and workshops. She also praised the community of Waswanipi for their efforts behind the scenes and for opening their homes to visitors.

“The people in Waswanipi who were involved were constantly working,” she said. “Even if they were delegates they would jump in, keep everyone organized, keep the meetings moving smoothly. I have to thank those who opened their homes, it wasn’t just the Elders – there were many youth in attendance as well. People were very generous.”

Pachano said the weekend brought back memories of a time when people would visit in the afternoon. “Even during the workshops while people were sewing, they were telling stories and sharing things. It was really enjoyable.”

Otter was grateful for the widespread support from many Cree organizations. “We want to thank them for giving us the chance to host. We’re trying to continue the transfer of knowledge: language, culture, ceremonies. That’s what is important to the Nishiisyuu Council of Elders and that’s what they want us to showcase at each gathering we have.”

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