Bear Head on a Platter – Teeth and Bones

We were invited to a feast at the Traditional Cree Fishing & Chisheinuu Chiskutamaachewin Project, also known as Murray’s Lodge, named after its director. This is where elders of the community pass down cultural knowledge and skills to members of the community. The feast was a celebration of the upcoming festive season.

Skidoos and trucks were parked alongside the road, the lodges were brightly lit and warmed by wood stoves on that cold evening. In the dining lodge, people were squeezed together on benches at tables covered with bright plastic tablecloths.

One of Andy’s students, Robie, recognized us and waved us over and indicated a space across from him. The man beside me introduced himself as Matthew. Two towering plates heaped with several sorts of meat were placed in front of us. The dark meat on my plate appeared to be propped up by an orangey-yellow object. I tapped it with my finger. It definitely a beaver’s tooth.

Matthew showed me a piece of meat he was chewing.

“Guess what this is?” he asked.

“Looks like beaver tail,” I tell him. He appeared quite impressed by my answer and was happy to converse with me for the rest of the meal.

Soon foot-long moose ribs were passed around.

“Looks like at the Flintstones,” Andy whispered to me.

How long could I hold out before confessing my inclination towards vegetarianism?

“I don’t eat much meat,” I tell Robie. “Would you like my beaver?”

“Sure!” he said, and grabbed a good chunk.

Suddenly a large grinning bear head on a platter appeared in front of me. At first I thought it was a boar head, as depicted at medieval feasts, but there wasn’t an apple in its mouth.

“You can’t take a piece,” Robie told me. “A man, like your husband, has to cut some for you.”

“It’s OK sweetie,” I tell Andy. “You have some.”

I grab my third Indian donut and another blueberry fritter. “Bannock, I think originated in Scotland,” I asked Robie, my mouth stuffed with bread.

“Oh, no,” he said. “We’ve always had bannock, from times way, way before.”

Robie questioned some elders sitting at our table. The conversation was in Cree, so he translated for us and explained that traditional bannock was made from dried fish meal and fish eggs.

The food stopped coming and someone appeared with a large roll of tinfoil, so the heaped plates of leftovers could be taken home. I grab another Indian donut.

I began to gather plates and bones, but was told to leave them.

“The bones will be taken outside,” Robie explained.

“For the dogs?”

“No, for respect” he said. “If we don’t do this, there will be no more hunt.

The bear’s head will go up in a tree.”

 

 

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Are we Elders yet?

Winnie, the head Chef

Winnie, the head Chef

Our time left in community is short. The holidays are upon us, and we’ll be heading to Montreal soon to be with family. We want to enjoy the rest of our time and experience as much as we can. After February, our new home will be Whapmagoostui, on Hudson’s Bay.  It will be a new experience.  The community shares space with the Inuit settlement of Kuujjuarapik.  

We hadn’t been to Murray’s Lodge since last winter. There were a few attempts, but either the lodge was closed for the season, or another time, an elder had passed away and the lodge was closed for the funeral.

This time, when we arrived, the lodges were brightly lit and elders along with their trainers and helpers, were at work in the sewing and woodcarving lodges. At the medicine lodge, we picked up birch tea for Andy’s arthritis and Labrador tea, simply because I like the woodsy, slightly bitter taste.

A visit to the tanning lodge left us choking from the smoke. A caribou hide and moose hide were suspended and formed into long cylinders. The bottom of the tube opened on top of a metal pail of burning embers.

After our walk-around, we headed towards the dining lodge. Seasonal decorations of a birch log and greens adorned each table top.

An opening prayer was offered and people began to line up. We had placed ourselves near the back of the room and prepared ourselves to wait until the line had shortened.

Some of the people standing in line turned around to look at us and appeared to be waiting.

“No, you go,” a young man said, pointing to the front of the line.

“It’s OK, let the elders go first,” Andy told him.

I know you don’t become an elder because you are old. In the community, an elder is someone who can pass on knowledge of Cree culture and wisdom, as well as traditional knowledge of woodcarving, snowshoe making, cooking, sewing and sinew weaving.

“No, No, you go!” the young man replied.

“Andy, they think WE are elders,” I whisper.

We rise and a man came forward and introduced himself as the coordinator. He indicated to some of the people near the front of the line to make room for us and insisted that we take a plate and begin serving ourselves.

I ladled caribou stew into a paper bowl and filled a plate with moose steak, macaroni casserole and generous servings of Indian donuts (fry bread) and bannock. I also plucked a cube of what looked like turkey breast on my plate, but found out after that it was a cube of bear fat, a Cree delicacy.

The coordinator came to us again and introduced his wife.

“How were the ribs?” he asked Andy.

“Great!” Andy said.

He explained that they had used a new recipe for the moose ribs using soy sauce. We thanked him and kitchen workers for their delicious preparation.

And then he told us that it is tradition for honoured guests to go first in line, especially their first time at the lodge.

I was very relieved. I thought we were sent to the front of the line because we were considered old. There was a new spring in my stride as we walked towards the car to head home.

Sharon’s Lasting Impressions of her Trip to Mistissini by Sharon (Guest Blogger)

A town's dog falls in love with Sharon - more photos found on link to Flickr down below

A town’s dog falls in love with Sharon – more photos found on link to Flickr down below

My daughter, Ariel, and I made the 1200+ km trip to Mistissini, Quebec to visit our friends; Andi and her husband, also Andy.

Andy had accepted a position in the Cree school board, teaching cabinetry. I was utterly thrilled for them both – what an incredible opportunity! To spend time in the Canadian north, living and learning the culture, language and traditions of the Cree people!

And, of course, yes, I would go up to visit them the first chance I had!

We left bright and early on a Saturday morning. I drove from Toronto to Quebec City, where we spent the evening exploring the sights of Old Quebec City before retiring to a small motel in the university district. The following morning, a quick tour of Montmorency Falls, then on to Mashteuiatsh near Roberval, where we met up with Andi. We stayed the night in an old hotel run by the congenial grandson of the original owner, Mr. Robertson – whose forebears were Scottish and who spoke not one word of English. We enjoyed his cooking in the morning, then packed the car and headed north.

Ariel and I were utterly enchanted by the rolling hills and sparkling lakes. We arrived, after three hours, in the modern little village of Mistissini, perched at the top of a long peninsula jutting into the southern end of Lake Mistassini.

We drove into a new development, built at the edge of town – and pulled into the driveway of a neat, contemporary house, set across the road from the lake.

Stepping out of the car to greet Andy, I knew I would like it in Mistissini. The air was crisp, redolent with the scent of spruce and pine smoke. Birds called to each other and sunlight glittered on the water.

We enjoyed a hearty meal prepared by Andy, then settled down with a steaming pot of tea, and chatted well into the night.

On Tuesday we rose early. I decided to accompany Andi on her morning walk – as we set out, we began to gather dogs, accumulating a small pack that strode along with us, veering off to investigate flashes of colour that darted in the underbrush, or tromp happily through small streams; always returning to us – our companions all the way out and back.

In the afternoon, we visited Andy’s class and met his students. They offered shy smiles when we were introduced. Some of them showed us their work – with quiet pride; well deserved – elegant carved feather boxes and complex designs of animals, flowers and landscapes executed in parquetry and inlay. Beautiful work.

Wednesday took us to Ouje-Bougoumou, a village about a half hour from Chibougamau. Andi was invited to write an article on the building maintenance program being run for adults. Ariel and I went to explore the village while Andi conducted her interview. I returned to take a few photos for her article – she wrapped up and we went to visit the cultural center/museum. It was very interesting.

On Thursday, we awoke to the sound of dogs barking. A lot of dogs.  Mistissini is truly the village of dogs. We took another walk, accompanied as usual by a canine entourage. One in particular, I took a great liking to – a small one-eyed Pomeranian – with the sweetest disposition you could imagine.

After our walk, we decided to drive out to Murray’s Lodge – a camp about 8 kms from the village, where Cree cultural activities take place – but it was closed as everything was in the process of being moved to the summer camp in Mistissini…still, it was quite interesting to walk around the site and look at the different buildings; Andi described the function of each structure – I tried to match it to the unique motif painted or embroidered on the door-cloth that covered each entrance. Some were quite clear – like the mittens and boots embroidered on the sewing lodge – others, not so much.

When I lifted one of the cloths aside, sun filtered through the canvas walls of the anteroom, illuminating wooden beams from which tools and animal hides dangled; cut logs laid in neat piles; and a floor carpeted with sweet-smelling fir and spruce boughs! I could imagine myself sitting in the lodge, maybe on a fur spread across the scented boughs, the warm golden glow of firelight dancing on canvas walls, listening to songs of long ago…

I was disappointed that we had come between events; I would have loved to have seen the crafts, listened to the stories, and tasted the much vaunted fry bread. But I enjoyed this quiet meander through the camp, and I could see Ariel did as well.

We went to see the beach after we left the lodge – it very neatly laid out and well maintained, with picnic tables, out-buildings, a swimming platform.  We were met by a tiny little dog in a bright red sweater. He was the exact colour of the sand; we figured the sweater helped keep him from melding completely with the beach. He was very happy to play with us for a while.

We returned to Mistissini in the mid-afternoon to begin cooking. After a most excellent Christmas-in-June dinner – triggered by a broken freezer and a beautiful turkey in danger of thaw; I went out to wander the town alone, and take photos of the fiery sunset. Standing alone at the edge of an inlet, my senses pushed into high gear – I was acutely aware of pine smoke, a chorus of frogs, dogs barking…and the vastness of the wilderness that surrounded me…it was…daunting, but my heart raced….

Friday morning dawned cold…this was our last day in town. We wanted to make the most of it. We drove to Chibougamau; walked around the beautiful Lake Gilman, identifying the plethora of plant life, insects and birds, and then visited the friendship centre where I purchased a beautiful handcrafted barrette (made by one of the local artisans from Mistissini). We returned home to start yet another sumptuous meal – moose stew with dumplings (Andi asked if I knew how to cook moose meat …why yes, I DO know how to cook moose meat!) and a delicious wild rice salad that Andi whipped up, made with toasted walnuts and dried blueberries.

It had been a week of pure wonder – of sharing wine, tea and quiet talks with my dear friends;  experiencing new places and new cultures; discovering plants we have never seen before and landscapes as beautiful and alien as a new world.

And it was quickly coming to an end.

I woke up early Saturday and packed the car, then I went out for a final walk. A group of dogs at my feet as I wandered the quiet streets. Everyone, it seemed, had been partying hard the night before, and the town felt oddly deserted.

I would miss this place very much – the clean crisp air; the dogs who seemed to belong to everyone and no one; the gentle voices and warm smiles of the people; the restful rhythm of a village in tune with its surroundings, responding not to the hours on the clock but to the changing of the seasons.

We had a two-day trip back to Toronto. We were reluctant to leave – not only two of my closest and dearest friends, but the village itself…

But I know we’ll be back again…the north, it calls to us….

** Sharon’s beautiful pictures of her trip to Mistissini can be found here:

Welcome to Mistissini!!

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Little Brother comes for a Visit

My brother delighted in the trilingual signs - with French as a third language

My brother delighted in the trilingual signs – with French as a third language

Goose break is over and it was time for Andy to head north. What about me? Our break coincided with my mother’s hip replacement surgery and I wanted to stay behind for as long as she needed me. She adamantly insisted she was absolutely fine. She left rehab early against her doctor’s and physiotherapist’s recommendations.

“I want to be in my own home, by the river, in the house I’ve always lived in. That’s where I feel best,” she told them. In the short time I was there, she graduated from walker to cane to walking unassisted.

It was decided:  My brother, Chris, would drive north with Andy. Chris had some time off and looked forward to the drive and seeing our new home. I would stay behind to be with my mother. The next weekend, the two men would drive back to Montreal, and then Andy and I would head back north.

Chris was busy despite Murray’s Lodge being in the process of relocating to Elder’s Point and A.D.E.L.S. being closed due to renovation.

But my brother had a great time anyways. He spent a day at Chibougamau and made business contacts in the auto service industry, test drove my Subaru, walked around town, delighted in photographing the trilingual signs (with French considered a third language here), visited Andy and his students at the shop, had dinner with a colleague to enjoy fresh fish, and ate pan-fried moose steaks.

“How do you like it?” I asked eagerly when he called from Mistissini.

“I can’t get over the garbage. Everywhere, in the little streams, on the sides of the road. Garbage, garbage and garbage!”  **

I was disappointed, I had hoped to hear that he was having a great time, if at least an interesting one.

Before he hung up, he said “I’ll be back soon, maybe in a few weeks. I absolutely love it up there!”

** Just a note:  The band council hires townspeople for cleanup. Alongside the major roads, cleanup crews are busy and huge black garbage bags line the sides of the roads, awaiting pickup. He’ll be surprized when he comes back!

My Photos were Published!

Elder Alfred Coon Come

Elder Alfred Coon Come

 

A photographer, I am not; I just happened to be there to write an article, and I was the only one with a camera (a simple little digital thing).

The article is at:

http://www.nationnews.ca/index.php?option=com_zine&view=article&id=1822:traditional-cree-fishing-and-chisheinuu-chiskutamaachewin-project&Itemid=150

 

The National News Magazine is at: http://www.nationnews.ca.

Of course, I should refrain from reading anything I’ve written that has been published, as I always think I could have done better.  No more reading!

I ate Moose, and I LIKED IT!

A different post:  This is an article I prepared after Andy’s field trip with his students.  I tagged along as photographer, and wrote a trip report. It ended up with PR people at the Montreal Office and it’s being prepared it for publication. I removed last names, and did not include pictures of the elders, as I am in the process of obtaining permissions.

Any proofreading errors? Please tell me!

Traditional Cree Fishing & Chisheinuu Chiskutamaachewin Project.

Entry to Murray's Lodge

Entry to Murray’s Lodge

On February 7, 2013, students of the cabinetmaking program offered by Sabtuan Adult Education Services took a morning off their woodworking projects to visit the Traditional Cree Fishing & Chisheinuu Chiskutamaachewin Project, otherwise known as Murray’s Lodge, with their teacher, Andy Anderson.

The Project comprises a series of teaching lodges arranged in a semi-circle on the bank of Lake Mistassini, just after the fork on Rte. 167, which leads to the town of Mistissini. It is a place to regain the Cree way of life through cultural knowledge and skills as passed down from elders of the community to their youth.

“The primary purpose of the trip,” Anderson explained, “is for my students to gain an understanding and appreciation of traditional methods of wood carving, tool making and other crafts.”

The secondary purpose:  A hearty home-cooked lunch would be served in the dining lodge.

While some lodges are solid wood structures with wood flooring, others have wood siding that reaches only to about waist level. A tent stretches from the siding to form a roof, often with skylights. Each structure has at least one wood stove, keeping the inside toasty and cheerfully warm.

Some of the creations in the carving lodge

Some of the creations in the carving lodge

The class first visited the carving lodge. Inside, Henry was shaping snowshoes. He showed how the wood needed to be steamed to render it more pliable. He indicated towards a large contraption, which generates steam for this purpose. After being shaped, the snowshoe would stay in a mold for several days.

Standing next to Henry, Alfred carved shovels. He demonstrated various sizes, which could be used from stirring stew to scooping ice out of fishing holes.

Ben pulled items out of a box to show the class: a caribou hide rattle, a toy toboggan, and trimmings for drum making. He reached for a miniature axe.

“This is for the walking out ceremony,” Ben said, “When a young child reaches around the age of two, after they start walking, they are given this. It is a very important occasion.”

Ben then held up hand-crafted skewers. “This is for cooking beaver.” He demonstrated how beaver would be roasted over a fire, and twirled for uniform cooking.

“I love beaver,” he added. “We are having it here next week, but I like it cooked inside out so the fat runs off.”

Harry Meskino further demonstrated traditional carving and shaping techniques.

“Birch is usually the wood of choice,” he said. “It is easier to bend.”

At the medicine lodge, Bella and Pat explained traditional medicine made from the bark of gray alder, birch, and tamarack and also from leaves such as labrador tea. The students had questions for various ailments for themselves and family members. Blacksmith said that this knowledge of medicine could only be passed on to members of the Cree community.

Labrador tea was offered to the visitors. It was smooth and woodsy, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Woman's Sewing Lodge

Woman’s Sewing Lodge

An embroidered hide marks the entrance to the sewing lodge. By lifting the hide, entry is gained into a ‘cold room.’ This room acts as a buffer from the frigid air, before entering the main lodge. The flooring here is remarkably soft and buoyant, as carpets are stretched over a thick layer of evergreen boughs.

At a long table, elders and young women were working on various sewing projects.

Elizabeth showed her star-shaped brilliant blue bead work, stitched on a piece of hide. She explained the significance of colours and how they were indicators of family groupings.

Ella pulled out a basket of items in various stages of completion, including an intricate beaded, embroidered bag used to carry bullets, a large pouch for transporting bedding and many baby items. She demonstrated how a baby would be wrapped up and protected in layers of blankets. In past times, moss was used as diapers. “It is not any moss,” she said, “but a brown moss. It is dried all summer and sticks are shifted out to make sure it is soft.”

At the fishing lodge, Emily was weaving a fish net, working a hand-carved wooden shuttle between the nylon threads. It would take about a month to complete.

“These nets are for normal fish,” she said and gestured towards Emma. “She is weaving a stronger net for sturgeon.”

Fresh game, fry bread, bannock and stew

Fresh game, fry bread, bannock and stew

At noon, Anderson and his students headed towards the dining lodge.

Winnie, head chef, was asked for permission to take photographs.

“Oh, yes,” she joked, her face crinkling. “Only if they are all of me!”

Winnie explained that food is prepared at the lodge and fresh game is donated by local hunters.

Today, Winnie is helped by Sophie, Lizzie, Mary Jane, Jane, and Carla.

The central table was heaped with food. First in line was a steaming pot of soup/stew made with bacon and an unspecified meat, wafting a gentle cinnamon-like scent. Laid out next were a pan of mashed potatoes and carrots, a sheet of shepherd’s pie, well-done moose steaks, fry bread, bannock plain and with raisins, and blueberry preserves.

Before lining up for lunch, Johnny led in a prayer of thanks in Cree.

After lunch, the students observed traditional hide preparation. A pale beige moose hide was stretched taut across a wooden rack. Fat and meat were shaved off, like curls of frozen butter, with a long wood-handled metal tool. When Alice was asked if she ever accidentally made holes in this painstaking process, she replied, “Yes, sometimes when I get tired.”

After an enlightening morning, students returned to the whirring and buzzing of their woodworking shop. Maybe, as they are operating power drills, planers, lathes and routers that have made working with wood less time consuming, they might stop for a moment and ponder the dedication and skills of their ancestors.