On November 15, Oujé-Bougoumou inaugurated the beautiful new building of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (CCI). The longhouse and wigwam inspired building will be housing a museum showcasing many artefacts from Cree history as well as a research and documentation centre, classrooms and a demonstration room where Cree traditions and lore will be taught.

Twenty years in the making, the institute could not have happened without the help of the governments of Canada and Quebec, the many generous private donors, and the hard work of CCI president Dianne Ottereyes Reid as well as the Aanischaaukamikw Foundation. It was only in March 2009 that sufficient funds were available to begin construction with the groundbreaking happening eight months later.

Attending the CCI’s grand opening from the Quebec government were Christine St-Pierre, the Minister of Culture, Communications and the Status of Women, and Geoffrey Kelley, Minister responsible for Native Affairs.

Also in attendance were Grand Chief Mathew Coon Come, Oujé-Bougoumou Chief Reggie Neeposh, Aanischaaukamikw Foundation president Abel Bosum, and NDP MP Romeo Saganash.

Coon Come stressed that the CCI’s new building is a reflection of the self-determination of the Crees to take control of their cultural heritage. “We are embarking on a new phase in our efforts to preserve our language and our traditional ways. Aanischaaukamikw will preserve, study and promote Cree culture and language,” he said.

During her speech, St-Pierre presented the institute with $275,000 for a permanent exhibit to be opened in June 2012. She stated, “It’s a dream come true for the people here and Dianne [Reid], and also it’s an investment which is very important for the government of Quebec and the strategy of the Plan Nord. The Plan Nord is an economic development [plan] but it’s also the development of the culture and the traditions and we want to make sure that they are protected.”

Kelley said, “It’s a very happy day because we have to celebrate things cultural and this will be a reference point for the Cree culture and language. I’m very excited that it will have a research component and an educational component. But the thing that’s exciting as well is that for too long we marginalized First Nations cultures in Canada but today it’s a celebration demonstrating that the Cree culture is [vast], has a long past, and will have a rich future.”

The building was designed by renowned Aboriginal architect Douglas Cardinal who, with the guidance of the Elders, worked on the Cree-inspired design of the building. Cardinal is known for his ability to design buildings that blend in with their environment. In the early 1990s, he drew up the master plan for the village of Oujé-Bougoumou and designed its main public buildings, but this new addition to the village is the most impressive one yet.

The building’s exterior is inspired by the wigwam as well as the longhouse with large windows to let the natural light in. With its large roof and high wooden arches, the interior is quite awe-inspiring and resembles the rib cage of a giant wooden whale. Modern and sleek, it combines contemporary technology with the essence of the traditional past.

The inaugural exhibition room layout, designed by the Lupien-Matteau architect firm, is breathtaking with every part of the exhibit flowing with the next, showcasing the many exquisite artefacts from Cree history. Projected on screens around the exhibit are videos of Elders recounting tales from long ago and thus preserving them for future generations.

The housing of Cree artefacts on Cree territory marks a milestone for the hard work of the Elders who just want to pass their knowledge on to the next generation. Sandra Weizman, the curator of the inaugural exhibit, said, “Many of the artefacts are on loan from other museums and private collections from the world over with the best and the oldest from Europe.” The gathering of the artefacts was a long arduous process and being able to bring them back to Cree territory is an accomplishment in itself.

Aanischaaukamikw will certainly become a central hub for Cree culture and will inspire artists who can contribute to the development of contemporary Cree art.

Located between Chibougamau and Chapais, Oujé-Bougoumou is the perfect place for the CCI, making it accessible to the other eight Cree communities as well as turning it into a major tourist attraction for the region.