When my husband Will Nicholls told me that he had hundreds and hundreds of cousins many years ago, I found it hard to fathom just how many he meant. As it turns out, he was talking about 500 family members, a fact I only discovered recently.

A few months ago, an invite popped up on Facebook announcing a reunion for the descendants of William and Louisa Matoush, my husband’s great-grandparents.

And so, being almost in my third trimester of pregnancy with what will be their great-great-grandson, we headed to Mistissini to reconnect with a family that has grown exponentially over the generations.

While I was unable to determine when William and Louisa were born, I know they died elderly in the early 1970s. What I also know is that though they had 13 children, only four of them survived. And so it was incredible to think that in just four or five generations, there are now approximately 500 of these descendants who came from the two wizened Elders whose faces I kept seeing as they were printed out on the hundreds T-shirts that the family had specially made for this event.

Though the event was supposed to be held at “The Point,” a large, point-shaped family property that juts out into Lake Mistissini where Will’s Uncle Don Macleod lives, the morning’s events were rescheduled for the Mistissini Lodge on account of the rain.

When we finally made our way to the festivities, the clan was halfway through their fellowship prayer service, where family members were taking turns sharing prayers, scripture and memories of their beloved grandparents and great-grandparents.

Among the direct descendants of William and Louisa were Will’s great uncle, “Steady” Ed Matoush (he had 15+ kids), and his sister, Maggie, whose 80th birthday was being celebrated simultaneously at the festivity.

It was Maggie who wrapped up the hour-and-a-half-long prayer service, speaking passionately about Jesus and her parents…. Well, I am guessing that was what she was speaking about as it was in Cree but I was afraid to ask anyone to translate for fear of breaking their focus. Unlike life in the south, everyone who was in the room was deeply focused on Maggie and her words of wisdom as though entranced.

Coming from a different culture, I can honestly say that this is something that is quite remarkable as though we will give our elders the time of day down south, the respect and honour that they command in Cree culture is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed.

The rest of the day was spent with an afternoon devoted to children’s activities, as there were more than enough of them to fill a few classrooms and then an evening BBQ that culminated into musical entertainment put on by various family members and a birthday cake for the new octogenarian.

Sitting down with my mother-in-law, Dorothy Nicholls, I asked what her grandparents would have said had they been there to witness this gathering.

“Agoodah gee bah (that’s all right by me),” she said, “that is what our grandfather would have said had he been here.”

Aside from celebrating Aunt Maggie’s birthday, I asked Dorothy why this kind of celebration was important to her as I was hearing so many different perspectives on this question throughout the day.

“It was important to do because we are so large now that we don’t know each other. This is the first time we have ever brought all of us together. There were supposed to be 500 of us here but I wouldn’t say that there is that many, maybe 200-250 and so maybe half but that in itself is marvelous.

“Some of the people I see, especially the younger ones, I don’t know who they are. But this party is also so that our children can get to know who they are related to. There is a big thing here about our children knowing each other and that is important because they are family. Now the next time they see each other they can say ‘Hi, we were at the reunion together’,” said Dorothy.

Her younger brother, James Bay Cree Communications Society’s Luke Macleod, said he was very happy about the day and how great celebration had been.

Macleod, who had been one of the driving forces behind the reunion and relative round up for it, said it had been an idea that in light of a few recent deaths within the family, he had finally realized just how distant some of the family had become. That and the fact that some of his uncles and his late mother had also expressed the desire to see this event happen but it didn’t take shape in time for her to see it, having passed away back in the ’90s.

Reflecting on his grandparents and the time he had with them, Macleod said he had the good fortune of having lived with them for a period before he started school.

“When my grandfather passed away, I was away at school and so I couldn’t come home for that. This was something that really affected me. It was those thoughts that came back to me today.

“I thought that when I lost my grandfather, I realized that I was going to miss out on a lot of things that he could have taught or passed down to me. This is how I felt when I was away.

“Not too long ago I met some people who had lived with him and had been raised by him and hunted with him and they talked about all of the things that he taught them. It made me realize that even though I had missed out, there were people around who knew (some of his knowledge) and those people include my uncles – they knew the skills that he had to pass on.

“So these are the things that I think of a lot when I think of them,” said Macleod.

Macleod’s daughter Pam was also integral in planning the reunion and never seemed to stop working at set-ups and tear-downs throughout the whole event. Having just returned from several months in England on an educational exchange, she said she felt particularly motivated in planning the event as it was family that she missed the most when overseas.

Enriching the whole reunion experience for Pam was the fact that she too was discovering so many new family members.

“There are so many of us! Even when we first started organizing this, I didn’t realize that there are people that I see every day around here who would actually be here today as I am actually related to them.

“So it is nice just to be able to talk to them because you know, you recognized them but never said hi and so I think that this was just a really good opportunity to connect with new ones and that kind of thing,” said Pam.

Wally Wapachee, who came in from Oujé-Bougoumou, beamed with glee while he spoke to me, saying how he was on the Matthew and Maggie Wapachee side of the family and that unfortunately his two sons couldn’t attend the event.

“When I look at the DNA here of all of this family and everyone standing around in here, I think these genetics are really outstanding as there are a lot of good-looking people here who are laughing and there are certainly a lot of beautiful women.

“We really have a wonderful opportunity here. I keep hearing people play music and this is just wonderful as there seems to be a lot of talent in these genes, it’s really good DNA that’s being passed down,” said Wapachee.

The only thing Wapachee said he really wanted to see at the next event was a way of deciphering what generation people are and what their names are via T-shirts and name tags.

He said he hoped the next time the clan gathers it could be at William’s Lake in the Otish Mountains on the grounds that William and Louisa Matoush would have hunted on.

“A lot of us here have probably never been up there and I think it would be a wonderful opportunity for everybody to go and see all of the cranberries and make some cranberry juice. We could climb up the mountain that overlooks the area where our grandparents used to hunt, fish and live,” said Wapachee.

Elder Ed Matoush was only able to speak with me through the help of Dorothy Nicholls who acted as my translator and guide to the family tree. Rather than reflect on his memories of his parents, Matoush told me about how the clan had settled in Mistissini to begin with, clearing away the first part of the reserve for habitation, a little spot the family still lives by the water called The Point.

“It was my grandfather, my father, and Emmett Macleod, my brother-in-law, who did this. I was born in the bush but many of the children and grandchildren were born on that point. That would be Maggie Wapachee’s family, Emmett’s family and pretty much all of our family,” said Matoush.

But why there I asked as there are so many other spots that looked seemingly as good.

Matoush said his grandfather told his father, “Let’s go to shore here and let’s settle on this point.” Macleod opened up his first kind of store. Matoush said it was in a tent at first but later on that they built the store. But, it was Matoush’s grandfather who suggested that they build there.

Currently Don Macleod lives on that point.

Matoush said because they started to clear the land from the point, the government actually then asked them to start clearing upward, toward the ridge. “While we didn’t receive money for it, they gave us food,” said Matoush.

He said that later on others came to the point, like Charlie and Jacob Blacksmith. “They said to my grandfather that they wanted to clear the land like he was doing and so my grandfather wrote down their names so that they could receive food as well and that is how they started to clear the point.”

As people had been taking up a collection for Maggie’s 80th birthday, when she was presented with almost $1000 at the end of the night, the Elder began to cry and gave a speech about what she would like to do with it.

She began to talk about a dream she had about the old days and the kind of tents her father used to build. In the dream someone came up to her and told her that the tent in front of her was her father’s but that he did not have a chance to finish it, that it was up to her to finish it.

With the money she received from everyone at the party, Maggie said she wanted to use it to go visit the ancestral lands where her family used to hunt.