A Cree man called Solomon Awashish, from a well-known Mistissini family, has inspired, planned and brought off a remarkable walk that is underway in the Cree wilderness of northern Quebec, as part of a major campaign against the crippling disease diabetes.
A group of up to 50 Cree people has been walking on snowshoes, in temperatures as low as minus 30 degees C, since January 16, from one Cree village to the next, and will continue on the journey until they have walked 1,200 kilometres, and have traversed the whole country from Waswanipi in the south to Whapmagoostui in the north. This kind of journey is very much in the Cree tradition that was so memorably revealed to the outside world during evidence given by Cree hunters in their court case against the James Bay Hydro project in 1972. The hunters testified that it was not unusual for them to walk across the Ungava peninsula, an area as big as Western Europe, in pursuit of their winter hunting activities.
It is the diminution in this kind of healthy outdoor life that is one of the major causes of the epidemic of diabetes among the Crees, and other Aboriginal people across the country. So Solomon Awashish’s instinct that such a walk could galvanize his people seems to have been shrewdly chosen.
Solomon has always been a leader among his people, from the days when he trained as a pilot, to his long stint as a reporter for the CBC’s first Cree programs on radio and television, to his current work as a health officer with the Cree Board of Health and Social Services. His father Isaiah, was one of the last of the genuine Cree hunters, a remarkable man of extraordinary spiritual depth, his younger brother Willy was following in his father’s tradition when he was tragically killed in an accident at the age of 17, and his other brother Philip, now a member of the Cree-Naskapi Commission, is one of the leaders who negotiated the original 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.
I discussed with Solomon a few years ago the possibility of making a film about diabetes that would explain that it is a consequence of the entire spectrum of actions taken against Aboriginal people and their way of life by Euro-Canadian society. First, the loss of their hunting and trapping economy, leading to a loss of physical fitness; secondly, the loss of the country food to which the Cree metabolism has become accustomed over the millenia, leading to a reliance on store-bought, and fast-foods, with their inevitable consequence of increasing obesity among this former hunting people. At that time no money was available for such a film, and Solomon’s response was typical: “Then why don’t we make it ourselves.” A few years later, this extraordinary walk is his response, in action.
George Diamond, health promotion officer among the Crees, has described on the walk’s Web site the impact of diabetes among his people: People in Cree land are sick, many people are very sick. It’s not only old people but I see young people, teenagers, and many little ones. People are bedridden, many with no limbs, neither arms, legs, fingers nor toes.
Are these really Cree people, my people? As I wander, the numbers seem to multiply over and over again. What is happening I ask? I search for answers. Everyone around me is sick, why? ‘Please, please, someone tell me,’ I cry.
The sickness hangs in the air like a cloud. I see an Elder approaching me. With much sadness and tears in his eyes, he says one word – ‘Diabetes.’ ‘My grandfather, my grandfather,’ I cry, ‘what can I do?’ His voice is with strength, courage and wisdom, ‘Solomon, we must return to some of our traditional ways. We must learn to heal ourselves with the help of the Land. We must re-learn to eat our Cree traditional foods and practice our traditional activities. We must be more active, to be lean and so strong in mind, body and soul. It can be done. Solomon, it can be done.’ Diamond reported on the beginning of the walk: Our Elders and children lead the Walk away from the community ofWaswanipi. First our Elder, David Neeposh sang a song and said a prayer for the safety and best health to all our Walkers. In a semi-circle, everyone shook their hands, along with kisses and hugs, there were tears in people’s eyes as one by one our Walkers were ready to embark on their long Journey.
In each village the walkers are staying a few days to engage in health promotion activities. The walkers can be contacted by anyone at their web site http://miyupimaatisiitaau.com/new.html And once there, readers will find a link that will enable them to send much-appreciated messages of encouragement to the walkers. So far they have received many, including messages from as far away as Thailand and Holland.
At a time when the decision of the Crees to sell their heartland river, the Rupert, to Hydro-Quebec has caused dismay among their many followers across the country, this inspired walk could do much to revive their reputation as a people genuinely attached to their land, and masters of it.