I often think about how much my people, the Cree of James Bay, owe our lives to the animals, birds and fish on the land. Without these creatures we would not have survived. My ancestors actually followed a nomadic lifestyle that revolved around following food sources. We moved on the land constantly to gather and hunt.
This is why First Nation people have so much respect for the moose, beaver, bear, caribou, Canada goose, ducks and all kinds of northern fish. I remember some of the Elders back home watching nature shows on TV and they would be glued to the tube following the adventures of the various animals and birds on wildlife television specials from 1980s and 1990s. People up the coast still gather and hunt as part of the traditional pursuits on the land. It is very different now though as people are busy and employed and living fixed lives in communities so the time on the land is more like a vacation and must accommodate holidays.
I was happy to hear that my friends in Mattagami First Nation held their 11th Annual Beaverfest on April 28. The special day is dedicated to Amisk (beaver in Cree) and the sharing of the traditions and culture that surrounds one of the most important animals to my people. The event has become an annual tradition that everyone looks forward to in the spring and I know that the leaders, Elders and local community members enjoyed the day. The younger people also learned a lot about this busy little animal that has meant so much in terms of our survival on the land.
In the past, my ancestors and many First Nation people harvested Amisk, and in a way that nothing was wasted. We used the fur to make clothing, mitts and moccasins to shield us from the freezing winters. The beaver was also a regular part of our diet. I recall eating a lot of beaver when I was a child and then as times changed we began to move more towards purchasing food items from the store. Still, I recall the woody taste of Amisk stew my mom made often in a huge pot on the stove-top. The meat was fatty and sustained many people over the centuries.
With the coming of the Europeans there was a huge interest in beaver fur and this meant a way for my people to make a living as life began to change so abruptly for us all. Often this was the only way the grandfathers and fathers could make any money and keep their families alive.
Thanks to First Nation Councillor and Elder Leonard Naveau of Mattagami First Nation and the Gogama Fur Council, the traditions and culture surrounding the harvesting, fur preparation and the cooking of the beaver is being kept alive so that the young people of the community and area understand the important role of this water creature.
I know that Chief Walter Naveau is a great supporter of Beaverfest and I have seen him promote so many programs in Mattagami First Nation that focus on traditional teachings and cultural pursuits. He really understands the healing power of these teachings. It is great to know that people come from all over northern Ontario to participate in Beaverfest. The event grows every year and as always it is because of the dedication of so many volunteers in the community who put their time, energy and skills to work to keep Beaverfest alive.
We as First Nation people lived such a different life a couple of centuries ago. We never really stayed in one place. We roamed the northland with the feeling of being part of it. We were not afraid, had no anxiety and we did not worry or carry stress over so many things that cause difficulty for First Nation people today.
Everything we did had a purpose and it all had to do with surviving. That life has changed now but thanks to the people of Mattagami First Nation every spring we can get a glimpse of that time with a visit to Beaverfest.