Matthew Bhgoodeo (Ash) was shepherd to a herd of cows, in the days when the Hudson’s Bay Company kept horses, chickens and cows. One day, Matthew was leading the cows to their feeding area west of Waskaganish. In the evening, after they had finished grazing, Matthew Bhgoodeo led the herd home. They reached the river Gamshjoogwayashid when the tide was at its highest and difficult to cross on foot. He drove the cows across the river. As the last animal was about to swim across, Matthew jumped astride its back, crossed and continued on. When he reached the outskirts of the settlement, a group of French men asked how he had managed to cross the river at high tide. He told them his story and thus earned the surname Cowboy.
In the winter of 1921, a son was born to the first Waskaganish Cowboy and a girl from Eastmain, Hannah Gilpin, at Gabbesh Shee, a portage on the Rupert River. The boy was christened Ronnie.
As a young boy Ronnie taught himself to read and write in Cree. In his thirties, when he felt confident that he could truly communicate through it, he started a correspondence with friends in Nemaska and Ontario and read scripture in church. Later, Ronnie worked for years as one of the first native teachers of written Cree.
Cowboy’s vocabulary is prodigious. Out of his mouth flow words now used and understood by only a few. He teasingly challenges his listeners if they understand the ancient words that pepper his conversation. More often than not they don’t.
Ronnie also faithfully made near daily entries in a journal for forty years. A habit he picked up from his mother. Sadly, he had to abandon his journals when his eyesight started failing him. Asked for a peek into his writings Ronnie is reluctant and seems amused that someone would even show an interest. “I never let anybody see them.” he declines. And in the event of his death? He says, stoically and matter-of-factly, “They will be burned.”
Ronnie, for a Cree Elder, is well travelled and chuckles when he remembers talking, trading stories and comparing notes with an Algonquin elder over dinner in a revolving restaurant high above Montreal. Ronnie remembers what he heard a Nemaska elder say of the coming of men from Gamshjigimeeht. And how they brought matches and gunpowder. “So they gave up using stone (Shgoodeo hkanapsque).” says Ronnie. He goes on and describes the ones that can start a flame(Shgoodeo sini). “The one completely white, the one that’s called “shoogaoapsqueh sini” doesn’t have fire. It is not alive. The rusty one has fire. It has Sewatsyoon (compassion).”
Ronnie’s lived in interesting times. On his first trip through Moosonee on his way to Lasarre. He went to a shop for cigarettes and other items for the south-bound train. Ronnie was stopped by a local who told him that the store had just been robbed. On the train to Cochrane he noticed an unattended bag on the trip, the stranger whose bag it was nowhere. The stranger continued on to Montreal where he was arrested for bank robbery.
Ronnie, when he still played, was a warrior in Cree checkers. Dzeegehdzan is an outdoor sport usually played before a rapt riverside crowd of men. It is played fast and furious and often enough that the sling sized rock pieces carve smooth cups into the squares of the community checker board. He was the champion at the James Bay checkers tournament for several years.
I dropped in unannounced one November evening at Ronnie’s home and found him lost in a hymn book, humming. He was gracious enough not to challenge me to his game of checkers. He put away his book, served tea and sat in his dining room to reminisce and answer questions about everything I asked.
That old man who used to hunt on the Broadback told me this story. I had asked him why it was called Jeebash. It’s a lake on a mountain. Near Wasogimeeht. A teepee had been found there during a famine. There had been no rabbit and partridge, everything. The people hadn’t been heard from or seen since the summer. This man Reuben went there to Jeebesh. He came upon the lake (Ash htuhtayao) and saw the teepee covered in snow. He walked up to it and started cutting the poles down all around. He lifted a pole and the teepee went down. He cut a tree (Psgoodemskheegun) down cut off its lower branches, and stood it in front of the door. After he finished he went down to the shore, walked along it and chopped another tree down. He sat on the tree and smoked. Not long after several caribou walked out on the lake near where the teepee now lay. He watched them. They sat down on the ice. He walked back to the camp and approached them from where they came, following their tracks. He killed all of them using a flintlock. It was his reward for finding them he said.
First airplane landing in Waskaganish
There were no planes here when the priest George Morrow was here. And the French manager, I forget his name. They had made a sliding hill where the priest lives now. Everybody was happy. Where the restaurant is was also a sliding area. There was also one where the church stands today. The one at the priest’s hill was the dangerous one. One night the company workers were sliding. The priest liked sliding. The older people would go sliding too. We couldn’t go there and we called it the dangerous one.
I was already in bed when people said the priest had his leg broken while sliding. There were three of them on the sled. He was sitting at the front of the sled. They hit a stump that was covered by the snow. They flipped over and the other two fell on top of him and dislocated his hip.
They took him by dog sled to Moosonee and Cochrane because there were any planes yet. But there was no hospital in Moosonee so he was taken to Cochrane. The train picked him up and took him somewhere past Toronto. His leg died. It was amputated and he was made another one.
Not that winter but the following winter he came back. The plane arrived but it didn’t land here, it landed at Oobwomeshjuksh. There was no phone here or radio and the pilot didn’t have a map. They couldn’t find Waskaganish. He used the dogs and arrived here on the new year. The other priests stay there with the plane and built a fire. And flew in the next day. They landed on the shore here. The people were amazed because it landed in the snow. That was the first the plane came. It somewhere in 1924 I believe.