I enjoy listening to my dad Marius reminisce about his early life on the land around Attawapiskat. His family settled along the banks of the Attawapiskat River and they travelled regularly along the shores, tributaries and mushkeg surrounding the community. He grew up in a big family of seven brothers and one sister during a time when our people were still following a nomadic lifestyle on the land.
Life was not an easy proposition for dad’s family back then. They still relied on the land to sustain them and at an early age, dad and his brothers learned to become excellent hunters, trappers and fishermen. Attawapiskat back then was more or less a temporary settlement and everyone lived in canvas prospector tents, migwams (teepees) and other rough shelters. People settled close to the towering Catholic church and the cemetery in the middle of town and mostly along the high banks of the river.
My ancestors had very little material wealth and everything they owned could be carried off in a sled or canoe. In the fall, most families left the community to live on their trapping grounds during the winter. The Kataquapits stayed close to the trapping and fishing areas around the Attawapiskat River throughout the year. But many times, if they needed more food or an income from trapping, they had to travel far and wide to gather resources.
The eldest of the brothers, Thomas, stayed at home most of the time with his parents. Dad explained that Thomas was not physically capable of working and living on the land as well as his younger brothers. Celine and David who were the youngest in the family also remained with their parents James and Janie. Rather than deal with the difficult task of surviving full time on the land, they looked after their parents while the rest of boys headed out into the deep wilderness.
George, Leo, Alex, Gabriel and Marius (my dad) lived and worked as a group out on the land many times when they were growing up. It was convenient for them to share the work and cost of trapping and hunting far away from home. I think dad enjoyed the company of his brothers and they shared adventures together over the years.
George took the lead as elder brother and his strong personality matched his leadership skills. Leo also took charge but he was the mischievous one of the group who enjoyed the enviable position of being able to tease his older brother. Alex had the middle ground and the younger brothers enjoyed his easy manner and good humour. Gabriel and dad followed their older brothers and did their best to hide their laughter as the older boys poked fun at each other. After all, this was serious business.
I can imagine them back then based on tattered old photos I noted through our family albums. They were all slim and strong young men with short cut hair. It seems that my grandfather or Mooshoom had kept some habits from his stint in the army. The boys looked like young recruits. There was never enough money to buy decent warm clothing and that was evident in all the pictures. The boys looked slim and gangly in their clothing of thin layers of shirts, jackets and pants. Even in the winter months, dad explained that they endured the winter chill of minus 40 and 50 with light parkas and a few layers underneath. The constant activity and work kept them warm throughout the winter. They wandered the frozen mushkeg on the edge of frostbite and often my dad wonders now how they ever survived life like that.
Dad remembers how he and his brothers walked for days in the bitter cold to reach their destinations. Dog teams were actually a luxury back then and it took a great deal of organization and resources in order to maintain a team of animals to use as transportation. It was easier to keep a light load and have the ability to move about freely on the land under one’s own power.
Even in these harsh conditions and with such a difficult way of life, the five brothers and the rest of the family kept up a great sense of humour. They were all ready to laugh and tell stories or entertain themselves with some practical joking at the drop of a hat.
One of dad’s favourite stories involves Leo’s lack of respect for authority. The Catholic church was an important part of life back then and even in the wilderness by themselves, the five brothers said their prayers faithfully every day. George lead them in prayers and when the ceremony grew too long, Leo often passed gas to upset his older brother. Passing wind in the Cree culture is actually seen as very funny and not really such a taboo. However the religious missionaries and other white people were disgusted at such light-hearted fun. To flatulate during solemn prayers was a hilarious and sacrilegious joke that Leo often played. Leo would reassure his older brother it was an accident but it was always Alex who lead a round of laughter at George’s expense. It was all harmless fun and it kept them all going in the most severe and austere circumstances.
On a recent visit I noticed how dad is becoming more and more grandfatherly. He even has a long white beard and everyone is telling him he looks like Colonel Sanders of KFC fame. Still, I see that mischievous little boy in his sparkling eyes and when he tells the stories of his family 60 years ago out on the land and I feel the longing in his voice. That was another world and in a time far back along his trail.