Members of the Cree community of Wemindji celebrated 50 years of existence and they did so in style. Bradley A. J. Georgekish, one of the main organizers, was impressed how the community came together to support the festival. It was an event that attracted over a 1000 people, some of whom came from as far as Massachusetts and Ohio after seeing the ads on the internet.
Georgekish, who was adopted into the Weminji community, got involved in the festival because he wanted to give something back to the community. “Wemindji has given me a good life,” he said.

The Nation: Did the celebrations for the 50th anniversary meet your expectations?

Bradley A.J. Georgekish: They were awesome. We did a lot of small events before the festival, such as fundraisers and community events to help raise money and the people of Wemindji were very generous with their time and their money. But for the festival itself the community really stepped up. We had a lot of volunteer cooks helping with the traditional meals and people from the different band departments helping out as well.

What we did was really plan the 15 days. Then we went to different departments and organizations and asked them to host those days. For example, the Wemindji Fire Dept. hosted various events which included skeet shooting. So while they were hosting, we were able to focus on the upcoming days. We will continue to organize more events throughout the year which will culminate with a gala at the end of December.

TN: Tell us about the musical guests who performed at the festival. I see there was a lot of Native talent.

BG: We had Crystal Shawanda and Shane Yellowbird as well as Blue Rodeo and John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band. Blue Rodeo put on quite a show and played lots of their classic hits. Though some community members admitted that they had never listened to Blue Rodeo before, they became fans after seeing the band perform.

One performer who stands out was Crystal Shawanda. When she did the meet-and-greet with the people, she greeted every man, woman and child with a hug. This really impressed me because you hear about celebrities being stand-offish because of all the pressure they’re under so it was nice to see that. We had some of the boys from John Cafferty and Blue Rodeo walking around and mingling with everyone. They were really humble guys meeting the people and inquiring about the town’s history.

Other notable Native talent included Thunder Hill, CerAmony, Joseph George, John Boudrias and Melissa Pash. She is currently working on her new album with producer Stevie Sales who has produced with the likes of the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart and was the musical director for American Idol. So a few Cree artists got some exposure and I hope some deals will be made.

TN: You mentioned the history of Wemindji, could share some that?

BG: In the early 1950s, Indian Affairs wanted to start building structures, like a clinic and a school, but found that the ground at the original settlement was too soft because there was too much clay in the soil. So Indian Affairs decided that they were going to split the community and send half to Chissasibi and the other half to Eastmain.

Our Chief at the time, John Georgekish, stood up to Indian Affairs and told them absolutely not. He said we wanted our own community. After some negotiations, Indians Affairs agreed and the community was resettled here on Maquatua River, which is a good hunting spot. One of our Elders, Charlie Thomatuk, who was 16 at the time, was with John Georgekish and he remembers John saying that this would be a good place for people to settle. The people from Indian Affairs liked the spot and the move began in 1959.

We’re doing a 50th anniversary book with Farrington Media which has 200 pages of colour photos, stories and history from the 1930s until now. We’re a well-balanced community and thanks to good leadership we don’t have very many social issues.

TN: During the festival there was a celebration for the opening of a new clinic, can you tell us more about that?

BG: It’s a two-story complex that houses dental facilities and the community health representatives are all there. It also has an emergency and ambulance bay as well as our social services offices. It’s different from the old clinic, which was basically a cramped house. Now the services are of a much better quality – there is more equipment and more space to do all that is needed. With a space this size, the Cree Health Board was able to hire more nurses and doctors.

People don’t have to leave the community as much anymore because we have the facilities to handle their problems, be they physical or social. People from the community were also involved in building the clinic.TN: The volunteers really got involved in the festival, didn’t they?

BG: The youth did most of the grunt work be it moving tables or chairs they were involved big time. We also had a new band play that formed only three months ago. Locally they’re known as the Metal Heads, but their band name is Forsaken Nightmare. Their drummer didn’t even know how to drum until I showed him and now they put on a show like you wouldn’t believe.

The Elders were there to provide wisdom and leadership, and the committee did a fantastic job. Theresa and Rhonda Georgekish did a wonderful job, and Daisy Gunner and Charlene Matches provided the catering for hundreds of people. I want to thank the Cree Nation of Wemindji for all their great support – they had our backs all the way.

What we did to motivate volunteers was create the 50-hour club. Everyone who pledged 50 hours would get a personalized jacket with their name embroidered and 50 hours on the back. It was like a badge of honour. In the end, it was more like the 100-hour club because people just stepped up.

TN: It is so important to be able to celebrate Native culture considering that the mainstream media pays little attention to it.

BG: That’s exactly it. I don’t know if you remember when people were writing letters about gangs in Wemindji, especially a group called NWA. Well my brother and I began spending time with them, a few hours a week to start. We took them to the gym and started playing basketball and coaching them. Now that gang is a basketball team called the Wemindji Titans and those kids were some of my biggest helpers during the festivities. Youth are a beautiful thing – all they need is a little guidance. Talk about the beauty of a community.

TN: It sounds like you had a grand old time at this festival.

BG: It was incredible. I have never been more proud to be from Wemindji.