Two Cree women reflect on motherhood
Whether you are a single mom braving it on your own or a grandmother with numerous grandchildren, part of being a Cree mother is not just your bloodline but an ancestral connection to how the land and tradition have shaped families for generations.
To talk about what motherhood has meant to them, two brave, proud and strong mothers and members of the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association (CWEIA) from very different walks of life spoke to the Nation about their journeys through motherhood and even grand-motherhood for one of them.
So, in honour and celebration of mother’s everywhere for Mother’s Day, here are two unique stories of Cree identity, life, love, loss and renewal.
Virginia Wabano, CWEIA President
A modern-day, working Cree grandmother, Wabano has taught school in Waskaganish for the last five years and in 2011 was elected as president of the CWEIA. She is also the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of three.
“Life is good and though we live in this swarm of business, we still take the time to do traditional activities like the annual hunt. One of my kids even attended powwows and so we spend a lot of time with one another doing traditional practices,” said Wabano.
Like many Crees she spends a great deal of time on the road, balancing her time for work and family between Ottawa, Montreal, Val-d’Or and the Cree communities for work and then Timmins, North Bay or Moose Factory where Wabano grew up. Though she is a Waskaganish Cree, she grew up in Ontario.
“The reason why my father decided to move us to Ontario was because of education and he thought that residential school would provide that.
“His ideal was for us to have an education and maintain our way of life at the same time,” said Wabano.
This ethic is something she has passed on to her children and grandchildren. Even though Wabano quit school because she was needed at home, 20 years later she went back to school, finished up her credits and then went on to become a teacher.
“Even though we want to carry on with our traditions as Native people with traditional values in our culture, we still need to walk in this society,” she explained.
While Wabano grew up in a Christian home, starting in 1974 when her parents converted, she said that Cree traditions and culture have always been part of her past and her future.
“I went to residential school until I was 13 years old and so a lot of the traditional experiences that I had as a child were very limited. I do remember however when we had the opportunity to see our parents, most of that time was spent out in the bush because my parents were trappers. This is what we did in the summer, winter and fall.
“So, come Christmastime, they would be out on their traplines and that was where we were transported to,” said Wabano. This is where she always remembers being closest to her parents as a child.
In the bush, Wabano said she and her family carried out traditional activities like cooking and sewing and it was this that stayed with her later on in life. When her mother fell ill Wabano said she and the other women in her family would sit and sew with her mom in her room.
Though it now takes a lot of coordinating for Wabano to be with her spread-out family, she values that time immensely. She said her children celebrate her with greeting cards at holidays like Mother’s Day and Christmas that tell her what an inspiration she has been to them and these are something she deeply cherishes.
Charlotte Ottereyes, Regional Economic Development Coordinator, CWEIA
As a single mother, Ottereyes is not only a determined success in business and helping other women start out and fulfill their dreams, but passionate about caring for her nine-year-old daughter.
While her relationship with her own mother is incredibly important to her today and they are very close, this wasn’t always the case. Ottereyes said it was actually more her father who she would turn to while growing up due to her mother’s substance-abuse problem.
“My late father was more my role model when I was growing up. I learned a lot more about motherhood from him as he was both a father and a mother and so am I as a single mom,” explained Ottereyes.
She said she learned a great deal from both parents however, particularly what life was all about and the Cree ethic that children really are a gift from God.
Ottereyes actually loved caring for children so much that before becoming a mother she was a foster mother to children in need. Understanding what it is like to experience difficulty as a child made her compassionate for the needs of children.
“It is important to learn how to properly teach your children. When I was growing up I saw how hard my mom and dad worked and yet they made time for us. While I work a fulltime job and travel a lot, I always make time for my daughter in the evenings or at lunch.
“Working for me is putting food on the table, clothes on her back and a roof over her head and that is what I always keep in mind. My dad never wanted us to be on welfare and he told me that I would go far in the future if I finished my education. He taught me balance,” said Ottereyes.
But her mother’s behaviour also shaped how Ottereyes acts as a mother and the choices she has made in her life, not wanting to make the same mistakes. Having never recovered from the scars of her own childhood in residential school, Ottereyes said her mother turned to alcohol and became abusive with her and her siblings.
Ottereyes decided to find out more about what had happened during the residential school system and learned forgiveness. She also broke the cycle of abuse when it came to her own child.
“We have the power to stop the cycle and stop abusing our children. Some people abuse their children and they, in turn, abuse their children and so on. I said to myself that I couldn’t do this and all of my siblings did the same thing. Forgiveness is one of the best tools you can have for a brighter future,” said Ottereyes.
Learning how to forgive at 18 is what has made for a very close relationship between Ottereyes and her mother now. At the same time, she feels that having had the difficult life she had with her mother is what makes her a better mother to her own daughter. It is also what kept her away from touching alcohol or drugs. It kept her hard at work in school and, as a result, is now helping shape the lives of so many women in Eeyou Istchee.
“It is important to have these family values going because that is what my late father would have wanted and we carry this on with my siblings and my mom.
“When I told her that I forgave her she cried and said she wished she could turn back time and take it all back. I told her that she couldn’t and she shouldn’t.
“Because of her I really love my child and have never wanted to touch alcohol or drugs. I also help a lot of other people who have been through this,” said Ottereyes.
On behalf of the Nation, Happy Mother’s Day!