Grandfather John passed on at the age of 90 on January 5, 2011. He lived a long life as a hunter, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather. In his political life, he was a former Chief and an expert advisor on numerous councils, committees and organizations.
He was born on February 26, 1920, to Daniel and Mary Petagumskum. He was the eldest of their children. Born on the land, he grew up with the teachings of what we were to learn from him. He valued his role as a guardian, and never failed to give his time and share his knowledge when he was requested. He would always say, that he was at home, always ready to go when he was asked to assist.
He married Lottie Sandy 66 years ago. They had 15 children – Elijah, Maggie, Elizabeth, Sandy, Mary, Benjamin (deceased), Raymond (deceased), Charlie (deceased), Daisy (deceased), Willie (deceased), Lucy (deceased), Johnny (deceased) and three more whose names I could not get a hold of. The latter 10 died as infants or toddlers.
My father, Elijah Petagumskum, and his siblings – Maggie Kawapit, Elizabeth Kawapit, Mary Petagumskum and Sandy Petagumskum – were in Chisasibi when he passed on. They came to pay their last respects to him and also take time to be by his bedside. It was amazing to see their strength and ability to get up after only two or three hours of sleep. For three nights, they stayed by their father, with support from family, friends and lay readers of the Church. During this time, I could see the hurt of little children who were losing their only living parent. All we could do was pray and continue to give them any kind of help they needed.
In the end, it was only my brother Willard Petagumskum and John Petagumskum Jr. who were in the room with him when he took his last breath. They said, he opened his eyes, reached out his arms, and slowly crossed them over his chest. This brought great comfort to his children, knowing he was now going home to his Saviour.
My earliest memories of my grandfather were almost magic-like, he was Chief of the community and we had a picture of the Queen Elizabeth on the wall. My late grandmother would always ensure we had a full pot of tea and snacks for visitors. When my grandparents came back into town, usually after the Christmas holidays, we would go to the airport and wait for them to land. They would always come back with lots of traditional food. Grandfather John would receive his guests as they came in to hear about his hunt.
Even before the Income Security Program, he would go out each year to his trapline. Even when grandmother Lottie passed away in 1996, he continued to go back. He went out with Sandy and his family. In recent years, he could only go out for very short periods of time because of his health. Richard Petagumskum and his family would always be ready to take him when he got the approval from his doctors.
When he was told that he would need dialysis, he refused treatment. His main concern was not being able to live out his days in Whapmagoostui and be amongst his family and friends. We had to respect his wishes and this is how he lived out the rest of his life. He attended each church service he could. The last time he went to church was on Christmas Eve.
Even when he knew his days were numbered with the refusal of the treatment, he continued to participate in numerous projects.
In a document by Terry Fenge and Bernard W. Funston entitled “Arctic Governance: Traditional Knowledge of Arctic Indigenous Peoples from an International Policy Perspective”, he enriched it with the provision of the following quote: “Since time immemorial the Natives were put here to take care of the land. Our grandfathers did not abuse the land and it’s our turn to pass our knowledge on to our younger generation. What our forefathers kept all this time is very precious. It’s now in our hands. Our creator has given us the responsibility for taking very good care of what we have. If we don’t take care of it we will lose our own culture one day.”
He was a wise man who did not mince words but he was also a very gentle person. He touched many hearts and minds through his participation in various projects. He was the voice of reason and wisdom in the fight for Great Whale River. He was modern-day warrior of wise words of reason. He will long be remembered as a guardian of Eeyou/Eenou Eetouhn – the Cree Way of Life. He was a grandfather and friend to many people from all walks of life.
The last thing, I asked him to do was to give a traditional Cree name for my grandson. He came back two days later to give him his name: Misitaayabinoskum. I never knew that it would be the last time he would give a Cree name to one of our children or grandchildren. He was always there to give his advice, love and a quick joke. For those who took time to sit and talk to him, they never left without a smile or a chuckle. He loved to make people laugh. We will greatly miss him but we know he is in a better place and we are better people for having such humility and grace be a part of our upbringing and our lives for all these years. Good-bye Goom-shoom until we meet again…