Dinah Asquabaneskum from Wemindji speaks about her life

I was born in a winter lodge on my father’s trapline, not far from LG3, in 1958. As a child, I couldn’t go to school as much as I wanted because classes began in September, when my parents and I returned to the traplines. We came back to Wemindji only in March, so the established school year didn’t work well for me. My older brothers and sisters had already been sent to residential school in the south.

When I was nine, my three younger siblings and I were sent to St. Phillip’s Indian Residential School in Fort George, just outside present-day Chisasibi. We stayed there even during the Christmas holidays because my parents were in the bush. Sometimes I heard a child crying in her dorm bed. Maybe it was me. At school, unhappy children would do what unhappy children often do. They’d bully each other. I learned to tread softly. I learned to be quiet. Violence could erupt at any time.

That summer we saw my aunt, Nancy Mistacheesick, and we begged her to keep us with her. Because of her love for us and her care, I was able to complete Grades 4, 5 and 6 in Wemindji. I returned to residential school for two more years of education though, because there was no Grade 7 or 8 here.

By that time, St. Philip’s had hired Mathew Ratt to teach us the Cree language. Speaking only in Cree, Ratt told us that the Cree people are hard workers and that we are the keepers of the land. As I listened to his wonderful stories about the beauty and the gifts of our land and about the strength and courage of the Cree people, I had no idea that one day, I too would become a keeper of our beautiful Cree language.

At the end of that school year, my parents needed my help and I returned to the bush. It was a strange time for me. I hadn’t lived with my mother and father since I was nine years old. Now I was 16. There was a disappointing disconnect. I sensed that my parents blamed me for the distance between us. Perhaps because I needed it so much at that time, I was deeply moved by the beauty of the land: fresh-scented flowers and wild blueberries in summer, snowy hills and chirping birds singing all through the hard, cold winter. Nature healed me and comforted me, day by day.

Once, Dad needed me to boat with him to check for beaver dams along the coast. He handed me the paddles and told me to steer. I agreed and jumped into the front area of the boat. Dad was shocked. How could I not know that in order to steer a boat, I had to sit in the back of it, not in the front as I had done? He asked me what they’d taught me in that school I went to. Perhaps my parents assumed that at 16, I’d learned the complex skills required to survive on the land. They knew Cree life in the bush was serious. One mistake could cost a life. My Dad knew this well. His two brothers died of starvation while on hunting trips. But no, I had not been taught Cree expertise by anyone.

I returned to Wemindji where I worked as Home-Care Worker for six years. I worked at the Cree Health Board and Social Services. I was a cook at the Maquatua Inn and a dental assistant. I learned quickly and loved to help. When I was 18, I married a fine hunter, Harry Asquabaneskum, at the Anglican Church. Ours was a double wedding alongside Ida Tomatuk and her groom, James Gilpin. Harry and I have five children: Marjorie, Charlene, Gordon, Glen and Terrence.

Happy as I was, I wanted even more for myself. I knew I could go farther and so I registered for Adult Education at Maquatua Eeyou School. There I met inspiring teachers such as Eva Loutitt and Linda Vistor. Mario Boiselle taught me math and I loved it. One day, Mary B. Georgekish, who taught Cree language, asked me to substitute for her. That was my beginning.

Shortly after that, I began my Bachelor of Education with UQAT. I also began to study for my Cree Language teaching certificate through McGill University. Gratefully, my daughters helped me during that challenging time and my sons learned to cook for themselves. My husband encouraged me. With five children and all the demands of family life, it was still possible to succeed. After nine years of continuous study, I graduated in 2010.

I see changes in the Cree communities that were not part of my childhood. There’s the strong inclusion of hockey, and second and even third languages, and all manner of new technology, and a variety of religions that were not part of our ancient history. I welcome these changes and hope everyone enjoys and benefits from them without sacrificing any part of our own history. I’d like to see Cree people travel and work wherever we like, but we must always remain keepers of the land. Let us speak as many languages as we want, but let Cree be our most fluent one. This is my dream.

This is the first of three interviews with Cree teachers from Wemindji.