I received a card recently from mom and dad with a little memento. It was a photo of a young boy with thick, oversized glasses and short, black flat hair looking back at the photographer. As I peered into this young boys eyes I realized that I was looking back into the past at myself and that the younger me was staring right back at me into the future. In this old photo, I see my younger brother Joe kneeling in the background sorting through supplies to be put away with my help. A fresh pile of 12 foot logs are in the photo scene from our wood gathering the day before. Joe and I are working over top of the sawdust and bark laden ground of the wood pile and it is easy to see signs of spring melt around the edges of our workplace. My older brother, Antoine’s Yamaha Enticer snowmobile is also pictured in the photo and I instantly recall thinking it was one of the hardiest and strongest machines I had ever seen. That little Yamaha put up with the abuse and pounding that my older brother had put it through. He was a master snowmobile rider.
I can recall the location of this picture on the high bank of the Lakitusaki River in Polar Bear Provincial Park. We were camped with Antoine, as he had stayed the winter there with mom’s uncle, who we all knew as Wapookoosheesh in Cree. His Cree name actually means ‘mouse’ in English and it did not carry any negative European connotations. Rather, it was merely an affectionate nickname he was given at some point. Wapookoosheesh was well known as one of the best hunters, trappers and traditional people on the coast who still followed a traditional lifestyle. Antoine was in a way apprenticing under Wapookoosheesh to learn the history, culture and traditions of our people as they spent the winter together to hunt, trap, fish and explore my mom’s family traditional territories around Lakitusaki.
Oddly enough, Wapookoosheesh left the north in the spring and summer months to spend time with his family and friends in Ottawa rather than taking residence in our northern remote First Nation of Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast. I always found it interesting that even with his traditional Cree background, after a lonely six months in the wilderness, he preferred the big city life to staying in a remote community with other Cree speaking people. I imagine he liked to bounce back and forth between these two worlds.
This photo of Joe and I was set in a long forgotten trading post called Lakitusaki in Cree and known in English as Lake River on the James Bay coast in the middle of Polar Bear Provincial Park. It was taken during the last of the coldest winter weather in March of 1988 as we prepared for the upcoming spring hunt. We were camped at Wapookoosheesh’s house, an old shack that had been built fifty or sixty years before by the Revillion Fur Trading company. Fur trading in the early days was an important industry and it must have cost a fortune to build this two story house in the wilderness back then with locally sawn planks and imported tar paper. It was considered so important that a decade or two after it was built, the entire building was actually moved a half a kilometre from its original location to in the middle of where the former community of Lakitusaki existed. I imagine that it must have taken a lot of will, skill and care to move this large southern type house so far in the wilderness.
During our stay at Lakitusaki at the time of the photo, we took in the local sites and visited the remains of the old Catholic Church, a small one room building that could seat about forty people at one time. We also visited the abandoned Hudson Bay store, a large building with an impressive front wall of store display windows and a large overhead sign advertising the company’s name. At the time of our visit and long after the abandonment of the town of about 100 people the store front design of this large building was out of place as it faced an overgrown walking trail, the high bank of a river and the empty wilderness beyond.
Lakitusaki was an important place for my mom’s family. They lived in a place called Nawashi River about 60 kilometres south of Lakitusaki and during the winter months, this old trading post was the family’s lifeline to basic equipment and food supplies such as lard, flour, sugar and tea. It was the place where my grandfather Xavier Paulmartin and his brothers traded their furs to gain an income and provide for their families. Mom has shared plenty of stories of making the trek from their family log cabin in Nawashi by dog sled and snowshoe up to Lakitusaki to trade furs and buy supplies or to attend important church services during the holidays.
When I talked to mom recently about Lakitusaki and Wapookoosheesh’s old cabin, she told me the sad news that it had been years since he returned north to the family hunting grounds. His old cabin had actually burned down in a fire a few years ago. The remnants of the historic church still stands as does the Hudson Bay building. A few families from Attawapiskat still make the seasonal trek north to hunt, trap and fish on our people’s traditional territories and Lakitusaki remains an important destination for them. It is like visiting a time capsule. Thanks to mom and dad I had the opportunity to stare into my own eyes as a child and revisit the memories of Lakitusaki in a photo I will treasure forever.