Filmmaker Shirley Cheechoo is not the easiest person to track down these days. First I tried a phone number in Utah where, having disturbed someone’s vacation, I was informed that they had never heard of Shirley Cheechoo. I then tried a number in Ontario, only to connect with an answering machine. Another call, this time to her manager’s office in Toronto, turned into yet another encounter with an answering machine. Then came word that she was in Chisasibi, so I tried her there and the timing was all wrong.
Why was I trying to track this woman down, you may well be wondering. Does she owe me a large sum of money? Is she on the FBI’s most wanted list? Is she my long lost mother? The answers are no, no, and definitely not. Shirley Cheechoo is the producer, writer, and director of Tracks In The Snow, a documentary film that recently showed in the renowned Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah.
The video portrays the bush as a traditional classroom. There is a great deal to be learned at school, but we see that there is much that cannot be taught within the confines of four walls. What better place to educate children about traditional hunting, fishing, and survival skills than on the very soil where these skills are intended to be used. “Out on the land, the teaching starts the minute the children awake and continues until it is time for bed,” Isaac Masty explains in the early minutes of the film.
Detailed footage illustrates how camp is set up. The process shows the scattering of sapling branches and spruce boughs to make the floor, the erecting of side and top poles, the placement of canvas for the roof and walls, and finally the use of packed snow on the outside to help keep the heat inside. All members of the group got involved in making and taking down the camp, learning from elders Andrew Natachequan, Maggie Natachequan, and Sandy Masty as they went.
The kids were also shown how to set up night lines for icefishing. Sandy Masty taught them how to pick out a hole through the thick ice and how to set the line in such a way that it would be easy to tell if there was a fish caught the next morning. During the course of the journey, a caribou was killed in the bush and shared among everyone, just as it was done in the old days.
When the group completed the journey and arrived in Whapmagoostui they were greeted by the community. Younger children took part in a ceremony called First Snowshoe Walk, described by Robbie Matthews as a ceremony that was done, “wherever the people were, inland or along the coast. When the ‘walking out’ ceremony is done the children leave no tracks on the earth, but in the first snowshoe walk the children leave tracks in the snow . . . marks from their snowshoes. Now they are a part of nature.”
Tracks In The Snow was commissioned by the Cree School Board, courtesy of executive producer Daisy Herodier, who has been busy on many Cree cultural projects including the compilation of a Cree dictionary, and the Cree Spoken Here video that aired this winter on APTN. It is hoped that the video will be a valuable educational tool, as well as a document of traditional practices. “The children are being taught Cree knowledge and a way of life that is no longer being practised,” says Herodier on camera. The journey was especially significant in that the walkers were sponsored by nearby communities to raise money for research into Cree Leukoencephalopathy Syndrome.
Filmed on digital video. Tracks In The Snow chronicles a traditional journey into the bush undertaken by a group from Whapmagoostui. Ten students between the ages of ten and twelve, three elders, and some adults were flown out into the wilderness and walked sixty-two miles, camping for four days and four nights, back to the community. The journey gave the children a chance to learn traditional ways from the elders. As Shirley Cheechoo puts it, “they walked to bridge the gap between the past and the present.”
Shirley Cheechoo’s list of awards and accomplishments is extensive and impressive. It would be easier to list what she hasn’t done. Shirley lives on Manitoulin Island with her husband Blake Debassige, where they are both artists in residence at the Kasheese Studios Art Gallery. As a visual artist, Shirley works with acrylic, oils and mixed medium on canvas and paper, stained glass, and serigraph prints. Her media credits include acting, writing, directing and producing for stage, film, television, and radio. I don’t know how she does it, but she somehow squeezes twenty five hours out of a day, not to mention eight days out of a week.
Shirley first garnered national recognition in the theater back in 1992 for her play Path With No Mocassins. She made her debut as a film director with the acclaimed short film Silent Tears, which won Best Dramatic Short at film festivals in Edmonton, Nebraska, San Francisco and Santa Fe, was shown at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and won the Telefilm Canada/Television Northern Canada Award for Best Canadian Aboriginal Language Television Program. Shirley also wrote, produced, directed, and acted in the feature length film Backroads. As if all this wasn’t enough, she is the founder of the De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig theater group, where celebrated actors like Gary Farmer and Graham Greene have been involved.
Tracks In The Snow has kept Shirley Cheechoo busy well past the end of production. The film has taken her to festivals in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, San Francisco, Utah, and New York. The frequent flyer miles must be building up. Having finally caught up with Shirley via the telephone, I talked to her, all too briefly, about independent filmmaking and her experience filming up in Whapmagoostui.
A film like this can stand up over time as an important cultural artifact, did this occur to you while you were filming?
I just do the work and hope that one person will see it. It was more interesting for me to make as my own personal experience.
In terms of your own experience, you mentioned in the film that you were uncomfortable with your fluency in the Cree language.
I thought of myself as fluent in Cree before I did the film. You think you’re fluent and then you find that you don’t know what they’re saying. I wish I’d known more about my language, but there were so many times that I didn’t know what they were saying. There were many times that I needed explanations for words that I didn’t know.
Both your husband and your son worked on this project, is filmmaking becoming a family affair for you?
I needed to find a D.P. (director of photography) in just one week and the only person available was my son (Nano Debassige).
He also edited the film. My husband (Blake Debassige) basically gets involved with the music.
What do you do when you’re not making films?
We teach art, drama, and video in Wemindji, Chisasibi, and Whapmagoostui.
Do you have another film project lined up?
I’m working on another one hour drama for television, it’s called Sacrifice. I’m just trying to raise money for it right now. We’re shooting it up in Wemindji. The story is about a little girl who gets lost in the bush, at a fishing camp.
What about the festival circuit?
I shot a half hour video in Great Whale, called Dancing River. It’s about people canoeing the Great Whale river and about the importance of the river to the local people. It will be premiering at a festival in St. Petersburg, Florida on March 1st.
If past performance is anything to go by, we can expect to see much more from Shirley Cheechoo. This dynamic and multitalented artist is leaving deep tracks of her own on the Cree cultural landscape.