With the passing of Mary Wabano in Attawapiskat recently, the traditional Cree way of living has also slipped away. Mary, who was 98 years of age, was born in the James Bay lowlands in 1901 when the James Bay Crees were still living a nomadic way of life. Her husband John died a few years ago.
Ironically, it was not until she moved into the community of Attawapiskat that she took sick and passed away. She was just too old to keep living on the land and, at the urging of many people, came in from her traditional wilderness home to live more comfortably in Attawapiskat. A recent wave of flu made many in the community sick and, when it hit Mary, she was too weak with age and her immune system had not developed over the years. This resulted in her passing. I can’t help but think that maybe if she had stayed out on the land she would have lived well past 100 years of age.
She had only been living in the community since August. In the fall of 1998 she was medevac’ed out of her very remote home on the Ekwan River to Moose Factory for treatment of a stomach ailment. This, combined with failing eyesight, led to her having to give up her life on the land.
Mary was a very special Elder with much knowledge of the traditional Cree way of life. My dad and my brother Anthony have described the scene where she lived all her life. In the summer Mary and her son Peter lived in a kind of meegwam, which was basically a tent, known as a Maki-Oskinikan. This is a beautiful spot called Neh-Aish-Kooyaow on the Ekwan River, about 130 miles north of Attawapiskat by water travel.
In the winter Mary and her son lived in an Aski-kan, which is a traditional Cree home. The Aski-kan is in fact a building with four sides made of logs that are covered with a layer of moss. As the weather turns cold the moss freezes solid and provides excellent insulation. The ground inside the Aski-kan is made comfortable with the placement of many soft spruce bough tips that are expertly woven.
There is no electricity in this remote location, no running water and no facilities of any type. Mary and Peter were true survivalists living off the land by gathering food, hunting, trapping and cutting wood for fire. At times they would go for months without seeing another human being and I can’t help but think it must have got a little bit lonely during those minus-40-degree winter nights.
Once a year in June, Mary and Peter would make the long trip by boat, a 20-foot freighter canoe, from their home. They had to travel about 80 miles on the Ekwan River just to reach the great James Bay and then the voyage was another 50 miles over big water to Attawapiskat. They would stay until late September and, loaded with the bare necessities of provisions, they would head back to Neh-Aish-Kooyaow.
Mary and Peter spent so much time on the land that they never really felt comfortable in the community.
She was provided with a new home at one point in the community but never really adapted to it and on her visits to Attawapiskat chose to stay in a small shack. My dad tells me that Mary never considered herself a poor person but that she was very proud that she and her son Peter were independent and could live off the land with their own skills. They never asked for help from anyone.
Mary was known for her kindness and was always happy to see any visitors who came her way. She treated these travelers well and would share her stories of the traditional Cree way of life with them. Her son Peter, by the way, has chosen to return to Neh-Aish-Kooyaow to carry on in the way his mother taught him. Peter’s brother, Mike, is also well-known for his knowledge of the traditional Cree way of life, and he is very comfortable in the non-Native world to the south where he has lived and worked for many years.
Mary was so much a part of the land and she had so much knowledge to pass on. That makes me feel sad to know we did not document her experience to pass on to other generations. I am sure that at her passing, the sky over Neh-Aish-Kooyaow rained tears of sadness and the wildlife must have felt her spirit pass. We lost so much when Mary went. It is time we recorded the experiences and knowledge of our Elders in Attawapiskat because once they are gone, so is this wisdom.