On a bright spring afternoon my grandfather James Kataquapit, or as we call him in Cree, Mooshoom, steps out of our home in the middle of the community. My family has just finished a hurried lunch of moose stew while on a break before returning to school and work. Mooshoom stops me for a moment to help him down the few steps to the dark soil, wood chip and sawdust covered lawn. It is a short walk to his regular place in the warm sun on a wooden bench. He has a good spot located just in front of the house.
As usual, after lunch Mooshoom sits back to enjoy the spring day. The sun is warm on his face and a light breeze blows without any sign of cold weather on the horizon. Mooshoom looks dapper in his dark grey dress pants and matching suit coat. He always looks as if he is going somewhere important. Like most of the men in town he wears a hunting cap with earflaps. This keeps the glare of the sun off his eyes. The community is quiet now as everyone has returned to work or school. Mooshoom has nowhere to go these days and he merely sits and enjoys the stillness.
Mooshoom drifts into a world of memories as he closes his eyes and relaxes in the warm glow of midday. He looks back to a time as a boy living with his family out on the land. It is springtime and the family is harvesting fish they gather from their nets. He watches from the shore as a canoe slowly moves out to check the nets. It is a difficult existence but one they are all familiar with. Their small canoe is patched over in numerous places and provides enough support for two to fetch the daily catch. On the shore he waits for the fish that will be brought in.
As the canoe comes in, he watches as the women in their family group gather the fish along the shore to prepare them for smoking. The raw fish are laid down on the tundra grass and are quickly gutted and filleted for smoking on racks over an open fire. The work is done out in the open. Women sit and kneel on the ground to do their work. Food has been scarce as they have all waited for the springtime break-up that has imprisoned them to the same location for several weeks. Some of the fish is quickly barbecued over the fire to feed the hungry group. Mooshoom remembers the wonderful taste of the fresh fish. It is the first full meal the family has had in days and every bite is savoured as they sit and watch the river flow by.
Mooshoom’s train of thought forms new images in his mind and takes him to a time when he is a little older as a teenager. He is 19 and while living on the summer time retreat along the Attawapiskat River he joins another 23 young men to head south by canoe to help in the war effort. This is a period of the First World War and he remembers the small community of people on the day his group leaves. They leave behind mostly older men, women and children as they head off to take part in something they have no understanding of. It is a sad departure as women watch them paddle away. The families left behind are sad to see their loved ones go. The departure of these young men will also mean a more difficult existence without the help of skilled young sons, husbands and fathers. The image of women and Elders lining the shore is etched in Mooshoom’s mind. He can see them clearly. He recalls the womens’ heads covered in tattered shawls, their long heavy dresses blowing in the wind and children following as long as possible along the shore as the group of canoes heads to James Bay. He remembers the long journey overseas on the Kitchi Cheeman or big boat and he can still see the fear and anxiety in the faces of his young friends from James Bay as they head off to war.
His thoughts change again to happier times he enjoyed with his own family out on the land. The war was behind him now. In times of plenty when animals were trapped in abundance and fish were easily caught in their nets, he had time to spend with his wife, daughter and seven sons. He recalls sleeping on cool summer nights in the woods, a fire crackling and shining thin orange rays of light into their small prospector’s tent. Sometimes a light rain pelted the canvas covering and made a melodic pitter-patter that put them to sleep.
His rest is interrupted by my voice. He greets me with a big smile and I am caught up in his kind eyes. Mooshoom seems as though he has been somewhere else all afternoon as we walk hand in hand back to the house. Supper is waiting.