I visited some friends in Timmins recently and we talked about what kind of food was available to people in the north. I admit that our Cree diet in the north is not as fine or flavorful as those in exotic Asian cultures. My people subsisted on the land based on a basic diet of wild meats and fish. To get proper efficient nutrition it was a constant struggle to collect enough food for the family. When we took an animal’s life it was done with much respect and every part of it was used. This meant collecting blood in large animals and using all internal organs and collecting the bones and marrow. Anything that could not be eaten was turned into tools, clothing or material for shelter.
As life changed for everyone with the coming of the Europeans this traditional knowledge was used less and less often. It was easier to buy warm boots rather than handcraft moccasins and it was a luxury to purchase a knife instead of fashioning moose bone into scrapers.
I explained these facts to my non-Native friends and recounted an afternoon I spent with my grandmother, or Nokoom, Louise who provided me with an example of how food was collected when she was growing up on the land. It was in the fall and my older brothers had brought back a large bull moose that they had shot on the Ekwan River. My brothers and I spent the morning helping mom and dad butcher the animal into great chunks of meat that we then stored into plastic bags to be placed in the freezer. Mom worked quietly seated on an old wooden stump on our front door step as she separated the hide from the meat, then sliced the flesh into manageable pieces. Dad worked on his feet hunched over his work in the cool overcast morning.
Nokoom sat beside mom and dad, content to be around this busy traditional activity that was so familiar to her. She had her scarf on over her head, a traditional headcovering that most of our female Elders wear. After most of the work was done she volunteered to butcher the head of the animal and I was called to assist her with the chore.
At first it seemed strange to me to work at trying to cut up the large ugly head. I asked Nokoom why she wanted to do this as there was not a lot of meat in this part of the animal. She explained to me that every part of the animal is important and to not think that any food is dispensable. She reminded me of how much of a struggle it was for her, my parents and uncles and aunts to survive on the land in the old days. Every scrap of food was cherished and sometimes there were periods of famine when people died of starvation.
Nokoom began telling stories of her time on the Nawashi River, a place 100 kilometres north of Attawapiskat where she grew up and later raised her own family. As she talked in the Cree language, Nokoom began cutting. She carefully sliced and separated the thin skin on the snout, the head and the neck. The worst part came when the exposed head sat on top of our worktable. None of this surgery bothered Nokoom and she continued talking while she expertly cut at the moose head. First came the meat around the neck and then the large muscle of the tongue. I never thought of a moose tongue as a meat I was interested in but the Cree Elders love it and it is a huge slice.
At times I felt like I had to take more of the hard work to help Nokoom but she surprised me with her ability to forcefully push and pull her knife to cut tough cartilage and thin sections of bone. At 75 she was still strong and laughed easily when she saw my look of surprise at her strength. The lower jaw was separated and now she began to cut through the cartilage of the snout. This was disgusting to watch but as she butchered the white sections of cartilage, she explained that even this was food to be eaten when prepared properly. Once this was done the head dwindled down to a light piece of bone and sinew. Her final task was to cut open the skull with a large knife which she pounded into the thick bone with an axe. Inside the cavity of the bone was a fist-sized brain. This she explained was used as an ingredient for treating and tanning animal hides.
It was sort of humorous to see Nokoom with a smile on her face as she packed away the delicacies of meat cuts she had dissected from the moose head. Our front porch where we did all this work looked like a slaughterhouse. There was something very primeval and comfortable about being there with the family and slowly taking the meat from our moose kill. The smell of blood and scent of the moose was everywhere. It connected us as a group and reached back in time a thousand years and that felt good.