I’m maybe the luckiest white guy around: I’ve just spent the last week in Europe, working as an Eenou roadie.
What’s an Eenou roadie? Let me tell you…
A couple of years ago, as the Germans were trying to figure out how to make their World’s Fair have some redeeming value -some meaning – they decided they’d give indigenous peoples from around the world a chance to really tell the world what the theme of Expo 2000 meant: “The balancing of mankind, nature and technology”.
Enter the people of Eeyou Istchee, specifically the Oujé-Bougoumou Crees. By building their community in a way that reflected Cree values, by coming up with the idea of burning waste sawdust from a nearby timber mill to heat their community, and by making a real commitment to community development and community health,
Oujé-Bougoumou stood out as natural participants for this global exposition.
And so, after obtaining funding from a number of sources, getting passports, and arranging for tickets, hotels, sound gear, ground transportation and baby food, a group of 16 Crees, ranging from 10 months to 75 years old, made the trek to Germany.
With me and two of my friends as their roadies.
The group knocked Europe on its butt with a combination of singing, storytelling and cultural demonstrations that showed what Crees are all about: respect for nature, respect for the Creator, a desire to let the world in on what we all know… that life is fun, that family is everything, and that in your world, there are no strangers – only new friends.
I made sure that microphones were working. I made sure the guitars were tuned and that the European media were happy taking pictures, doing interviews and setting up their camera angles. I brought water (and it’s hard in Germany to find water without the fizzy bubbles that make singers burp on stage) to the performers as they took to the stage, greeted by hungry crowds of Europeans who seemed to hang on every word, whether said in Cree or in English.
I practiced my (very limited) Cree, greeting the elders Charlie Bosum and Albert Mianscum with a hearty “Kwaay, chaanou baykw, wachiya chaanou niich…”. I marveled at how organized the group was, and how they loved uploading fresh digital pictures and diary stories to the www.ouje.ca website every day.
And 1 saw, more clearly than ever before in my three years of working with the James Bay Crees, just how much you have to offer the world. The simple things like how a baby isn’t just a mom and dad’s baby, but a community’s baby. And the more complex things, like when Kenny Mianscum explained the meaning of his song “Chiish-ach-edin” by saying to an audience of Expo-goers, “This song means that we love you. That you are our friends. That the love of people to people, regardless of the differences in their language, or the colour of their skin, is the only thing that can save this world.”
Perhaps the crowning touch was the news, sent to us by email on the second-last day, that Matthew Coon Come had been elected Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. For our tiny team, 6,000 miles from the smell of spruce and tamarack, from the cry of the loon and the call of the duck, from loved ones and the rhythm of daily life, this somehow meant that we were part of a new beginning for First Nations people in Canada.
And so, even though we had to run like crazy people through Heathrow Airport in London to catch our plane home… and even though our luggage got lost between England and Toronto… and even though we were all just about dead when we touched down in Chibougamau…
Everyone walked just a little taller for having shared Cree culture with the world.
Mike Hicks is a writer and creative director from Ottawa who works on a number of projects in Eeyou Istchee, including Aanischaaukamikw, the Cree Cultural Institute.