I am a young ten-year-old boy and only just starting to learn the work that is involved in gathering geese for food. During the hunt I spend my time in a blind with my dad or my older brothers. They do most of the hunting although I have a few opportunities to fire a smaller gauge shotgun. This is a great learning period for me as I watch and listen to the older members of the family. This is the way that the Cree have always passed along knowledge through demonstration and stories.
Once we are back in our home community of Attawapiskat we take a few days to recover from our time on the land and hardship of riding through wet and freezing conditions. After this period we are ready for the next stage of work. Mom asks all of my brothers and sisters to gather at our Aunt Theresa’s house where we will be plucking geese. Aunt Theresa is also preparing her own batch of geese and has a better yard for setting up a Meegwam (wigwam) where the work will be done. Her house is a short walk away and is in sight of our home. When we arrive, our uncle Michen, a Cree pronunciation for Michael, is placing some final exterior poles on the Meegwam. He is also adjusting the canvas wrap on the Meegwam to make sure it is tight.
Mom organizes all of us into to a kind of work group and we find places to sit inside the Meegwam. It is warm and cozy inside. The ground is covered in a layer of fresh spruce boughs and a small fire is burning with a large pot of tea for everyone. Mom outfits all of us in green plastic garbage bag aprons that are tied around our waists. We are also provided another bag to collect the feathers in and a bowl of water to wet our hands for better gripping. We are each given one of the large birds t’o start our work and Mom instructs everyone with some pointers as to how to pluck a goose. We watch as she easily clears an area of feathers from the breast of a goose with a few quick swipes of her hand. When we try to repeat the movements of her hand we realize it is not as easy as it looks. I try to mimic her instructions but I am only able to pluck the feathers in small amounts at a time.
As the plucked geese begin to accumulate, mom and her sister Theresa start the work of preparing them for smoking. This is a goose preparation known as Na-Mesh-Tek in the Cree language. To start the preparation, mom and her sister burn the remaining short dark feathers of the head and neck of the geese over the fire. These short stubby feathers are difficult to pluck and singeing them over the flames is the only way to remove them. They are both skilled butchers and have done this work for many years of their lives. They gut the birds and keep the gizzards and hearts which will be cleaned and barbecued later. Then they begin cutting into the meat using sharp knives with skill and speed. With the knowledge they gathered from their parents and Elders, they cut precisely and neatly to separate as much of meat from the bone as possible. At the same time they cut in a way that results in long thin strands of meat. When the long thinly sliced meat is ready it is hung overhead on racks of stripped wood. The remaining bones which still have small amounts of meat on them, are also hung alongside to smoke over the fire.
As we work, my sister Jackie prepares a batch of bannock to cook over the fire. We spend the entire day inside the Meegwam. As we work, we drink tea and eat bannock during our breaks. At mid day, mom and Aunt Theresa barbecue the gizzards and hearts as a meal for everyone. The gizzards are cleaned in water and cut along a central separation that splits the hard ball of meat into two halves. It has a hard exterior but the meat inside is a soft delicacy that is special to us this time of year.
The work is long and hard but we enjoy each other’s company as we all engage in conversations around the fire. There is a lot of Cree humour in our group with teasing and jokes so that laughter fills the inside of the busy Meegwam. We are also happy to know that the work we are doing will provide us with food for most of the summer.