The first Cree Nations Gathering took place July 18-24 in Opaskwayak, across the Saskatchewan River from The Pas, Manitoba. The purpose of this gathering was reviving a Confederacy of Cree Nations, which our Elders say was in place before the Europeans came to this continent. There were people from many communities and I met people from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and, of course, Manitoba.
The James Bay Crees of Quebec were well-represented and people from Chisasibi, Waswanipi and Whapmagoostui made the long trip to this historic gathering. Delegates from the regional youth council were Glen Cooper (Waswanipi) and Lisa Petagumskum (Whapmagoostui). Glen also represented the Waswanipi youth council. Jody House, Valerie Sam and Jessie House went on behalf of the Chisasibi youth council, while Robbie and Sally Matthew (Chisasibi) and Robbi and Elizabeth Dick (Whapmagoostui) took part in the Elders’ Gathering. Chisasibi was represented by our Chief, Violet Pachanos, and Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come made the keynote address. As well, many people drove three days from Chisasibi to observe and be part of the gathering.
The James Bay Crees also took part in the organized evening social activities. Jody House won first prize for jigging and first prize for singing at the talent show on Tuesday night. He also won second prize for jigging at the second show on Thursday. Robbie Matthew Sr. won a raffle draw and on Friday night, at the Monster Bingo, three James Bay girls got lucky. Two shared the $6,000 prize while the other one went home with a thousand dollars.
When we first arrived in Opaskwayak for the gathering, we heard that the brother of hosting Chief Francis Flett had just passed away. There was a wake on Wednesday night and the funeral took place on Thursday afternoon. Out of respect for the Chief, his family and community, the gathering was adjourned from Thursday noon until Friday morning.
The youth, women’s and Elders’ gatherings were all at different locations taking place simultaneously. I sat in on the Elders’ Gathering and one of the most powerful images I have of it was hearing the Cree language being spoken by almost everyone. Although I could not understand every phrase, the more I listened, the more familiar I became with the sounds. Surprisingly, the Cree of Alberta have a very similar dialect to ours, whereas I had to listen more carefully to the Manitoba Cree.
At the end of the Tuesday session of the Elders’ Gathering and also at the end of the pow-wow on Sunday, the people from James Bay were all given a gift in the giveaway. On Wednesday, there was a traditional feast with tons of food—moose, goose, duck, sturgeon, pickerel, bannock—all cooked in a variety of ways. And the service was impeccable. Neil Diamond (our very own restaurant critic) would have loved it.
Before the Gathering wrapped up on Friday morning, the Chiefs, youth and Elder representatives came together and made presentations until 2:00. Plans were made for the next Cree Nations Gathering to take place in Opaskwayak during the same week next year. Those present at this Gathering, mostly Elders, created the spark that is needed to start a Confederacy of Cree Nations council fire.
It’s pow-wow time
As we were arriving at the Opaskwayak Traditional Pow-Wow late Friday evening, it was just beginning to rain. When it stopped, the dancing continued amid hordes of the every-hungry national bird of Opaskwayak, the mosquito. To tell you the truth, a few times I wished I were somewhere else because I really didn’t feel like dancing—until M.C. Eric Robinson (who is also the MNA for the northern Manitoba riding of Rupert’s Land) called all the James Bay Crees to the dance area.
We were given a warm welcome with a round dance and it seemed like everybody came to join us. The spirit of friendship/ kinship, the characteristic Cree “joie de vivre” and Eric’s M.C.-ing made it easy to dance the rest of the intertribals that evening. The mosquitos and the slight sprinklings of rain didn’t seem to be so bothersome any more.
Josie Cox and William Pachano from Chisasibi and Glen Cooper from Waswanipi were in full regalia. Josie came in second in the men’s traditional competition and was also given the honour of carrying the eagle staff when the flags were taken down at the end of the pow-wow.
The weather the next day was perfect— with the sun in a clear blue sky heating up the air while a westerly wind cooled it—
good day for dancing to the singing of Seekaskootch (Onion Lake, Sask.), the Pigeon Lake Singers (Hobbema, Alta.), the Whitetail Singers (James Bay, Ontario side), the North Buffalo Singers, North Buffalo Juniors (Opaskwayak, Man.) and Bloodstone (Pukatawagan, Man.)
Chief Violet Pachanos and I were supposed to be driving to Winnipeg, about 600 kilometres south, to catch the noon flight to Montreal the next day. But when the supper break came around, we didn’t want to leave, there was so much good feeling in the air. Sometime later that evening the eagle whistle blew and I was glad we were there dancing at that moment.
We stayed until it was getting ridiculously late to be starting out on a long drive. As we left, I was a bit sad to be leaving all the new friends I had made and the community which had made us feel so welcome, but the healing spirit of the drum made me thankful and happy that this whole experience happened and I was part of it. We had, with the help of our Elders and ancestors, started building a strong foundation for confederacy—rooted in friendship, kinship and mutual concern. In that way, the first Cree Nations Gathering was a success.
An official report will eventually be released on the Cree Nations Gathering. It will soon be available in your community.