It was something I looked forward to all week, the Mistissini traditional gathering.
Somehow I had never made it to a traditional gathering back home. But I remember the Nipmuc tribal gathering in Massachusetts back in 1991 during the summer solcitice. It was an interesting time since I had never been invited to one before. From the moment I arrived I felt I was among friends and neighbours.

My friend, Star, introduced me to a lot of people and then I was on my own. By that time I knew more than one person in any group of people and visited. You know what I mean, the visiting you do when TV’s and radios aren’t on. A little joking, a little talking, storytelling and a little tea or coffee. The ones who had been there before filling the new guy in with gossip and whatnot. I felt like it was home within hours and I knew these people all my life. Quite a good feeling when you’re over a thousand kilometres south of Mistissini.

I felt that feeling once again in Mistissini when I went to the traditional gathering. I strolled down to the docks and mooched a ride with one of the free water taxis that zipped back and forth from Mistissini to the gathering grounds. It was one of those days that started out overcast and was changing to clear. I could feel a peace coming over me as the boat start to hit its step. By the time it was finished I was calmly looking at the lake. Memories were flooding over me. The times I went fishing with family and friends. The Elders’ Island came up. I remembered stopping there to get some Nemishtic (smoked fish). A peaceful place with hardly any blackflies and lots of trees. They seem to grow down to the shoreline. A place of trappers’ tents and smoking racks for the fish. It is a place for Elders to get away from the hustle and bustle of Mistissini life. Every place should have an Elders’ Island.

When I arrived at the gathering I was reminded of when I was young and there was no road into Mistissini. The only thing missing was the log cabins and my grandfather’s house. It was trappers’ bush tents and people everywhere. Kids playing in the water near the docks ignoring Morley Gunner’s cries to swim somewhere where there were no boats. Boy, can that lad yell loud. It was good to see him again after so long. As his mother, Evadney put, “That’s my crazy son.” But she, like everyone else, enjoys Morley’s craziness. It has an infectious humor about it.

Wandering around I took pictures whenever I had enough time to stop saying hello to friends and it seemed everyone was my friend. I know I wasn’t the only person to feel that. It was a return truly to traditions and one of the most important of them is visiting and the
way the community used to do it. I saw people I haven’t seen in a long time. I don’t know why I hadn’t looked them up before this. I guess there are a few changes in the Cree communities and I didn’t notice this lack of visiting slipping in. But in this setting that attitude changed to what it was like in the past and it was great to see everyone and catch up. Now don’t think I’m saying everyone’s abandoned visiting in the community or anything, but rather I’m commenting on my own actions.

Everyone was preparing for the feast to be held later that day. I saw bannock being made in a variety of ways, on the camp stoves and my favourite, bannock on a stick. Along with Gordon Petawabano we were allowed to appoint ourselves as semi-official tasters. Just to ensure it was good enough for the feast, of course. Nothing selfish about it but that bannock was the tastiest I’ve had in a long time. Wandering around the camp area I came across numerous smoking racks with nemishtic being made. It reminded me of the Elder’s Island and I’m not shy to say I had to wipe the drool off of my chin at times.

Spinning goose was everywhere with only one small mishap. After the geese had been taken down one of the pans to catch the goose drippings caught fire. It looked bad for all of a minute as people sprung into action and it was quickly put out. All over the place people were pan-frying fish. Moose and caribou were being cooked on open fires. The smells that were all around the camp were like the food of the gods to this lad fresh in from Montreal.

I visited with my uncle Luke Macleod and his family. At one point Joe Whiskeychan, a preacher from Moose Factory, joined us. Joe isn’t one of these pushy preachers full of brimstone and vinegar. He’s one of the type I like, a man who lives by example. Great sense of humor and a willingness to talk with instead of at a person. He has an amazing repertoire of songs he entertained us with. He even had me singing along and that’s no mean feat. It isn’t that I don’t like singing religious songs but my voice lacks a certain something: the ability to hold a tune, I’m told. I respected Joe’s way of life and enjoyed hearing him give his prayer at the feast.

At the feast four couples were congratulated because they were all celebrating wedding anniversaries. It was commented on how long they had been married. Walter and Anna Wapachee, Ronnie and Gertie Loon, Sam andd Charlotte Matoush and Peter and Kelly Voyageur stood up to people clapping. Also honoured was the late Abraham and Shirley Voyageur. All of them had gotten married on the same day 43 years ago on July 16.

I must admit I’ve never seen so many laughing and happy faces. There was a definite sense of comraderie and community spirit. A week had been spent together for many living in the past, respectful of the traditions of the Cree and especially of each other. As I said, it brought me back to the days when Mistissini had no electricity or running water. We visited a lot, talked, played games and used our imaginations. The piles of kids laughing, swimming and having fun like they did were great. There wasn’t a PlayStation in sight.

There have been many changes to the Cree communities and the feeling of a close community like at the gathering at times hasn’t been evident. It was evident there, though, and I know it hasn’t been forgotten. Thanks in part to activities like the traditional gathering, the spirit of community in the Cree Nation will never die. And thanks to the gathering I feel my eyes have been opened once again. A thanks to all of you at the gathering for the welcome, the laughter, the visiting and the teachings.