Crees share and discuss artistic endeavours at the CNACA festival


While there are artists and artisans throughout the Cree nation who embody the culture, spirituality and uniqueness of the Cree arts scene, looking at them in terms of social infrastructure is a whole other story.

According to Lloyd Cheechoo, the executive director of the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association (CNACA), the artistic spirit in the Cree community is alive and well and CNACA has plans to support it.

This was one of the many subjects discussed at the 2013 CNACA Festival in Val-d’Or March 16-17. CNACA not only held showcases for Cree performers, but also offered workshops, seminars, an art symposium and an awards show for the who’s who of the Cree arts world.

In total, Cheechoo said over 50 individuals attended the event besides the performing artists and many representatives from various boards that the Cree are trying to tap into for funding to support the Cree artistic community.

The first part of this is assessing just who is out there and what their needs are. To do that, CNACA has in recent years worked with the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ) and the Cree Regional Authority to perform an assessment of artists, their needs and their place within the economy of Eeyou Istchee.

According to Cheechoo, CNACA’s job is to provide information on its members. To this end the association distributed a questionnaire to help CALQ compile a database on Cree artists. These creative people who work in a wide range of arts, such as traditional arts, craftsmen and musicians.

Among the many questions asked were some that looked at where the Cree artists and artisans practice their trades and what resources exist within their communities.

“The foundation arts study looked at the needs of the artists in terms of developing an arts infrastructure in the Cree nation. What was revealed is that we are at a ground zero. There is no infrastructure and so we have to address their needs in terms of funding, acquiring cultural centres or studio spaces for our artists,” said Cheechoo.

While promoting traditional and contemporary Cree arts, the artists and their products was primary goal of the event. According to Cheechoo, CNACA also had other interests in Val-d’Or that it was pursuing. Showcasing the goods allowed for the group to make some valuable connections at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue because one day the university might be able to support Cree artists through education seeing that the development of a fine arts program tailored for Crees is one of CNACA’s long-term goals.

But, the best way for artists to get the support they need in the Cree nation is for them to earn an income doing what they love. As Cheechoo explained, this is something that CNACA would like to continue to focus on, but there has been some difficulty in doing this in recent years.

While CNACA is supposed to handle the merchandise to be sold in the boutique at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, much like the now defunct Watchyia store in Val-d’Or many years ago, the inventory of Cree products for the shop has yet to materialize.

According to Cheechoo, CNACA was unable to get the $300,000 grant that was needed to open up the boutique. At the same time, many of the master craftsmen who previously sold their wares through Watchyia have moved on. While problems from the original store led to issues with supply-and-demand, he said for many Cree artisans their trades have become hobbies instead of full-time jobs.

“The number of full-time artists we now have is getting lower and these people are getting older,” said Cheechoo.

Looking at the market for Cree products, Cheechoo said CNACA knows that those actually making crafts cannot keep up with the demand within the Cree nation. While this is good for the artists, it hinders the further marketing of crafts because the craftsmen can only make so much.

This made things difficult when it came to creating a new store to sell goods on behalf of the artists.

An internal market study done by CNACA that looked at who was making what and where it was going showed that within the Cree nation, many Cree artisans were being commissioned by the major Cree entities and the band offices.

“What we determined was that our arts people are actually quite busy and that’s why we were no longer receiving a supply/demand anymore as they already had their own market within the Cree nation. They didn’t need to go outside of the Cree nation to do business and the projection of how much money was being spent on these project was around $100,000,” said Cheechoo.

So, not only were the Cree master craftsmen already working, according to Cheechoo, they were being well paid. The demand for their work is high enough that they never had to just make crafts to sell but would instead be filling specific orders.

Cheechoo stated that because these artists and artisans have been selling their own wares for so long, they don’t need groups like CNACA.

“We are supposed to be the advocate of the artists and members of CNACA, which is everything to do with their pricing, representing them and their rights. But, it doesn’t work that way.

“They don’t communicate that often with us and these craftsmen are getting older and they are Cree so they are not in the habit of calling that often and talking to us about business. It is their business and many of them don’t want us involved. They have a niche market and they want to keep it to themselves,” said Cheechoo.

On top of that, Cheechoo explained that many of the master craftsmen have their distinct styles that are their trademarks that they don’t want copied. For that reason, many of them aren’t open to training others.

At the same time, he said there have been many members of the Cree nation who have been vocal about how Cree culture shouldn’t be for sale.

With all of this in mind, Cheechoo said that CNACA had found other ways to serve the rest of the Cree nation while helping those craftsmen and artists who wanted the representation they could offer.

One way is working in the field of healing arts via the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay to provide traditional practices training. This would be part of the Nishyiiu projects geared at helping individuals who want to reconnect with traditional identity, which is part of the ongoing work the Health Board does to deal with the legacy of colonization and the residential school system.

Cheechoo said that CNACA is also in the process of working on a website encyclopedia of Cree traditional crafts, tools and culture to promote traditional teachings and cultural identity. This project would include things like traditional hunting tools, the preparations for them, their uses and then the different kinds of crafts Crees made with them, thereby creating a tangible reference guide to Cree history.

“We had to evaluate where we stood with these obstacles of exploitation and commercialization of our culture, not just the arts and crafts. We started to look away from the product but if you look into the Cree nation of today it is all about Cree cultural identity,” said Cheechoo.

At the same time, a new generation of Crees are finding themselves through art both traditional and contemporary. While some have become nationwide successes like Cree musical sensation, CerAmony, who have won major national awards, others, like famed visual artist Jimmy Tim Whiskeychan, have become household names throughout Eeyou Istchee.

And then there are lesser-known artists who are just starting out or have been practicing their crafts as a hobby, like Paula Menarick of Chisasibi and Sam Mianscum of Mistissini.

For Menarick, making traditional clothing like walking-out outfits and beaded earrings is a labour of love that has been passed down from generation to generation in her family.

Menarick said she started sewing when she was about seven or eight years old as she comes from a family with a strong backbone of craftsman skills. Many of her teachings came from her grandmother, mother and aunts though she learned how to make other crafts like moccasins and mittens at school

“As I learned these sewing skills, it has taught me many traditional teachings of the woman’s role as a Native person. Many stories and legends have been passed on to me through my teachers. It has taught me patience, respect and creativity. I make these traditional items to keep them alive just as our grandmothers have. People use these crafts for traditional ceremonies but they don’t know how to make them or don’t have the time, so I make them,” said Menarick.

She now wants to pass on these traditions to her daughter, Creelynn, to help keep Cree culture alive.

She said that CNACA has been a good support in terms of artist representation and in helping her find new clients and so her membership has been valuable.

Sam Mianscum fell into traditional craftsmanship almost by accident, when he wanted to own a pair of traditional snowshoes. A musician by trade, Mianscum decided that it would be better to learn how to make a pair of snowshoes than to buy them. When he investigated how to make them, he discovered that the process required a crooked knife.

“I wanted to buy one, but I thought that I should make one so that I knew how to do it,” said Mianscum.

While researching this process, Mianscum approached several Elders in the community to be trained, but he wound up just getting rough notes dictated to him from different relatives and experts. Through trial and error, Mianscum said he wrecked about 20 different metal blades before he finally got the knack for the knife-making process. From there he moved on to working on handles.

When he finally felt that he had something worthwhile to show, he took the knife to the older Crees in his community and left it with them for inspection.

“When I returned a few days later I was pleased with what they told me. One of them, my uncle, said that they were among the best he had ever seen,” said Mianscum.

Now CNACA is trying to help Mianscum sell his knives.

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