Melissa Natachequan, 27, speaks three languages, English, French and Cree. There are many people in Eeyou Istchee who speak three languages, even more so who speak two, but the thing that makes her story so amazing is that Melissa doesn’t have an ounce of Cree blood in her.
Born to a francophone father and a mother with Scottish and English heritage, Melissa’s earliest memories are of Chisasibi when her parents moved there for jobs with the Cree School Board when she was a year-and-a-half old.
“My mom put an announcement on the radio for a babysitter and two or three old ladies came to the door fighting over who was going to keep the cute little white kid,” recounted Melissa, whose maiden name is Ouellet.
She moved away from Eeyou Istchee between the ages of four and six, until her father won a job teaching French in Whapmagoostui. She’s called Whapmagoostui home ever since.
“I had learned some Cree then, but it was also a different dialect in Chisasibi than in Whapmagoostui so I never really said anything. When I started feeling that I could speak in the Whapmagoostui Cree that’s when I started up again.”
Melissa said some kids picked on her because she was white. She told the Nation of a time when she would hide from the children and their taunts. In a few instances, she had sand and rocks thrown at her.
“I mostly spent my time at home and my mom had a lot of friends, so I started hanging around with the parents of her friends, the elders,” she said. “I’d go to camp a lot with Eliza and the late Weemish Mamianskum. I’d also go with one of my sister’s friends, her parents, Emily and Elijah Petagumskum. So because I was out at camp a lot with these people, I started learning a lot of Cree.”
Then one day when she turned 12, she realized she wasn’t scared anymore. She eventually ended up making friends with the grandkids of the elders she hung around with, but the elders always remained cherished friends.
“The elders always treated me with respect but they didn’t try to bust their butts to explain it to me in English,” she chuckled. “If I was going to learn, they were going to say it in Cree and if I didn’t know, well that’s too bad.
“I started going to church on Sundays and listening to the hymns and singing along. Then the Reverend Tom Martin noticed what I was doing and he gave me my first Bible written all in Cree syllables. So at 10, when I got baptized, I decided I wanted to be a part of the church in Whapmagoostui. I went to church a lot and that’s also how I learned how to read.”
Melissa, who is married to Steven Natachequan and has two kids, has a helper for certain Cree words when she’s on the air, but aside from the odd phrase or word, she speaks better Cree than many native speakers in Eeyou Istchee.
“I learned Cree in Whapmagoostui, which is the older Cree,” she explained. “It comes out slower. I was with elders a lot so I learned a lot of the old words and to pronounce properly.”
Growing up she learned a lot from the elders about the land, the language and respect for different people. One day her learning curve widened when she trapped her first animal, a Marten.
“It wasn’t dead when I got to my trap, so I stood around hoping it would die and it didn’t,” Melissa reflected. “I walked all the way back to camp and got Patricia Snowboy and she came back and told me to get him to bite the stick and she’d hit him over the head. So we had these five-foot long sticks and we were still scared of him. She finally conked him out, but then I was afraid when I was holding him that he’d come back to life in my hands.”
During the whole trip home she squeezed her hand around the Marten’s neck so tightly that when she let go, she couldn’t open her hand. “Then Mary Masty went on the bush radio that night and told everybody my story of being afraid of my Marten,” laughed Melissa.
When the CBC was presented as a career opportunity, Melissa was hesitant. At that point she had been working at the radio in Whapmagoostui for two years, where she had originally been hired as a secretary.
When one of the announcers went into the bush, they asked her if she’d like to replace them for a bit. “I ended up enjoying being on the air so I applied for CBC with the encouragement of some friends – ‘Just to say you applied’, they said.”
She sent the application and forgot about it. A week and a half later she had an interview with CBC. And after that, the job was hers.
“I cried the first day not knowing which metro exit to go out, not knowing they were both on the same street and I just had to cross the street.”
Melissa misses her family. Her oldest child, eight-year-old Tyler, is going to school in the Eastern Townships. The youngest, four-year-old Evan, isn’t in school yet so he stays with his father in Whapmagoostui.
“I’ve never lived in the city before. Even when we were down south for the two years of my life we were in the Eastern Townships on a farm. It’s been hard on everybody. Steven misses me and I miss him and the kids, and they miss each other.”
Despite the poor treatment by many kids when she was young, her heart is undeniably Cree. “I’m not going to stay [in Montreal] forever. Whapmagoostui’s always going to be my home. I could never leave it forever.”
“I’d like to thank Whapmagoostui; it’s because of them I’m here. If I hadn’t learned what I learned from them, I wouldn’t be sitting in the chair at the CBC announcing news to Eeyou Istchee.”