Can you imagine an orphan surviving in the wilderness along the James Bay coast near the turn of the last century? Can you then imagine that same orphan ending up with a family of eight children of her own, 52 grandchildren and over 50 great grandchildren? Well, that is the story of my grandmother Louise Paulmartin, who passed away July 24 at the age of 90 in Attawapiskat.

Kookoom, the Cree word for grandmother, was the name all her sons, daughters and grandchildren and great grandchildren knew her by, was bom in 1916. She came into this world on the shores of Hawley Lake, which is part of the Sutton River system in Northern Ontario, or the area known in Cree as Nahmehkoo Seepee. Her mother, Maggie Archibald, gave birth in a traditional setting with a midwife in the wilderness. In 1916, life up the coast would have been very different as it would have more closely resembled a world that our people had known for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.

Kookoom was born into a complex family situation. Her mother originally married a Linklater and after he died she wed John Chookomolin. When Kookoom was just eight months old during the summer of 1917 on the shores of the Attawapiskat River where her family had gathered for the summer, their father John Chookomolin left them for the last time. Her father was one of 24 young Cree men to follow a recruitment officer south to fight for Canada in the First World War.

Maggie never had the opportunity to find out what happened to her husband. Years passed and the men of Attawapiskat came home one at a time but some were never seen again, including John Chookomolin. It would be many decades later that Kookoom learned that her father had become infected with influenza during the Atlantic ship crossing and later died and was buried in southern England.

“lo provide for her young family, Maggie decided to marry again, this time to Jacob Edwards. When Kookoom was three years of age, life took a hard turn when her mother Maggie passed away, lb make matters even worse, her step father Jacob was killed in a tragic accident soon after while building a sod roof for their home on Akamiski Island.

Kookoom ended up as an orphan during a time when survival was difficult for everyone. Relatives were not capable of feeding another person in their group on a continuous basis, so my Kookoom was moved from family to family. Eventually, she was taken into a residential school in Fort Albany.

In these early years of Catholic missionaries, religious leaders took the role of caretakers for orphans. At 16, Kookoom was put into an arranged marriage with a man she had never met. In 1932, at the old village site of Fort Albany, she married Xavier Paulmartin, a man in good standing with the Catholic missionaries and then she was passed on again to another family.

Kookoom had many stories of fear and apprehension after her marriage. She had nothing when she left Fort Albany, none of her own clothing, valuables or mementos of a previous life. Her only wedding gifts were some clothes and a sewing kit of needles, thread and cloth given to her by nuns and missionaries. She did not know where she would live, she did not really know her new husband.

Happily, she discovered that she had married into a quiet, hardworking and industrious family that found it a joy to care for her at their homestead on the shores of the Nawashi River. She joined a large family group with Xavier’s parents, Maggie and George Paulmartin and their 13 sons and daughters. Kookoom was loved and strengthened by her new family, which rallied around the youngest daughter, Mary Rose, when she contracted polio and lost the use of her legs at a young age.

Two years after her marriage, Kookoom had her first daughter, Theresa and then in succeeding years, seven more children. She gave birth to all her children on the shores of the Nawashi River under the guidance of her mother-in-law Maggie Paulmartin, who acted as a midwife.

Kookoom’s new family led a traditional nomadic life. She learned everything she knew from the Paulmartins. Kookoom picked up many of the legends, stories and traditions of our people as well as religious Catholic values and beliefs. In all, she accumulated the skills needed to provide the best for her family. In 1965, the Paulmartin family left Nawashi River for the last time to live permanently in Attawapiskat surrounded by a growing number of grandchildren.

Kookoom always remembered the hardships of her childhood and whenever her extended family suffered through difficult times, she was there to help. At different times, she took her grandchildren into her home. She was there for all of us and my brother Lawrence, my sister Janie or our cousins George and Gertie Paulmartin, who lived with her for some time.

In her later years, she began to travel and she marveled at being able to visit distant places to follow in her grandchildren’s foot steps. Kookoom found it humorous to say she had been to places like Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal or Flin Flon, Manitoba.

Even though we lived through so many hardships in our community, Kookoom was a big part of something that was good in our lives. She held an important position in our family and she made sure that we were all safe and cared for. She loved my mom Susan very much.

Kookoom has gone home now and is back on the shores of the Nawashi River, with her husband Xavier and surrounded by Maggie and George Paulmartin and the entire family. Under a blue sky, surrounded by the summer bloom of a green forest, she is with her grandson Philip, granddaughter Rita and her great grandson Nicholas. Near the cool flowing waters, she sits around the fire with her parents John and Maggie as Kookoom learns more about the family she never knew.