The strongest and fastest individuals have always stood out in our Cree culture. After all, back when we were a nomadic people, the strongest survived through cold winters and lean summers. Life out on the land meant you had to have some strength in order to hunt, trap, fish, travel under your own power and generally use your own body as the machine that ensured your survival. Physical strength equalled power.
Suddenly, our world changed with the arrival of the European culture and the introduction of permanent communities. Our old ways changed but our ideas, for the most part, stayed the same. Later, machines were introduced to make travelling easier, trapping was not as intensive with modern tools and life was generally made more comfortable with new conveniences and technologies. We could sit back and relax a little in this modern world but we still held on to that ideal that physical strength ruled supreme.
We were always encouraged to grow strong and become that powerful person that was capable of carrying heavy loads, walking the farthest out on the land or running the fastest. So we grew up with the thought that we should learn to train our bodies as mechanisms for work and survival.
When my older brothers and other boys of their age attended high school in southern cities and towns, they were exposed to a trend in body building in the 1980s. When they came home during the holidays, they arrived with magazines on body building, books on weight training and new ideas on how to become Mr. Perfect Body Builder.
As my brothers grew older, they begged our parents for a weight training set. Mom and dad were of the mind that we needed these things in order to become the muscle men we saw in our magazines and books. It was no surprise that we ended up with a new exercise bench and weights. One of the bedrooms was soon transformed into a weight training room where we also slept. It was a tight fit in a small home that housed 14 people but we sacrificed some comfort for that special room.
We were not the only family in Attawapiskat squeezing weight training sets into small and cluttered homes. Our cousins and friends were all doing the same thing. Whenever we visited our friends or they came to see us, our bedroom hang outs featured the weight bench that doubled as extra seating.
The conversations around the bench usually ended up as comparisons of body physiques among the participants. We judged each other by how big our muscles were. People rolled up shirt sleeves to see who had the largest biceps. Guys intimidated each other by twitching their chest muscles in rhythm to the latest music that played in the background.
If people were on equal footing according to body shape and size, then it became a competition of who could actually lift the most. The argument with traditional people was that if you had a great looking body it did not always mean that you could actually move a lot of weight. These debates were settled by demonstrations of who was capable of lifting the most in a bench press or arm curl.
We gathered as much information as we could from our books and magazines. We argued about what the best number of repetitions were, how much weight to lift, how many times a week to train, how to work up a sweat and what to eat.
Sometimes it just didn’t seem fair as I just never managed to really succeed at looking like a muscle man. I learned years later that some of us were simply predisposed genetically to have that body building physique than were others.
When I think about it now, some of the guys just grew large muscles automatically without much training. Others developed nothing at all yet they seemed just as strong as the muscle guys in town. In retrospect I find it humorous after all the arguing, intimidation, mirror posing and weight training most of us ended up with the bodies we were destined to have. The quest for the perfect body led many of my friends and family members to physiques that were actually funny. Some of the guys ended up with huge arms like Popeye while others had legs like balloons.
Recently, I started a weight training routine similar to what I followed when I was a teenager but this time with the goal of just losing some weight and not necessarily becoming the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. The idea is to keep that spare tire off my stomach and in the trunk of my car, where it belongs.