I was born and raised in a small, remote First Nation community and I can tell you it was all about survival of the fittest. In general there are many reasons why life can be hard on a person when they are from an isolated northern community. Conditions in many remote northern Native communities are difficult as we seem to have been left behind by federal and provincial governments. Most of these remote reserves really are third-world realities. Dealing with such enormous challenges means that many fall into a neverending spiral of low self-esteem, depression and addiction.
You would think that life in this type of situation would not produce many kind and caring people but for the most part that is not the case. First Nation cultures have always been based on respect, sharing and kindness. This has always been our foundation for survival. My people the James Bay Cree had to be very supportive and close knit over hundreds of years while living in very extreme weather conditions and enduring hard lives.
In the past, kindness counted for a lot in the wilderness. In one way or another, everyone was dependent on each other for mutual survival. Food was often shared among families. You could also rely on others to help you find good hunting grounds. Most of the time, individual families lived separately from others in a nomadic lifestyle. However, family groups often came together to work cooperatively in hunting and gathering food.
In the wild, hunters, travellers and traditional people understand what really being on your own is all about. It is an unwritten law that those out on the land must always be ready and willing to lend a helping hand to someone else who develops a problem or has a great need. The trait of kindness was developed out of the will to survive. When one reached out to assist another it was with the idea that we all are connected to each other and the land and to survive we need to remember that. Doing a kindness to someone else in a way meant doing it for yourself.
In my home community of Attawapiskat, I grew up learning much from my Elders and they provided me with the example of leading a hard-working, quiet and unobtrusive lifestyle. Our traditional culture is based on a nomadic way of life that goes with the seasons. There is never any rush because Mother Earth decides when we should move and when we should stay. This meant that in our natural environment, we learned to live quietly because there was nothing to be gained by trying to finish work faster or acquire more of one thing or another.
In many ways, we had no choice but to be quiet and humble because Mother Earth was always capable of putting us in our place. Many non-Native southerners think of us as lazy or unmotivated at times but really we are just very conscious of how things operate and we tend to leave the hurry and obsession of making things work out to a greater idea.
There have been many really kind and understanding people in my life. I think of people like my dad’s brother, uncle Gabriel Kataquapit. He did his best to avoid a fast-paced lifestyle and instead enjoyed quieter moments on the land. In his later years, he did not have many opportunities to head out to his hunting or trapping grounds so instead he satisfied himself with tending to a small fishing net near the community. He valued his quiet time and was very happy to take a half kilometre walk to the bank of the river, launch his small 18-foot canoe, tend to his nets, fetch a few buckets of water and then head home. Gabe took great pleasure in the simple things in life and he always had time for people. If you met Gabe during your day you had the gift of a few kind words, a smile, a good story and perhaps a little wisdom.
I realize that I am seen as shy and retiring by most of my southern non-Native friends. It seems that I have learned well from my Elders as I am very quiet most of the time and I prefer to take my time with life. In the Cree tradition I don’t like people putting stress on me or hurrying me and I don’t work that way with others. My family and friends are important to me but I respect them in their lives and I don’t make huge demands on them. I also like to give people lots of room to live and move and that probably comes out of my experience in living on the land for much of my young life.
It makes me sad at times to see so many people here in the southern non-Native community taking life so seriously that they forget we are all here but for a very brief time. I see many people working at a feverish pace, trying to grab as much as they can and sometimes with very little care about those around them. My people have always seen life as temporary and a gift. I was taught that it is best to live a quiet life and to take care of the land and be easy on people around me. That is the original Cree way.