Far out man! Those words were spoken by Khajeesit, a contestant in the 1970s costume contest at Mamoweedow Minshtuksh on Fort George Island. Those two words could perfectly describe the whole gathering.
Mamoweedow Minshtuksh means “Let’s get together on the island” in Cree. It took place July 23-28, and for the people of Chisasibi, Fort George remains a symbol of an era when times were simpler, when E9
Iders and the young played checkers by the shore when the ladies trundled off to pick berries for their home-made jam and when the kids’ only worry was whether their bait mixture made of flour, water and the secret ingredients that would attract the fish.
The town was moved to the mainland in the late 1970s, when there were fears that the island would wash away in the increased flow from the newly constructed hydro dams upriver. Thirty years later the island remains; along with it the spirit of the community and the people who are drawn to the times when people spoke to each other and visited one another just to share a tea and a laugh.
Driving along in my late dad’s old truck I noticed many of the places I hung out at as a kid were overgrown with willows and trees. I point out the landmarks and places where buildings had been to my friend Steven Caicedo, a New Yorker on his first trip to the north. I pointed out the yard of the priest where we would get kicked out of when we were caught enjoying the delicious strawberries. I pointed out the airstrip where everyone would gather when the plane came in, and the landing where people unloaded the year’s supplies from the barge. I remembered a time when the hustle and bustle of today’s Chisasibi was yet to be seen.
The look of utter joy on Richard Pepabano’s face as he danced summed up the gathering for me. Social games such as various forms of musical chairs were played during the day with music, singing and dancing going into the wee hours of the morning. There were Elders also on hand to show the different aspects of Cree culture in one of the teepees set up for the occasion.
Many of the things we enjoyed were introduced from the outside, including the Scottish jigs and reels, along with the square dancing that comes with it. Another notable import and memory is Saskatchewan’s Smilin’ Johnny and his partner Eleanor Dahl who would tour the northern communities during the 60s and 70s, bringing their country music to northern communities that were usually accessible by air.
The fact that he came to entertain the people in those times was very much appreciated and people still remember; in fact, Smilin’ Johnny made an appearance one year at Mamoweedow Minshtuksh. This year Christopher Napash and his wife Lily along with Victor Herodier dressed up in the way Smilin’ Johnny and his bandmates would have dressed back in the day. Christopher even had a replica upright bass as his prop.
My friend Steven and I met old friends and made new ones as we made our rounds on the island. One night, Steven, a DJ by trade, and I got on the air in the makeshift radio station with the brand of house music he is famous for spinning. One of my favourite moments came when Steven and I were asked to judge the 70s dress up contest. When the contestants were strutting their stuff as the music played one of the contestants yelled out the lights were “too bright for a teen dance.” Then someone played with the lights turning them on and off then when all the lights were turned off everybody pulled out their flashlights and shone them up to the roof of the tent creating the perfect mood for the “teen dance.”
As for the main attraction of fiddling and square dancing, we usually didn’t make it to the end, hearing the music still going as the sun peeked over the horizon as we got to sleep.
At our camp I usually awoke to the sound of clanging pots and pans, signalling that it was time for breakfast. A post breakfast nap was usually in order. The Bearskin family area where we camped was very peaceful and evoked many memories of the town. The kids playing along the shore, the people sharing food, the laughter and the memories of the island made the visit a truly memorable one.
Many of those things we enjoy today we made our own. One thing we didn’t have to bring in from the outside is the sense of community and the spirit one feels when surrounded by friends, family and the soft breeze coming off the river. Far out indeed.