Students of the cabinet-making program offered by Sabtuan Adult Education Services took a morning off their woodworking projects on February 7 to visit the Traditional Cree Fishing and Chisheinuu Chiskutamaachewin Project with their teacher, Andy Anderson.
The project comprises a series of teaching lodges arranged in a semi-circle on the bank of Lake Mistassini, just after the fork on Route 167, which leads to the town of Mistissini. It is a place to regain the Cree way of life through cultural knowledge and skills as passed down from Elders of the community to their youth.
Lizzie Swallow, Cook Trainer and Jane Juliet Coonishish, Cook Helper
“The primary purpose of the trip,” Anderson explained, “is for my students to gain an understanding and appreciation of traditional methods of wood carving, tool making and other crafts.”
The secondary purpose: A hearty home-cooked lunch would be served in the dining lodge.
While some lodges are solid wood structures with wood flooring, others have wood siding that reaches only to about waist level. A tent stretches from the siding to form a roof, often with skylights. Each structure has at least one wood stove, keeping the inside toasty and cheerfully warm.
The class first visited the carving lodge. Inside, Henry Ottereyes was shaping snowshoes. He showed how the wood needed to be steamed to render it more pliable. He indicated a large contraption, which generates steam for this purpose. After being shaped, the snowshoe would stay in a mould for several days.
Standing next to Ottereyes, Alfred Coon Come carved shovels. He demonstrated various sizes, which could be used from stirring stew to scooping ice out of fishing holes.
Ben Gunner pulled items out of a box to show the class: a caribou hide rattle, a toy toboggan, and trimmings for drum making. He reached for a tiny replicated wooden axe.
“This is for the walking out ceremony,” Gunner said. “When a young child reaches around the age of two, after they start walking, they are given this. It is a very important occasion.”
Gunner then held up handcrafted skewers. “This is for cooking beaver.” He demonstrated how beaver would be roasted over a fire, and twirled for uniform cooking.
“I love beaver,” he added. “We are having it here next week, but I like it cooked inside out so the fat runs off.”
Harry Meskino further demonstrated traditional carving and shaping techniques.
“Birch is usually the wood of choice,” he said. “It is easier to bend.”
At the medicine lodge, Bella Petawabano and Pat Blacksmith explained traditional medicine made from the bark of grey alder, birch and tamarack, and also from leaves. These medicines are prepared to help cure and relieve symptoms of diabetes, sore throats, croup, rashes, sores and stomach disorders. The students had questions for various ailments for themselves and family members.
Labrador tea was offered to visitors. The slender, inch-long leaves have medicinal qualities, as well as an energizing effect, providing strength and endurance. The pale brown liquid was smooth and woodsy, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Blacksmith stressed that this knowledge of medicine could only be passed on to members of the Cree community.
A heavy cloth marks the entrance to the sewing lodge. By lifting the embroidered cloth, entry is gained into a “cold room.” This room acts as a buffer from the frigid air, before entering the main lodge. The flooring here is remarkably soft and buoyant, as carpets are stretched over a thick layer of evergreen boughs.
At a long table, Elders and young women were working on various sewing projects.
Elizabeth Coon Come showed her star-shaped, brilliant-blue beadwork, stitched on a piece of hide. She explained the significance of colours and how they were indicators of family groupings.
Ella Voyageur pulled out a basket of items in various stages of completion, including an intricate beaded, embroidered bag used to carry bullets, a large pouch for transporting bedding and many baby items. She demonstrated how a baby would be wrapped up and protected in layers of blankets. In past times, moss was used as diapers. “It is not any moss,” she said, “but a brown moss. It is dried all summer and sticks are shifted out to make sure it is soft.”
At the fishing lodge, Emily Swallow was weaving a fish net, working a hand-carved wooden shuttle between the nylon threads. It would take about a month to complete.
“These nets are for normal fish,” she said and gestured towards Emma Longchap. “She is weaving a stronger net for sturgeon.”
At noon, Anderson and his students headed towards the dining lodge.
Winnie Coon Come, head chef, explained that food is prepared at the lodge and fresh game is donated by local hunters.
For lunch that day, Coon Come was helped by Sophie Coon Come, Lizzie Swallow, Mary Jane Trapper, Jane Juliet Coonishish and Carla Edwards.
The central table was heaped with food. First in line was a steaming pot of soup/stew made with bacon and an unspecified meat, wafting a gentle cinnamon-like scent. Laid out next were a pan of mashed potatoes and carrots, a sheet of shepherd’s pie, well-done moose steaks, fry bread, bannock plain and with raisins, and blueberry preserves.
Before lining up for lunch, Johnny Meskino led in a prayer of thanks in Cree.
Sitting: Elder Alfred Coon Come, Harry Meskino – Carving trainer, Standing Left to Right: Tyrone Dash, Leslie Longchap, Nathan Brien, William Swallow, Andy Anderson, Henry Ottereyes – Carving trainer, Robie Nicholls, Stephane Fortin, Robie Matoush, David Mianscum, Benoit Longchap
After lunch, the students observed traditional hide preparation. A pale beige moose hide was stretched taut across a wooden rack. Fat and meat were shaved off, like curls of frozen butter, with a long wood-handled metal tool. When Alice Blacksmith was asked if she ever accidentally made holes in this painstaking process, she replied, “Yes, sometimes when I get tired.”
It was an enlightening morning, but it was time for the students to return to the whirring and buzzing of their woodworking shop. Maybe, as they are operating power drills, planers, lathes and routers that have made working with wood less time consuming, they might stop for a moment and ponder the dedication and skills of their ancestors.
Andi Christine Bednarzig writes the Northern Lights: Living in a Cree Community blog –