A great deal of history passed away in Chisasibi this past month, Cree History, unwritten Cree history. As I look back I remember the first time that I met Josie Sam Atkinson. I thought then that he was not a very big man but his steps were giant steps for the Cree people.

It was in the fall of 1968 and he had been travelling from community to community awakening the Cree people to their rights. He was the first Cree to really go from village to village telling the people, “You have rights. These are rights that no man can take away. You have Indian rights. You have Cree Rights.” That was his statement and his goal—awakening the Cree people to their rights back in 1968.

It was only in the latter part of 1969 that I would join him first, as a travelling companion to learn from him, and I watched how the Cree Elders and how the Cree communities respected this Cree leader. I began to learn, a great deal from him about the land, about my people, the Crees and how we can build our future. His phrase about 26 years ago was that “we had rights.” He convinced everyone to demand the recognition of our rights. He was determined to continue building the Cree case. At the early part of his career he promoted the Indians of Quebec Association. He moved on from just being a spokesman to being a regional Chief for the Cree people along the James Bay East Coast When news of his arrival came into our village, the people hurried to the meetings that he organized and way before the time the meeting was supposed to start, the Band hall was full and there was anticipation in the air that there was a movement taking place, that there was something wonderful happening. Josie Sam Atkinson was able to draw the people together. At one time he had translated for the Cree Chiefs and now he was speaking for them, organizing them, telling them that we can build ourselves, that we can build a collectivity whereby we can fight together and bring a change to our living conditions, but most of all “we have Indian Rights.” “We have Cree rights.” That was his theme and he continued to expound upon that theme throughout his whole life.

Years before any joint ventures or real economic development projects, Josie Sam single-handedly successfully negotiated a franchise for gas and petroleum products from Shell Canada and away from the giant retailer, the Hudson Bay Company, as well as a ski-doo dealership on the Fort George Island. Josie knew that the future was in education and economic development—that is why he laboured for hours in setting up the fishing and goose hunting camps along the coast of James Bay. Others would follow his example on the east coast of James Bay.

Could he ever tell a story! Josie had the cunning natural ability to use humour and make those around him laugh. Tell a story he did from time to time. We used to sit together on a trip or in a meeting and he would always come up with a story that made you appreciate life and that made you laugh.

Later I travelled with Josie Sam Atkinson for five years. I was at his side during many of the meetings and I learned from him. He became my teacher and my mentor. He was my role model. I remember when the James Bay fight started and the hours that he spent in developing a strategy for the Cree people. When the court case was initiated he knew in his heart that we were going to win. He knew where to gather the evidence and along with Morley Loon he spent many hours video-taping Elders, community meetings, Cree oral historians, Cree events and, yes, even when the destruction of the first hydro works moved in 1970.

He travelled many miles to Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City and to all the Cree communities speaking on behalf of the Cree Nation and representing the Cree people and putting forth the Cree position. This was in the days before the Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec). Yes, you can say that Josie Sam Atkinson is the real founder of the Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec). He was there during all the court cases and the negotiations; and finally when all the agreements were signed and the legislation came forward he participated. During all that time I never heard Josie ask for personal recognition. He just wanted to make sure that the Crees had a future and he knew that “we had Indian rights.” He knew that we would be able to uphold the Cree rights.

Josie Sam’s greatest contribution to the Cree Nation in my view is that from 1967 to 1972, for a period of five years, he single-handedly organized the strengthening of the ties that bind the Cree people; this was the birth of the Cree Nation. He criss-crossed the Cree Territory in organizing meetings and assemblies to inform the Crees that the Crees are a people and that “the Crees have rights.” He solicited the help of the young and elderly Crees and recruited all Crees to the Cree cause to fight development that would destroy the Cree way of life. He spent countless hours travelling by bush airplanes, cars, trains and even ski-doos to reach his own people to awaken them to their rights. For five years he laboured under the Indians of Quebec Association without respite and never asking anything for himself, always only demanding the recognition of the Cree rights. Josie Sam later became one of the founders of the Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec) in 1974.

While the opposition to the La Grande Complex started, Josie Sam put the same energy he had to work to stop the project He spent many days interviewing his own people as potential witnesses and experts in the Cree way of life. In the preparation of Cree experts, Josie Sam knew where to look for them and where to find them when the lawyers for the Crees needed help during the court case and negotiations. Yes, he carried with him a great deal of our history and we have lost a pioneer fighter and protector and defender of Cree rights.

As I think back now that the funeral is over, I cannot help but think of this great individual who put the Cree Nation first before his wife and before his children and before his grandchildren to make sure that the Cree rights were recognized and the time and effort he put into the latter so that we could have safe and comfortable communities and that our children would have a heritage and continue to enjoy a culture, a language and a way of life he cherished above everything else.

As I was in Chisasibi this month, I realized that I had not only lost a friend but the Cree people have lost a great leader and history-maker in this man. Josie Sam Atkinson was my teacher. He was my mentor. He was my closest advisor and he was my friend.

Josie Sam was a man who took giant steps when he walked here and again he’s cheering us on in another world, for us to follow in his footsteps. I know that I will see him again, but for now I have the value of his words which still ring in my heart. His teachings will continue to guide everyone of us towards a future he could be proud of.

Farewell, my friend.

Farewell, my teacher.