Left to right: Mervin Cheechoo, Abraham Bearskin, Carol Anne Cheechoo, Roger Orr, Wendy Hill, Matthew Mukash, Pat Blacksmith, Thomas Coon, Linda Shecapio, Jayson Caldera. Front row: Louisa Cookie Brown and Betty Albert

Left to right: Mervin Cheechoo, Abraham Bearskin, Carol Anne Cheechoo, Roger Orr,
Wendy Hill, Matthew Mukash, Pat Blacksmith, Thomas Coon, Linda Shecapio, Jayson
Caldera. Front row: Louisa Cookie Brown and Betty Albert

“The fire of the teepee, with the spruce boughs – oh, it was just beautiful! The smell of it! So close together. It was just so powerful!”

Christine Petawabano was excited as she recalled the Eeyou Healing Retreat – Chiiwaaschaouu Nishiiyuu – Honouring the Journey of Hope at Wemindji’s traditional camp, held September 19-21. As the Mistissini coordinator for the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association (CWEIA), Petawabano played a major role in organizing event.

She was far from alone. Before the retreat’s last day was even finished, social media lit up with praises for the experience.

The impetus for the event began last year, when the Nishiyuu trekkers completed their walk from Chisasibi to Mistissini for an end to violence against women in Cree communities.

“There was about probably close to 20 of them,” Petawabano remembered, “men from various communities starting arrived in Mistissini in September. That’s when they publicly apologized to women – to our mothers, and our sisters.”

For the CWEIA, the walk and the apology at the end of it were the beginning of something greater. At that organization’s Annual General Assembly last year, discussion began about organizing a conference to tackle some of the Cree Nation’s most difficult issues.

“One of the issues was reconciliation for men and women with the violence that had occurred for so many years with the apology from the Nishiyuu men,” said Petawabano.

“We wanted the Nishiyuu men to be one of our partners, instead of just being separate, doing it alone. We wanted to work together with different organizations of the Cree Nation to show that this is what we need to do as a nation, to work together, not to do things independently or be competing with anybody. To have that communication, and to say, ‘Take my hand,’ or ‘Give us your hand, we can do this together.’”

Petawabano is also a part of the CWEIA’s Gender-Based Analysis project, a federally funded initiative designed to consider the different types of violence that women encounter versus the kinds of violence men experience, and then to determine the best possible tools and resources to help both genders heal from their trauma. She said she brought that background into planning for the Healing Retreat.

The weekend was jam-packed with activities. There was a sunrise ceremony on the first day, and opening remarks, followed by a series of Elders who spoke each day on specific subjects, such as the culture of the Cree drum, or the meaning of the term “Nishiyuu.” There were many workshops on a wide variety of subjects. In the evening, there was good food, sharing circles for men, women, and groups, and sweat lodges. All of the weekend attempted to respectfully balance the needs and beliefs of those who practiced traditional Cree spirituality and those who follow the Christian path.

“It was really, really busy,” said Petawabano. “From 6:30 in the morning right up until 10:30 at night. It was focused on you, just you: mind, body and soul. It was all self-care, inside and out. With the food, too. We didn’t want heavy food, just healthy traditional foods and fruits and vegetables.”

The weekend was also part spa: there was a massage therapist, along with reiki, yoga, reflexology foot massage and meditation. There was even a hairstylist who washed and cut attendees’ hair at no charge. But there was also serious self-care being offered: traditional healers from Whapmagoostui offered one-on-one counselling in the Native spiritual tradition, while the Cree Health Board brought in a one-on-one counsellor for those dealing with the trauma of surviving Residential Schools.

The weekend ended with a feast of traditional food, a farewell, a gift exchange, ending with a concert by the legendary Fort George Rockers and a fiddle performance by former Grand Chief Matthew Mukash.

The real star of the weekend, however, was the spirit of togetherness that pervaded the whole gathering.

“Our creator was in favour of what we were doing,” Petawabano said. “It was very spiritual. There were so many little stories that were a part of this. I’d see people in the corners of the room talking, close, and know their hearts were connecting. It was very beautiful. A lot of healing was taking place, and celebrations. The energy that was there – nobody had a personal agenda. There was no backstabbing or gossip or anger. I couldn’t feel any negative energy. There was a lot of laughter and tears, and touching – many people holding hands.”

The event was barely over when those who had participated began wondering when it would happen again. Some said they hoped similar events could be arranged in each of the Cree communities every year.

Petawabano’s report on the event is due in late October, when she will make a presentation about the event highlighting its successes and failures. She will also review recommendations from attendees about how to improve future events.