With exciting new additions to showcase but limited visits since the pandemic, the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (ACCI) has launched a new interactive website to bring its spectacular collection to the world.
“The impacts of Covid-19 have highlighted a need to offer a true ‘virtual museum’. Access to the collections will be extremely valuable for community members seeking information about their cultural heritage as well as those interested in expanding their understanding of the Cree people of Eeyou Istchee,” said Institute President Alexander Moses.
While the original website was cutting edge when ACCI opened 10 years ago, it couldn’t manage the material it can now display. With generous support from the Mastercard Foundation and the Eenou-Eeyou Community Foundation, the redesign began a year ago.
One of the updated site’s highlights is a virtual reality tour, compatible with Oculus goggles, that lets users browse the impressive facility from the comfort of their homes. Built from over a thousand photographs and with clickable “hot spots” that pop up additional information, it’s the next best thing to an in-person visit to Ouje-Bougoumou.
“There’s a lot of people interested in us but unfortunately not everyone can make it here,” said Program Diretcor Rob Imrie. “This is the way to have people experience what we have to offer and entice them to come to see it in person. You can see quite a bit of the building but there’s nothing like the real thing.”
After receiving only 11 visitors throughout 2020, the easing of public safety regulations earlier this year allowed more people to experience the unique joys of discovery that a good museum can provide. On December 15, Aanischaaukamikw welcomed the Grand Chief and Deputy Grand Chief to witness the unpacking of recently repatriated Cree cultural artifacts.
A rare and fragile painted caribou jacket from the 1830s-40s was transferred from the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in England this autumn while a traditional hood was permanently returned from the Lachine Museum by the City of Montreal earlier this year. The hood dates from about 1850 and is believed to have been owned by Jane Gunner, who was the wife of the Chief of Mistissini. Gunner’s great-granddaughter Dinah Simard was present for the unpacking.
“She was in tears, saying, ‘I feel like I just met my great-grandmother again’,” Imrie recalled. “They were the first to lay eyes on these objects that have been returned. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. It was such a powerful moment.”
ACCI continues to communicate with other institutions to determine objects that could be loaned or transferred and to discuss knowledge-sharing opportunities. Library technician Annie Bosum is regularly asked about Aanischaaukamikw’s ever-expanding collection, including numerous rare books, and her expertise with the Brian Deer classification system.
Staff were recently in contact with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, the world’s largest museum. Closer to home, the Chisasibi Cultural and Heritage Centre has asked for training about organizing archives. The new website will simplify initiatives like the online workshops ACCI is holding for an Oregon library over the next few months in birchbark binding and other Cree craft making.
Although they’ve already received some online orders, the website will soon have a fully functioning store enabling visitors to order arts, crafts and souvenirs created by Cree artisans and craftspeople. Another major attraction of the website will be an extensive database, providing easy access to a vast range of historical documents, videos and recordings.
“The database is going to be really interesting,” Imrie told the Nation. “We have recordings that we’re in the process of digitizing. We are getting more and more archival information and audio cassettes all the time. There’s another donation we might get that’s in the hundreds of boxes. Trying to sort that out and digitize it takes time.”
Eeyou Istchee’s rich oral history is documented in the website’s stories and legends, with video testimonials from Elders continuing to be integrated. There will also be a new recording of Mind’s Eye, an award-winning ACCI theatrical production that toured Cree communities in 2014, directed by Shirley Cheechoo and based on a book of traditional stories collected by the late Emily Masty.
“Once we get the Mind’s Eye recording edited, we’ll put it on our website and have educational programming to go along with it,” explained Imrie. “Teachers from any school can use these lessons that have Cree language aspects, vocabulary and all sorts of thematic units for every single grade.”
Inspired by the traditional Cree sabtuan, famous Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal developed the building’s bold design according to the highest environmental and international museum standards. From its towering spruce beams to its geothermal heating and cooling system, the building fits harmoniously into its surroundings in the heart of Ouje-Bougoumou.
Cardinal most recently designed Creeco’s new $100 million Odea tower in Montreal, named after the historic odeyak that took Cree and Inuit activists paddled 2,000 kilometres to downtown Manhattan in 1990 to successfully protect their territory from a massive hydroelectric project. That odeyak is now a primary attraction in the museum.
“It’s a powerful example of what can be done when you believe in something and put your mind towards making a change,” asserted Imrie.
The institute’s 10th anniversary in spring 2022 is an opportunity to reflect on its immense contribution to preserving and promoting Cree culture. Aanischaaukamikw is preparing a special exhibit for this occasion.
“My goal is to get everyone in Eeyou Istchee to come visit at least once in their lives,” Imrie said. “It’s free entry to everyone in the communities so they have access to their culture any time throughout the year. Our building is absolutely incredible. When people walk in, the first thing they say is ‘Wow’.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter