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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Cree Knowledge Festival spotlights Cree culture virtually

BY Patrick Quinn Mar 24, 2023

A new two-day digital happening will be shining a spotlight on the rich and dynamic Cree culture. The Cree Knowledge Festival on March 25-26 will feature six engaging panels, dozens of guests, music performances and storytelling. 

Animated by former CBC North radio host Christopher Herodier, the virtual festival intends to connect threads of the past and present to spread awareness about the culture. It’s the first step towards a larger annual event like the Great Northern Arts Festival in the Northwest Territories.

“That festival in Inuvik started really small but is now well known for artists and tourists,” said Robin McGinley, executive director of the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association (COTA). “We have amazing festivals in the territory but they’re not always the same time. I wanted to have a festival that was always in the same place and date so you could sell packages around it.”

As the travel trade typically establishes prices a year or two in advance, McGinley has long pushed for more consistency in the region’s tourism offerings. While an in-person event held the third weekend of August in Ouje-Bougoumou might be launched next year, there was an opportunity to host this year’s virtual event before the end of the funding cycle. 

With the proposed event coordinator position still vacant, COTA worked with the Cree Trappers’ Association and the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association to plan this edition, a partnership McGinley called “the three sisters” of the JBNQA. They’re working with Agence Webdiffusion to produce the festival on an interactive platform that’s free to register. 

“It’s a mix of art, storytelling, panels, and a mix of old and young,” McGinley explained. “The idea is to share different parts of the Cree reality to create better awareness for a visit when they get a taste of it. It’s designed as a festival – hopefully Crees will be proud too.”

Working with a First Nation for the first time, Webdiffusion has been involved in organizing the schedule and determining which ideas would be the best fit for a live event. Early indications suggest a huge demand to learn more about the Cree Nation, with 4,000 people already expressing interest in the festival. 

“We didn’t know what to expect and so far it’s beyond what we thought was possible,” said Agence Webdiffusion president ClaudiaBaillargeon. “My colleague is flabbergasted. Our estimate is 2,000 people will want to create an account and watch the festival –  it’s going to be like a TV talk show.”

Herodier said he’s been dreaming about hosting this kind of Indigenous-focused television show and is happy to promote the Cree culture however he can. After a long road back from residential school trauma, Herodier is enjoying living back in Chisasibi, actively involved in his community’s communications and media development. 

“I’m glad to be home,” Herodier told the Nation. “There’s a lot of positive things going on in Eeyou Istchee. I want to support my leadership – it’s not an easy job and we have to work together to make positive changes in our community.”

In the first panel aiming to explore the past to reshape the future, Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty and Chisasibi Chief Daisy House will attempt to reframe general perceptions about Cree culture. The second panel with the Cree School Board’s Sarah Pash and CREECO president Derrick Neeposh will explore how Cree people are shaping the world through inspiring entrepreneurship. 

Through the art of storytelling, writer Janie Pachano and her lifelong partner Roderick will share absorbing anecdotes about Chisasibi gathered over more than 40 years. Elder Eddy Pash will discuss the universal web connecting nature, communities and cultural memory while Dwayne Cox will share teachings about how each Cree was traditionally given a song to embody the unique spirit of what they love. 

“As a kid, I heard our Elders speak about who we were,” Herodier shared. “When we were playing hockey aggressively, the late John Napash told us ‘You boys have to take care of each other because you’re going to help build our community. People are going to want to take your land, but you have to work with them.’ Now I understand what he meant.”

The Cree Knowledge Festival will also zoom in on Cree art through the eyes of a dozen local artists, exploring the inspiration and process behind a diverse range of traditional creations. The final panel will take an in-depth look at Margaret Orr’s flexible approach to artistic media, which often focuses on caribou in her painting, sculpture, leather crafts, film, theatre and storytelling. 

“We’ll be talking about what Eeyou Istchee is and the beauty of the Cree culture and language,” said Herodier. “We’ll probably delineate from the original plan and take it to another direction. I’ll try to focus on the artistic talents of the Cree people – it’s going to be something new.”

Singer Mariame Hasni and fiddler Jayden Ratt will feature in performances and live interviews while Cree Rising will offer an exclusive performance to close the gathering. Miss Chisasibi, Delayna Cox, will also showcase her community’s culture with fancy shawl dancing. 

“Since I have been Miss Chisasibi, the whole community has gotten to know me,” said Cox. “Young girls call me princess and want to take a picture with me. I feel welcomed and special at all the events I go to.”

While considering her next move after graduating high school last year, the 17-year-old has kept busy with work, sports and cultural activities like snowshoeing, painting and ice-fishing. Proudly sharing her love of the Cree culture and language, Cox described the transcendental feeling of last summer’s powwow when she participated in a heal dance. 

“A sick person comes into the powwow grounds and the ones who have a red jingle dress dance around to heal them,” said Cox. “It’s a very beautiful thing to see. I feel I’m dancing with my ancestors.”

For more info on the Cree Knowledge Festival and to register, visit cree-festival-cri.com

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.