The first-ever Cree Knowledge Festival, an online event broadcast live from Chisasibi March 25-26, is being called “a resounding success” by its organizers at the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association (CNACA), Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association (COTA) and Cree Trappers’ Association (CTA).
“The organizers did an incredible job, giving viewers a small taste of Eeyou Istchee,” said Chisasibi Chief Daisy House. “As there is so much more to explore, we hope this festival encourages mandowch (visitors) to travel to our paradise in the North and experience our land – which to us, is medicine for the mind, body and soul.”
While organizers intend to focus on different Cree communities in future editions of the festival, CNACA executive director Gaston Cooper said that this time “we wanted Chisasibi to shine.” The community was instrumental in the event’s success, from the talented local performers to the set design, audio and catering.
A huge production team worked behind the scenes at the Mitchuap Building with other producers and French-language interpreters connecting from Montreal. George Diamond spontaneously developed the inviting teepee backdrop days before the event, bringing over poles and tarp with the help of his grandsons.
Although viewership numbers are still being compiled, an estimated 1,900 people watched the live events while the promotional videos reached over 200,000 on social media. The broadcast reached viewers as far away as France.
“The majority of people who joined were [Québécois], which was exactly what we were hoping for,” Cooper told the Nation. “There was one woman from California thanking us. Their culture has been lost and with just a glimpse of Cree culture it touched her heart.”
Cooper said the most popular panel was the discussion with Chief House and Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty, breaking down common misconceptions about the Cree Nation they’ve heard in their travels and explaining key aspects about the culture along with certain issues like the longstanding housing shortage.
“The online platform provides greater access to those who want to know about the Cree way of life,” stated Gull-Masty. “I am so proud to participate in this first-ever innovative showcase.”
While COTA had discussed launching a festival since before the Covid pandemic to highlight the importance of Cree traditions and values, this virtual event demonstrated the growing interest in Eeyou Istchee, setting the stage for tourists to visit a larger gathering in summer 2024.
Throughout the open platform, host Christopher Herodier interviewed Cree leaders and knowledge keepers with occasional questions from audience members delivered by co-host Lori-Jane Pepabano. A fancy shawl performance by Miss Chisasibi, Delayna Cox, was an opportunity to announce that Chisasibi’s annual powwow will occur June 30, July 1 and 2.
During the second panel, CREECO president Derrick Neeposh was joined by the Cree Heath Board’s Bertie Wapachee and Cree School Board’s Sarah Pash to show how the entities’ projects are often interrelated. For instance, Pash said that new nursing and home-care training will be introduced next year to prepare for the regional hospital being built in Chisasibi.
Although the primary audience was non-Indigenous people beyond the territory, much of the dialogue was in the Cree language with plenty of wisdom for locals to learn from. Cooper said organizers wanted to gather and preserve Elders’ teachings, helping youth to better connect with their cultural heritage.
In segments shot on the land last summer, Eddy Pash discussed the healing power of nature and Dwayne Cox sang a traditional song with a hand drum. Cox shared that hunters long ago would dress ceremonially in red to improve their chances by pleasing Pikutiskwaau, who looks after large animals.
Janie Pachano recalled the legends and teachings she learned at a young age and returning to Eeyou Istchee after living in California to become involved in the struggle against the mega-dam in the 1970s. Disturbed by misinformation published about her people, she embarked on a 40-year project that resulted in the 2020 publication of the book Chisasibi and Its People.
“I kept wishing somebody Cree would write about us so our children would know the truth,” said Pachano. “I tried to set the record straight. I figure my purpose in life is to leave something behind about our culture for the younger generations because we’re gradually losing our language and our legends.”
Pachano’s research took her to Ottawa, Winnipeg and the Northwest Territories. She also shared insights learned about walking-out ceremonies and first contact with European traders. According to the story, a shaking tent ceremony was held after people saw what looked like trees in the bay. Against advice, one man paddled to the ship and returned singing strangely in different clothing.
In the festival’s final part focusing on local artists, Margaret Orr shared how Cree traditions inspired her art and explained how caribou hides would historically be traded for the birch bark used as canvas. As artisans created snowshoes and moose-hide slippers, Herodier wandered between them to ask questions about their process.
CNACA’s new Wachiya online store launched on March 31, so it was a perfect time to showcase Cree artisans. The website wachiya.com is a platform for a wide variety of Cree arts and crafts, available ahead of a planned opening of a physical store in Montreal’s Old Port later this year.
Musical performances from Cree Rising and fiddler Jayden Ratt were another highlight. Diagnosed with global developmental delay, Ratt surpassed doctor’s expectations and started teaching himself how to play from YouTube videos at age 10.
“Jayden afterwards was walking around with the biggest smile for the next two days,” said COTA’s Rob Imrie. “It was incredible to see how well he played. Everyone was congratulating him because his performance was amazing, but his smile was huge!”
With excellent feedback from viewers, organizers are already thinking about the next festival. Cooper suggested that they will emphasize the major role bush food has in Cree communities, one aspect that was lacking from this inaugural edition. For those who missed it, the festival can be replayed at cree-festival-cri.com.
“Here’s an avenue for people outside of Eeyou Istchee to connect with people from the area,” asserted Imrie. “Daisy said come visit us – our doors are open and you’re welcome. People need to hear that.”