Buckley Longchap can replicate any camp he sees in the bush. He provides a modest living for his two young daughters by creating intricate miniature versions of Cree life using only readily available materials.
It all started a few years ago when an Elder asked Longchap to build a stick to hold meat over an open fire. The experience must have awakened an instinct, because soon he was building a small model of a traditional camp – then another and another. Before he knew it, he had about a dozen of these miniature camps.
“I wasn’t thinking of selling them,” Longchap told the Nation. “I grew up in the bush with my grandparents and learned a lot from them. My grandfather used to carve all the time. He used to ask me to carve too but I never tried. I thought I should make a tent where we used to sleep.”
Longchap’s formative education was out on the land, where he stayed until starting school at age 13. Today he passes that traditional knowledge on to his two daughters – aged 11 and 8 – while gaining inspiration and materials for his art. A little wood, tent canvas and maybe some wire from a rabbit snare are all he needs, along with boxcutters and glue.
“My brother bought me electric tools, but they broke – I used them too much,” said Longchap. “When I go back to Mistissini, I’ll try to buy another one. It’s a lot faster. Everything is natural, whatever I find outside. I cut a 2×4 into pieces and can make a house out of that with a bucksaw and a cutter.”
One day, Cree School Board officials noticed Longchap’s tents and asked to buy some for a display in Mistissini’s elementary school. He built a model right in front of the children, demonstrating his techniques for building structures and tiny beaver traps while taking suggestions for accessories to integrate into the design.
“A kid asked me to make a little blind for hunting goose,” Longchap recalled. “He said that’s pretty cool – it looks real. When you put them outside and take a picture of them, they look real. It was a great experience. When people are happy, I’m happy.”
Others have purchased Longchap’s models to commemorate special moments, provide a link to the past or serve as an instructional tool for traditional Cree ways. For instance, a cultural centre in Nemaska is using his miniatures to show the proper method for building these camps. He also built two model camps for walking out ceremonies this spring that will provide guidance for building the real-life versions.
His biggest project so far stayed in the family – a three-story dollhouse for his daughter. He actually made one for each of his two daughters and stepdaughter, though the youngest dropped hers while he was off at his construction job, so he had to rebuild it when he came home.
“I can make whatever I see or whatever I used to see,” Longchap said. “An Elder showed me her camp from a picture, so I made it look like a birdhouse. It would take about one day for one camp if I have a working place.”
When building his miniature camps, Longchap arranges his materials in place and builds the tiny furniture and interiors before adding the roofs. Camps sell for about $60, depending on the job. It’s not quite enough to support his family as a single father but it certainly helps.
He is preparing for an imminent move from Nemaska to his mother’s camp in Mistissini, where he’ll begin work on various contracts for the school and Cree Health Board. The ambitious plan for the latter is a village of eight or nine camps, including a log cabin sabtuan.
“That’s going to take a while to build but I know what they want,” explained Longchap. “I already have it in mind how to build it.”
Longchap’s remaining models in Nemaska will likely be given away to community members, as he’s often done in the past. He recalled a miniature church he gifted to a priest in Waswanipi, who happily displays it before his congregation. Other fruits of his unique talent have an even more meaningful place in his heart.
“I made a little church for my mom who put it next to my father’s picture – my father passed away about five years ago,” shared Longchap. “Here, where I live, I built a little teepee for my cousin. She put it on the shelf where my grandfather’s carvings are.”