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Celebrating the legacy of the late Robbie Matthew Sr.

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 19, 2023

Leaders from across the Cree Nation paid tribute to Elder Robbie Matthew Sr., who left this world at sunset on Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21. Some reflected that the timing of his passing was just one more reason to honour how significant his life had been, even until his last day. 

“This momentous loss serves as an opportunity to reflect and celebrate his life achievements and remember the generous, passionate, intelligent man he was,” stated Chisasibi Chief Daisy House. “We are all privileged to have known someone who has truly dedicated an entire lifetimeto better the lives of others. Simply put, he was a gift.”

Matthew’s leadership was evident throughout a lifetime of contributions to the Cree Nation and international Indigenous rights. When honoured by the Nishiyu Council of Elders last year, the Cree Health Board said that Matthew and his late wife Sally had been recognized as the Nation’s patriarch and matriarch for at least three decades.

“Today the Cree Nation mourns the loss of its greatest spiritual guide, most tireless cultural advocate and guardian, and wisest mentor to generations of Cree leaders,” stated the Cree Health Board. “Elder Robbie Matthew’s contributions to the wellbeing of Eeyouch will echo for generations to come.”

Born on Fort George Island at sunrise on September 3, 1934, to parents Hannah Head and William Matthew, Richard Robert Matthew had six sisters and three brothers. He entered a residential school in 1941 until it burnt down one and a half years later, then returned for about five years when the new one opened in 1944.

In 1957, he married Sally Neacappo, with whom he raised 10 children and had 53 happy years until she passed away in 2010. Working with the Cree School Board over several decades, the couple taught survival and life skills to youth on their trapline. 

Influencing generations of youth to trust and believe in their own culture, their commitment and dedication to helping troubled youth turn their lives around were recognized by the United Nations.

Acclaimed Anishinaabe journalist Duncan McCue wrote his first book, The Shoe Boy, about one winter spent with Matthew at his trapline as a teenager, witnessing “how a culture that is alive can give youth a sense of purpose and self.” During a convocation address in 2018, he told university graduates how Matthew’s ancient songs to beaver and other rituals of gratitude taught him the importance of giving back to the land. 

The Matthews regularly travelled across Eeyou Istchee to assist communities with social issues and share teachings on Cree culture, traditions and history. As committed defenders of Eeyou rights, the couple were frequently invited to international gatherings to advocate for environmental protections, youth empowerment and spirituality. 

“He’s probably the only Elder I know who has travelled all over the world fighting for Cree rights,” Stella Mistayabimiko told the Nation. “When Europe wanted to end the fur trade, he educated them that everything is harvested with love and respect with nothing going to waste. I think it really changed the tone and perception of all those organizations.”

Matthew campaigned against the Great Whale River project in New York City in 1991 and was inducted into the International Indigenous Circle of Spiritual Elders during a visit to New Zealand in 1993. He was invited by the United Nations for UNDRIP consultations in Geneva and to make a presentation about Indigenous knowledge at an International Scientific Conference in Hungary. 

“Robbie artfully showed the world what Eeyou diplomacy truly is,” the Cree Health Board asserted. “He carried his message of empowerment, compassion and justice everywhere he went. He will continue to be an example of what it means to lead with love and humility, while standing strong and speaking one’s truth.”

Calling him “an activist for the human soul,” Wayne Rabbitskin suggested that Matthew was as inspirational as the likes of Chief Dan George or Mahatma Gandhi. Rabbitskin said, “When he spoke, everyone listened and just by his words alone it could heal a broken soul and mend a broken heart.”

Matthew served as the Cree Trappers’ Association’s president from 1982 to 1985, when he became Chief of Chisasibi. He was named Elder advisor for the Cree Nation Youth Council in the 1990s and remained a respected cultural teacher at gatherings until the end of his life.

“Men were given strength in their hands and arms to help and protect women and children,” Matthew would teach, passing forward wisdom from his grandmother. “Never use that strength or your words to hurt the woman you will eventually marry and any children you will have. Protect them, support them, care for them.”

During the 1990s, the Matthews became members and spokespersons for what’s now called the Nishiiyuu Council of Elders (NCOE). After being appointed to the Cree Health Board’s Council of Chishâyîyû, Matthew was the chief advocate for the development of the Nishîyû Miyupimâtisîun Department, which was founded in 2015 to develop traditional healing pathways and strengthen cultural safety in all aspects of the health board’s services.

“Truth has power, it has the ability to touch the soul,” said the Nishîyû team when Matthew was honoured last year for his lifelong service. “He shows us that our journeys are so much more than our accomplishments and more about how we love and treat each other.” 

After his wife passed away, Matthew continued to be a regular presence on local and regional radio, sharing Cree legends and life teachings. As he prepared for “his journey home,” he reminded the NCOE that he didn’t want special recognition, noting “we should honour each other every living day, not just in death but in life as well.”

“We, as a nation, are just starting to get back to our roots and knowing our legends through storytelling shared by our Elders,” Matthew once said. “We are beginning our journey of decolonization and returning to our grassroots that have been patiently waiting for our return.”

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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.