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Four Cree creators shaping Eeyou Istchee’s narrative

BY Joshua Janke Feb 26, 2024

As we step into 2024, Eeyou Istchee is set for a year filled with stories that will define and unite the nation. But who will be the ones that choose to commit their time and skills to share these stories with the world? 

We spotlight four remarkable Cree creators whose contributions in journalism, literature, podcasts and student activism are shaping the narrative of the Cree community. Nikki Baribeau, Liam Swallow, Connie Walker and Nick Wapachee stand at the forefront, using their unique talents to amplify Cree voices, share stories and initiate change.

These four individuals epitomize the spirit of resilience and creativity within the Cree community. Through their contributions, they not only celebrate the richness of Cree culture but also inspire the next generation of storytellers. 

Nikki Baribeau

Nikki Baribeau, a self-published author from Mistissini, uses her written words to bridge generational gaps and spark conversations about Indigenous history. Her children’s storybook, The Truth About My Education, delves into the James Bay Cree experience with residential schools. In her next book, Jiwehdao – Let’s Go Home, Baribeau will address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, as she wants to encourage readers to reflect on critical topics.

“Although my target audience for my first book is school-aged children, I would like for everyone to read it and start asking questions and take an interest in Indigenous history,” says Baribeau. “We are living in a time where our Elders who were witnesses to the Indian Residential Schools are slowly leaving this earth.”

Illustrated by Cali Parrish, Baribeau’s first book concerns a grand nephew, who goes on an illuminating fishing trip with an Elder. Through intimate discussions regarding the young boy’s school anxieties and the Elder’s past, the book narrates a combination of experiences that generations of children from Eeyou Istchee have faced. 

The story is not one specific person’s experience, explains Baribeau. “My book’s purpose is to get people talking about the past with younger children. It is important for children to understand the past so that they can develop a deeper understanding of how things got to how they are today.

“Children who are raised in the communities know only what they see and not how it all began. Trauma is a destroyer that latches on to souls for generations. In order for our people to understand and then overcome the vicious cycle, they need to know where it all began.”

Beyond her publications, Baribeau actively engages with Cree communities through book tours, providing lessons on Indigenous history to schoolchildren. Baribeau believes in creating a strong presence of Indigenous perspectives in education.

Liam Swallow

Liam Swallow, a 14-year-old from Mistissini, stands as a beacon of youth activism against violence, theft and vandalism in Eeyou Istchee. As a Grade 8 student and a newly elected member of the youth council, Swallow uses social media to draw attention to the escalating issues affecting his community and the region.

In a powerful Facebook post, Swallow calls for unity, emphasizing the need to address violence, vandalism and bullying. He believes that the youth, as the future leaders, should take a stand against these issues. The post, which went viral and has been shared over 100 times, reads:

“Ok Eeyou Istchee. This is too much. We need to stop throwing violence & vandalism under the carpet. It’s time we stand together and say it. VIOLENCE NEEDS TO STOP. VANDALISM NEEDS TO STOP. People are tired, people are sick, people are stressed. People don’t feel safe in their homes. We can’t always depend on our leaders. We can’t always depend on our police. We can’t blame the police. We need to stand together and protest against this. Especially in schools. Bullying is also an issue in schools. Violence is affecting other communities. There are so many things we need to speak out against. I’m willing to do a speech in front of Mistissini and other Cree communities.”

Swallow’s initiative also garnered national attention from journalists and support from community leaders, highlighting the potential impact of youth-led conversations.

“Things are really getting out of hand … Things have really gone too far and people are stressed. People are tired. People are sick. People don’t feel safe in their homes,” Swallow told the CBC in an interview following his post. 

Chief Michael Petawabano of Mistissini was one of the people who shared Swallow’s Facebook post. He salutes the teenager’s effort to speak up. “As much as possible, it takes people [who do] what Liam did, a young guy standing up and saying, ‘Let’s stop this, let’s address this,’” said Petawabano.

“Eeyou Istchee needs to stand together. Not apart from each other,” says Swallow. 

“The youth and the people should really stand together […] because we’re the future. We’re going to be future chiefs, we’re going to be future police officers and commissioners.”

Swallow plans to lead a march in Mistissini as well as organizing public speeches against violence and vandalism in other Eeyou Istchee communities. 

“I want to start a campaign against vandalism and the violence. I just want to walk into the streets and get attention to stand together as one,” he says.

Nick Wapachee

Nick Wapachee, a multimedia journalist based in Toronto, is on a mission to preserve Cree language and culture through his podcast, In Eeyou Istchee. Born in Nemaska, Wapachee believes in giving back to his community by ensuring the preservation and maintenance of the Cree language. His podcast features interviews and discussions on all things Cree.

“The interest is in the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee. It is speaking with individuals in their community. The language has similarities with other nations, which means the podcast can extend to the Innu and Atikamekw communities.”

By sharing the stories he collects, Wapachee says his goal is to unite the Cree Nation and encourage future generations to speak their language. 

“Canadians may not see what I see and the rich stories they bring, but I want to channel the stories of my Elders, youth, men and women using our language,” he says. In this way, Wapachee wants to establish “an online Cree community that engages and grows with the community by providing the highest quality content that gathers thoughts, ideas and sounds about Cree affairs.”

Wapachee hopes that in the future, “The podcast series will expand to a dedicated Cree listener base that will embrace and support In Eeyou Istchee because they feel their lives are enriched, entertained and improved.”

In order to accomplish this aspiration, the podcast’s mission is “to strengthen and enrich the Cree communities with a podcast that is real, fresh and promotes Cree diversity, respect and freedom of expression.” 

Connie Walker

For over two decades, Connie Walker has established herself as an acclaimed journalist. Witnessing the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Indigenous stories in her youth led Walker to journalism. 

“The stakes are too high when journalism fails in their representations of Indigenous people,” says Walker, a former CBC journalist who hails from the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan. “Indigenous stories must be told by Indigenous individuals themselves.”

Journalism, she says, is an ideal medium for establishing Indigenous cultural sovereignty in Canadian media and politics. 

With a deep understanding of the stakes involved, Walker emphasizes the importance of Indigenous individuals telling their own stories. In a 2021 lecture, “Exposing the Truth: Journalism’s Role in Reconciliation,” she advocates for the empowerment of Indigenous journalists. 

“We must be supported, resourced and empowered by their communities and people. It’s worth it because we bring with us a unique set of lived experiences and perspectives that are crucial for understanding the realities that Indigenous people live in Canada, and how that connects back to aspects of our shared history that Canadians are just beginning to understand.”

Walker reflects on her own journey, inspired by the tragic story of Pamela George – an Anishinaabe woman beaten to death by two white men in Regina in 1995 – and how overcoming early discouragement led her to become a voice for Indigenous communities.

“When I learnt about Pamela George, that was the first time I thought about becoming a journalist,” says Walker, recalling the fear and lack of confidence she felt as a young Indigenous writer. 

There was no specific moment when Walker realized she had become a journalist. Instead, she says that it was during interviews and fieldwork that she realized she was in the right place and doing the right thing with her storytelling. 

“I don’t think there was ever a conscious decision. Once I started taking them on, I felt like, ‘Yes, this is why I’m doing this.’ 

Walker sees covering Indigenous stories as a way to reconnect with her history while rejuvenating her own identity. 

“You can’t underestimate how important and vital it is to see yourself in stories, to see yourself in media, to see yourself respected. Because that’s what it is. It’s a sign of respect when you’re given the space to share your story and you’re giving your space to talk about what you care about.”

By bringing Indigenous perspectives to the forefront, Walker believes journalism can lead to a deeper understanding of shared history and foster reconciliation. It “can actually help us get closer to the truth,” she says. 

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Joshua Janke lives in Montreal and is studying English Literature at Mcgill University. He is passionate about writing, social justice, and creating art.