As summer delivered its last blast of warmth over a sunny mid-September weekend, Mistissini was bustling with cultural celebration and healing gatherings. Following an action-packed powwow weekend, the community hosted the Nishiiyuu Council of Elders’ 10th annual cultural gathering September 19-22.
It kicked off with Mistissini Day September 16, which featured inflatables and rides for kids and various games and contests for all ages. After pandemic restrictions, locals and visitors were excited to gather again at the community’s powwow, a summer highlight since 2013.
The head dancers were Jacob Coon-Come and Drew Wapachee McDougall, the youth head dancer was Jacob’s daughter Diane Coon-Come and Mary Coon was the Elder head dancer. Popular groups Black Bear and Northern Voice were invited as host drums, with Waseskun and Moosetown also participating. Over a dozen vendors were on site with Roy Ottereyes as arena director and Jimmy Bossum as MC.
NINAN and Scott Pien-Picard were Sunday night’s headlining acts, following openers Ezekial Neeposh, Sherri Iserhoff, Hannah Louttit and Patrick Petawabano. Saturday’s musical entertainment included Mistissini’s rising star Siibii with opening support from Sinematic, Yvanna Coonishish-Coon and Nicholas Wapachee, before a 90s dance party DJed by Mike E Mike.
Between the grand entry and retiring of eagle staffs at day’s end, there were the usual procession of colourful dances, including men’s and women’s traditional, inter-tribal, fancy shawl and jingle dress. There was also a “potato dance”, in which partners must dance with a potato between them.
There was significant crossover between the two events, including a powwow drumming workshop with Charlie Ottereyes from Waskaganish’s Waseskun, co-presented by Nishiiyuu and Mistissini Youth Council.
“Part of my job is making sure the youth have a voice,” said local Youth Chief Justice Debassige. “We have to adapt to trends that come and go and make it more us. Our next event is our haunted trail if anyone wants to get scared – no pacemakers!”
With Elders disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, this first gathering in three years held special meaning. Many have passed on and there were new faces. While organizations often come to these gatherings sharing updates or seeking guidance, this year the Elders primarily aimed to have a discussion among themselves.
“It was emotional to see the Elders again,” said Stella (Masty) Mistayabimiko, the gathering’s organizer. “We gave the Elders an opportunity to talk about how Covid impacted them with the curfews and shutdowns. I was happy to see a lot of doctors, nurses and people from the community come and participate.’
Rather than dwelling on residential-school traumas, Elders focussed on an “honouring our children” theme. A roundtable discussion yielded the “monumental” consensus that there would be no further suppression of Elders’ knowledge about shaking tents and other cultural ceremonies that have long been considered taboo.
“Before it was never talked about, with extreme life groups saying you’re going to burn in hell,” shared Mistayabimiko. “The tone was it’s time to talk about it, educate our youth about the significance of these ceremonies. A lot said going back to our cultural roots, traditional medicine and ceremonies was what was going to save us from Covid.”
Mistayabimiko believes everything goes more smoothly when the Elders lay the foundation, and gently nudge the Nation through trials and triumphs.
“One Elder said we cannot be stuck in a time that no longer exists, but we can hold on to our culture and language,” Mistayabimiko told the Nation. “The Elders put it perfectly: we can never lose our language as long as we have the courage to want to learn it. Nothing is lost as long as the spirit of the communities want to bring it back.”
Elders suggested expanding the “safety net” of language services throughout Cree entities, developing Cree programming for iPads and games, and agreeing to speak 100% Cree at home with grandkids.
Robbie Matthew, who recently turned 89 and was honoured at the Annual General Assembly, received a special tribute at the gathering that highlighted his advocacy for Cree language and culture around the world. When he educated European animal-rights groups like PETA about responsible Cree harvesting practices, Mistayabimiko thinks it shifted perceptions about the fur trade.
“He’s probably the only Elder I know who has travelled around the world fighting for Cree rights,” Mistayabimiko said. “When we showed the tribute, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room because everyone was so touched.”
This video and other highlights from the gathering will be available on Nishiiyuu’s updated website, expected to be online shortly after October’s moose hunt. The website will include a new video series, “Bannock and Tea”, featuring interviews with 22 Elders sharing teachings about medicine ceremonies, traditional gender roles and other cultural knowledge.
As Mistayabimiko moves on to other projects, she reflected that attendance has grown from about 70 to 300 in 10 years, with this year’s gathering hosting traditional tea and medicine stations and cultural expos from each community. On the emotional final day, she affirmed her personal contributions to keeping the culture strong.
“I proudly speak my language and go to ceremonies in honour of all those who were not allowed to talk Cree, who had their drums and pipes burned,” Mistayabimiko asserted. “If someone wants to learn, I’ll gladly teach them. The small things we do become bigger things.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Photos by Theresa MacLeod Loon