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Hundreds gathered on Nemaska’s traditional territory for two-week event

BY Ben Powless Aug 30, 2021

For longer than anyone can remember, the Nemaskau Eenouch have gathered every summer around Nemaskau Sagaheegan – “the lake where fish are plentiful,” now known as Nemaska Lake – to catch, smoke and preserve sturgeon, whitefish and other fish. 

Eventually the Hudson’s Bay Company built permanent facilities on the shores of the lake, starting in the early 1900s, with the first houses being built in the 1950s. The location was a source of stability for a few short years, even while families continued to live elsewhere in the winter.

Then, in 1968, a government representative informed the community that they would have to relocate because of a planned dam that would flood the land, leaving only the Hudson’s Bay Company and the graveyard. The settlement was abandoned in 1970, with the Nemaskau Eenouch relocating to Mistissini and Waskaganish.

But the dam and floods never came. The community ended up moving to the site of modern-day Nemaska on Champion Lake. For the past 35 years, community members make an annual pilgrimage to the old Nemaska post during the “Nadnemskawanoo Days” event. 

This year’s Old Nemaska Gathering was held July 26-August 8, bringing out about 500 people by boat to the traditional territory. After decades of use, and people taking it upon themselves to restore the site, those who return now stay in cabins, tents, tent frames and teepees for the duration of the event. 

According to John Paul Wapachee, Nemaska’s Interim Cultural Coordinator and coordinator for the Old Nemaska Gathering, it’s important to “bond with the lake, fishing, passing along traditional knowledge and skills from Elders and trappers to the youth and anyone who comes.”

He says that there is no running water, electricity or distractions. “Everyone is enjoying their time relaxing,” Wapachee said. “You can visit anyone just like that. It’s very peaceful, Elders are sharing stories. It’s a return to a simpler time.” 

This year, there were five days dedicated to traditional workshops led by James Wapachee Sr. and William Wapachee, and five days of traditional cooking lessons given by Harriet Wapachee. Other activities included wood carving, walking-out ceremonies, fishing, as well as heated competition in games of cribbage, poker, checkers, bucksaw, bingo, capture the flag and basketball. 

Another big hit every year is the jamboree night, which includes a big feast – burgers and hot dogs for kids, and bear, moose and other traditional foods for older generations. After a local band performs, the jamboree turns into an open mic. “It’s pretty eclectic, usually amateurs,” Wapachee shares with a laugh. 

Wapachee expressed thanks to God, the chief and council, and all the individual departments in Nemaska that helped to make the event happen and a success this year – particularly the environmental department, which keeps the island clean for next time. “It’s a real community effort.”  

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.