My uncle Cheekanish passed away in Attawapiskat November 24 at the age of 88. Uncle Cheekanish’s English name was Leo Kataquapit. My family mourned his passing, but we also celebrated his long, full life that he filled with as much fun, happiness and goodness as he could. Cheekanish and his wife Theresa raised a strong family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who inherited their sense of laughter, warmth and kindness. His children include Robert, Maria, Noella, Peter, Rollande, Jeffrey and Jerry.
I remember my last visit with him and his wife Theresa in 2016, which was full of laughter and recollections. Leo was a master storyteller and his knack of mixing every memory and teaching with humour made it easy to remember his stories.
He told us how he got his nickname Cheekanish. As a boy, he had a minor accident with his aunt who was using a small axe to cut wood. The axe his aunt used had grazed him and he ran back to his parents to explain what had happened. The Cree word for hatchet is Chee-kah-eh-kah-n-ish. As a little boy who was still learning to speak, all his parents could understand from his excited cries was “Cheekanish, Cheekanish!” His parents were happy that he was not badly hurt but they found it funny to hear his words and the name stuck with him.
He was born in 1931 near Winisk, closer to the Hudson Bay coast. His father James and mother Janie lived in this area before moving south to Attawapiskat. His birth at a place called “Sesematawa Sakeehegun” came during a very difficult time. Life there was lived as it had been for thousands of years by our ancestors. He remembered many stories that his parents passed down to him about how their world was filled with traditions, spiritual beliefs, visions and legends.
He said that his family often struggled through periods of famine. He recalled one winter when his mother managed to provide enough sustenance by melting snow to water until the famine ended.
He also suffered as a child when he was forced to attend residential school. He described how horribly he was treated and his terrible memories of what was done to him and others. Even though these things had been perpetuated by the church, he still held a strong Catholic faith blended with traditional spiritual belief. He believed the Virgin Mary had saved his life through prayer many times.
As a boy he learned to hunt, trap and fish with his father James and his brothers George, Alex, Gabriel and Marius, my father. He looked up to his brother Thomas and he also took care of their sister Celine and their youngest brother David. Uncle Cheekanish explained that he didn’t use a firearm until he was 17 years old. Before then, he had done all his hunting with snares, traps, and a bow and arrow. I had never realized that my ancestors had used the bow and arrow. My father often remarked that Uncle Cheekanish was the best hunter and trapper in the family.
Even though he was raised in the wilderness he also became an accomplished fiddle player. In his prime, Uncle Cheekanish played at many community gatherings and events. He loved making people laugh and getting them to dance and sing.
We are losing our Elders in Attawapiskat and I was sad to learn that Eli Metatawabin had passed away a week before Uncle Cheekanish. Elder Metatawabin was from the same generation as Uncle Cheekanish and they were good friends throughout their lives. Elder Metatawabin was a kind, gentle character who had been part of the lives of many people in our community. He didn’t have a family of his own, but he had a community who considered him part of their own families.
I’m sure that Uncle Cheekanish has found an old fiddle and invited Eli to a party somewhere. With his brother Gabriel, they are all laughing and playing like they did as young men with their parents and their loved ones before them. I can hear the fiddles, the clapping, the shuffling of flying feet and the laughter of a hall full of family and friends. Cheekanish and Eli are still making us smile in their memory. I love them for that.
Chi-Meegwetch Nookoomis Cheekanish Neh-sh-tah Eli, Kee-sah-kee-eh-tee-nah-n (Thank you so much Uncle Cheekanish and Eli, we love you).