I was on the land this week surrounded by fields of green grass and on high ground overlooking Lake Temiskaming (an Algonquin word meaning deep open waters) in what is known as Temiskaming Shores. Although most of us don’t realize it these days, there was a time when the only inhabitants on the lands around Temiskaming were the Algonquins and Ojibway. Standing out there in the fresh air with the scent of fall under a deep blue sky and a warm September sun I imagined what it would have been like so many hundreds and thousands of years ago.
I thought of the abundance of animals, birds and fish there would have been for the people to sustain themselves as they canoed on the water highways, trekked through the forest and enjoyed their fires in circles at camps along the lakes and rivers. What a life it must have been and I am aware of that time because I was fortunate enough to be born in Attawapiskat on the great James Bay where even 30 years ago many of our Elders still remembered living on the land in a natural way.
I have lived the life of those ancient ancestors of mine as a child out on the land and on the bay in canoes. Much of my childhood was enjoyed in traditional pursuits on the land and living in tents at times of the year on Akimiski Island on the bay. I hunted and fished in many areas along the shore of James Bay and for much of my young life I mostly spoke my Cree language. In fact, it was my first language before I learned English.
To be out on the land near Temiskaming with so many ties to Indigenous ancestors was comforting because of my time on the land as a child. I was surrounded by Elders and it was no stretch of my imagination to see in my mind those ancestors from ancient times still alive in the spirits of the wind, trees and water.
I felt very fortunate to be attending a major Indigenous Language Gathering provided and organized by the Temiskaming Native Women’s Support Group. Everything I experienced in the teachings of Ojibway and other Native languages under the tents and around the fire made me feel proud to be Indigenous. The ceremonies in the circle around the fire and the drumming and singing provided a seamless reality where this could have been the scene hundreds of years ago.
I thought of my parents as I sat comforted by the kind and wise words of Elders like Vina Hendrix and Marie Sackaney. It was good to talk in my Cree language with Marie who is originally from Fort Albany on the James Bay coast. It felt good to listen to the singing and drumming as we reminisced about the bay. When Elders David Batisse and Sally Susan Mathias Martel picked up a guitar and began to sing country and folk songs it brought back the days of listening to my parents’ favourite country music.
By the time I was a teenager I knew the words to most of those songs as a result of many hours listening to Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Tammy Wynette, Lorretta Lynn and Patsy Cline, to name a few. The sight of the children running in the forest and playing on the land and their laughter and joy at enjoying Indigenous language teaching games under the tent made me feel proud and full of hope for them.
Sometimes I feel how fragile I am in a modern world where I and many other Indigenous people have faint and fading connections to the traditions and culture of our ancestors. We sense this natural life and respect for the land and Mother Earth, but we are not living it for the most part. We are surrounded by so many distractions, addictions, chaos and fear that most of the time we are just trying to survive it all.
On a global level, the world seems to have gone crazy with nuclear weapons all over the place and idiotic leaders ready to fight and war for dominance and the right to kill and pillage. We are living in a time when big money and power is ruining much of the beautiful environment of our planet and poisoning the air and water. Yet, out here on a hill overlooking beautiful Lake Temiskaming and comforted and supported by good people reminding me of a more natural time in the footprints of our ancestors, I find hope. And hope feels good.