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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Oo-nee-kamik – the place outside

BY Xavier Kataquapit Oct 23, 2020

Sitting outside listening to the birds, I can hear a squirrel or chipmunk scrambling around a few feet away in a tree. The wind is sweeping up the fallen leaves as a chainsaw screams in the distance.

As I contemplate the here and now in a little outhouse at the cottage my world is focused and simple. The Cree word for outhouse is Oo-nee-kamik, which is the literal translation of “the place outside”. There is a commonly used but more vulgar word that is pronounced Mee-see-kamik, which translates to “place of feces”. Elders tend to prefer Oo-nee-kamik while younger people enjoy calling it Mee-see-kamik. 

Life away from the internet, television and smartphone gives an entirely different perspective on life and the world. That old saying that no news is good news rings true as we are deal with a global pandemic and the rise of fascism around the world, but most importantly in the United States. The American elections are right around the corner and the news is full of alarming events 24 hours a day – that’s if you are not off the grid, as I am in the here and now. In the outhouse by the lake not much else exists except for a necessary break.

I am reminded of growing up in Attawapiskat in the 1980s. Believe it or not, no one had running water, indoor plumbing or easy access to clean drinking water. We all had an outhouse in the yard. At my home, it serviced 13 people. That outhouse had legs of its own as it moved all over the yard over the years to accommodate our daily deposits.

The only modern residential units with indoor plumbing housed the nurses and teachers from away. Most of them were non-Native and if we were lucky, from time to time we would be invited into the luxury of their homes for a visit and maybe a tea, coffee or hot chocolate and a treat. We did not really mind at the time as it was our normal and all we knew to that point. Even today, however, there are still many First Nation communities across Canada without access to clean water. 

Life in the outside world is still a challenge for many who venture to cities and towns in the south. Due to the reality of systematic racism, many Indigenous people are still treated as second-class citizens in education, health care and law enforcement. Most people are generally very open, yet there is a core of racism and bigotry alive and well in many of our institutions. A recent terrible example of this systemic racism was the treatment of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman abused by staff in a Joliette hospital right up until she died there. 

When I head out on the land, it is an escape from the troubles of this world. All I have to deal with is physical work, fires by the lake, hikes along the pine trails and, of course, my visits to the outhouse. I rarely deal with people during this pandemic. My partner and I are extremely careful due to health conditions. We seldom go anywhere in public and when we do, we wear our masks when we are indoors with others, staying at least two metres apart from people and encouraging others to take this virus seriously in order to protect everyone in our society.

I am happy that many remote First Nations are locked down and people are generally not traveling all that much. Still, Covid-19 cases are starting to appear in our Native communities. I am sad that our schools, universities and colleges are still open to a degree and endangering students and teachers. Although there are many in these facilities wearing masks, they are finding it almost impossible to practice safe social distancing. Cases are appearing in education facilities across the country. How many more people must get sick or die before it occurs to us that conducting education online – or, in fact, taking a short break – might make more sense. 

Then again, what do I know? I am just a guy trying to get away from it all in the sanctuary of my little outhouse here in northern Ontario, where no news is good news.

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Xavier Kataquapit is Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast. He is a writer and columnist who has written about his life and Indigenous issues since 1998.