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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Pee-Mah-Eh-Kan – The Thing That Turns

BY Xavier Kataquapit Jun 2, 2023

I spent the past few days inside my garage getting my old motorcycles ready for another season of riding. I enjoy working on my classic rides – including a 1998 BMW K1200RS, a 1992 Yamaha FJ1200 and an even older 1978 Honda GL1000 Goldwing. I’ve had these bikes for years and as they age, they need more and more servicing to keep them running well. 

I am very much at home working in my 1950s-era garage filled with all sorts of tools and bits and parts I’ve collected over the years. There is something comforting and nostalgic about the old wooden building as it reminds me of my dad Marius’s garage in Attawapiskat.

Dad’s garage was a classic mechanics environment and it always appeared untidy and disorganized. It was stuffed with engine parts, scrap metal, rope, chains, plastic parts, tools, gears, bottles of oils and fluids. There were old boxes, containers and buckets filled with nails, screws, bolts and fasteners of every size and kind. 

But my dad knew exactly where to find everything he needed in this confused environment. Only when my brothers or I would take the time to organize and tidy up did everything become accessible to anyone else. This made dad happy, and it gave us a taste for appreciating that old garage and all the precious things it housed. 

There were no small-engine mechanics around so people like my dad had to learn to service motors and machinery on their own. As kids, my siblings and I grew up learning about “Pee-mah-eh-kan” – the thing that turns – our Cree word for wrench or screwdriver. There was also the word “Mah-koosh-chee-gan” – the thing that clamps – the Cree word for pliers.

Dad also collected old farm tractors as well as implements and attachments to make use of those old machines. At one point he bought an aging sawmill and a planing machine that could be powered with the power take-off (PTO) of a tractor. He rebuilt, serviced and maintained all these things on his own. 

When his tractors broke down with major problems, he sought the expertise and skill of his nephew Robert Kataquapit, who was a self-taught mechanic and capable of disassembling, fixing and rejuvenating old trucks and cars with nothing but a basic tool kit and a vehicle ramp made of logs. As curious kids, we often went by his outdoor shop to watch him remake whole engines or transmissions. 

One summer, dad hired Robert to repair the transmission on his John Deere farm tractor. We kids watched from the sidelines as dad, Robert, my older brothers and several Elders dissected the old green tractor. It was like watching a play set on the stage of characters and machinery. The group used blocks, logs, chains, ropes and brute force to move the heavy metal pieces around. 

All my dad had in terms of documentation were a couple of pages someone had given him with diagrams of the inner workings of the metal parts. Tools lay scattered around everywhere and no one kept track of the nuts, bolts and screws that came off. Yet, these fasteners and bits magically came back together as the show moved on. 

The cast of characters all provided their tidbits of knowledge so that the old tractor was slowly resurrected from the dead. The progress through trial and error and featured much excitement, verbal collaboration and laughter. 

The play was often interrupted as new challenges arose and frustration ebbed and flowed as either something went wrong, things got lost or a part just didn’t fit. Cree mechanics share one thing in common with all mechanics in that they vent with a lot of creative swearing in our Cree language. 

These past few nights in my rustic garage I was relived those days back in Attawapiskat that starred Robert, my dad, Elders and my siblings in the quest to bring some machine back to life. The smell of the oil, the grease on my palms and the feel of the cold metal tools in my hands took me back to those early days. 

Now I had plenty of help with a shop manual, tutorials on YouTube and endless mechanic forums concerning my Honda. Still, I owe any skill I have to all those self-taught Cree mechanics who taught me that you must be willing to learn from your mistakes, be ready to take a risk and always have the enthusiasm and self-confidence to maintain your own machines. 

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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.