In our Weenabaykoo Ininew Peemahteeseewin, our James Bay Cree way of life, Elders play a pivotal role in the lives of everyone in a community. Our language, stories and history are all passed down in an oral tradition. We learn by listening to the stories our parents share with us and the teachings we hear from our Elders.
It was important for us to spend time with Elders. People from my parents’ age group were the last generation of Cree people to be born and raised on the land. Over the past decade many of them have passed in quick succession and it is terribly sad. We lose history, knowledge and the teachers of our language.
Recently, my Aunt Theresa Hookimaw passed away suddenly in my home community of Attawapiskat at the age of 86. Her passing was especially sad as she had a significant connection to the local Catholic Church, which was recently destroyed in a fire. Aunt Theresa was the church organist for many years and led the community in countless services. She played mainly on Sundays, major feast days and at every wedding and funeralin the community.
Although closely identified with the church, Teh-nes (the Cree pronunciation of her name that we all used for her) had a very strong connection to traditional life on the land. She had a great knowledge of stories and histories that she learned from her mother Louise and father Xavier Paulmartin. Teh-nes was born on the Nawashi River, north of Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast. The Paulmartin family was a tight-knit group of siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents that lived in the wilderness.
My mother Susan is Teh-nes’ younger sister. She often recounted how her family passed the winters in cabins the men built on the Nawashi River. There were eight siblings altogether, including Theresa, Eli, John, Mary, my mother Susan, Gabriel, Josephine and Cecile. They had difficult lives surviving in the remote North. Adding to that hardship, they were forced to attend residential school as children. It terrorized them to be taken away from their parents and the lives they knew in the wilderness.
In my early years, mom and her sisters were a prominent part of my life. Teh-nes was married to Michel Hookimaw, who we knew as Meeshen. They lived nearby and we saw them often because their family had decided that they would raise their grandson Bruce Hookimaw as their son. Bruce was the same age as me and together with my two younger brothers Joseph and Paul and all our cousins, we roamed the neighbourhood in play.
There were many spring goose hunts when our two families came together. Teh-nes and Meeshen set up a beautiful meegwam or teepee on their front yard every spring and mom was more than happy to spend time with her sister as we all prepared smoked goose and roasted birds for two weeks or more. It was very comforting to be in that meegwam with our families. Teh-nes was a serious and knowledgeable woman, but she loved to laugh and she had a quick wit that poked fun at everything.
Teh-nes and Meeshen were a great couple. Although they seemed rather conservative, in reality they were all about caring about others and making people laugh. We were always welcome, and in quiet moments around the smouldering fire of her meegwam, we listened to her and mom recount their lives on Nawashi River. Every summer they left the river for the shores of the Attawapiskat River. I recall their vivid tales of paddling canoes out on the waters of James Bay. Often, they would set makeshift sails to capture the strong winds on the bay. The last time they made that trip as a group was in 1967.
Meeshen had left us before Teh-nes’ recent passing. Happily, however, many of their stories live on through their children John, George, Raymond, Irene and Pauline. I like to think that their loving energy is still around in all of their children and grandchildren. Kee-sah-kee-eh-tee-nan Teh-nes neshta Meeshen.