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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Thoughts on grief and death

BY Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash Apr 23, 2021

I feel a huge amount of empathy towards people who have lost loved ones during the Covid pandemic even though I could not fully understand. The guidelines around viewings and burials makes the whole experience even more painful.

My uncle Alain passed away recently. After surviving three comas, organ failures and a kidney transplant, he left us at 71 years old. The man was a fighter and he told us he was not afraid to die, which is somehow comforting. 

Last summer, he was still fishing despite his poor health. He loved it and some of my fondest memories of him are when he would take my brother and me fishing. I will have to get out of isolation to go to Quebec City and then start my isolation over again while grieving alone at home. Covid is not making it ideal.

I have been thinking of grief and my own mortality lately, because it is natural and a human experience. The fact that we’ve had to adapt our customs around death and funerals because of the pandemic got me wondering about traditional ways of saying goodbye to our loved ones. 

The book Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula by Frank G. Speck has an entire section on our traditional beliefs. It was first published in 1935, so some of the terms are outdated, but it gives great insights into how we traditionally perceived the afterlife and cared for the dead. 

Speck wrote of cîpay meskeno, the ghost trail, and the notion of the Star-Soul theory. Our ancestors believed that the Milky Way is composed of the deceased returning to the stars. 

“That the abode of souls of the deceased is in the sky, that they manifest themselves there in the form of stars, that they travel over to the Milky Way, that they congregate in a dance and illuminate the night sky as the Northern Lights, are indications of the fundamental eschatology of the peoples of the Northeast,” Speck observed. 

It’s comforting to know that my loved ones had such a beautiful journey home to the stars after they left this earth. One soul, cîpay, goes to the stars and the other soul, ahcâhkw, stays within the bones. 

Speck also discusses how we buried our loved ones facing a lake and cleared the trees in front of the sepulture so they could see who passes by. My own grandfather, William Saganash, is buried facing the O’Sullivan River.

It would be nice to bring those customs back and to have our own Cree morticians who would know how to care for the dead in the communities. For the record, I know I personally would like to be prepared for my journey to the stars according to traditions, facing a body of water.

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Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash is Cree from Waswanipi, and is the Nation’s newest columnist. She is an activist and writer who also has a regular column in Montreal’s French Metro Newspaper.