We sat in the huge white tent and the milky light faded as evening settled. The tent was big enough for a circus. It had bleachers surrounding a huge plywood dance floor. At one end was a stage with an older, energetic Cree woman announcing, in Cree, the goings on. We had no idea what she was saying. But she said it with authority and occasional excitement. At other times, she was having a conversation with random people in the crowd. A band, with a stout young fiddler, had just taken their position on the stage.
The punchy, bright sound of a fiddle reeled over the dance floor. The unaccompanied notes quickly ran through a few energetic versus and were immediately joined by a glittering guitar and spirited bass. This was a treat.
I jumped down from our perch in the bleachers and shook the video camera awake on my phone. I didn’t want to miss this. The musicians on stage wandered through the piece like an animated Ozark band playing their hearts out. This was unexpected.
After a few minutes, the music stopped as abruptly as it started. And the Cree woman’s soft but booming voice uttered words we could not discern. The fiddler drew his bow for a couple of notes to practice the next performance. There were some murmurings from the crowd and a couple of people started approaching the middle of the dance floor.
Suddenly, there was a flash of white quickly approaching out of the corner of my eye. A firm hand grabbed my arm and pulled hard. I looked up to see a spirited Cree woman with a white sweat shirt and a hesitant smile. She looked like she was holding back a lot of anxiety as she tugged on my arm. She would accept nothing less than my full compliance. Then it hit me, it was time for me to dance to this music. She was my partner and I had no other choice. I stood as she leaned fully backward to drag me onto the floor. I relented and followed her, still a little confused. I looked back to see if my team was preparing my rescue mission . . . or at least join me on the floor. I only saw them quickly stand, cameras and phones in hand, ready to record this epic moment.
Dinty and Napa soon were coaxed into the middle with dance partner, me and half a dozen other couples. Excited females, reluctant and dazed males. The voice of our female Cree announcer had a rowdy tone now. Suddenly, I heard the English language. It took me a minute to understand that she was talking to me. She repeated, “Where are you from?”
I said, “Michigan!”
With a clamorous tone she wailed, “Ohhhh. . . the land of the long knives.”
I didn’t know that meant. But the music immediately started and our partners lead us through a pattern of square dance moves. The dance wasn’t the same as the forced dancing of our elementary school days. It was livelier and longer. . . much longer. After about 7 minutes, I was sure we were near the end. By now, I had some idea of the pattern we were supposed to follow but I could feel beads of sweat streaming from my hair.
Dinty, during one exciting and confused moment, lost his footing and dropped to the floor. He quickly recovered. I glanced over at our teammates, excepting some expressions of concern for our wellbeing. But I only noticed huge grins and expressions of glee at our plight. Their phones and cameras were busily recording our stumblings as our partners directed and dragged us around in circles and spins.
The rest of the crowd had mixed expressions of serious interest and extreme joy as they watched us try our best to keep up. The amused mistress of ceremony, for her part, would occasionally mention, “long knives” or some other descriptive announcement and guffaw in delight. They were truly having a good time watching the spectacle of white men stumbling around.
14 minutes into the dance, I began resigning myself to dance in perpetuity. But just when we thought it would never end, each couple performed their “outro dance” and it was over. We rejoined our jealous teammates who were practically out of breath from laughing. Even more curious was their disappointment at not being a part of this awkward performance.
But, the stage was set. We were tested by the people of Chisasibi. They wanted to know our true level of commitment of getting to know them. We suffered the embarrassment and they loved it. We were good sports and they were too. We had just broke the ice, now we could become friends. It was truly a great experience.
We were on Ft. George Island. The Cree people gather each year for Mamoweedow. There really isn’t a direct translation for Mamoweedow, but it is a gathering of the Cree to learn the old ways and to reflect on their forced resettlement from the Island to the mainland.
Honestly, we were nervous to attend this gathering. The forced resettlement was caused by “white man’s progress” and the construction and diversion of many rivers for the La Grande hydroelectric project. This not only caused the resettlement, but the flooding of thousands of acres of hunting ground, family lands and some ancestors burial sites. We didn’t know if they would hold us responsible, reject us outright or simply ignore us. They did nothing of the sort. They determined we were decent people and they accepted us as guests.
We had arrived on the island a few hours ago. As soon as we parked our vehicles, a few curious onlookers approached and asked where we were from. We watched as elders carved paddles and bowls. We joined groups in teepees to sample bannock, Labrador tea and pancakes with meat. They would teach us some things and we would share some. I poured tea for the elder women in the teepee and eagerly gathered milk, cream and sugar for their drinks. They would thank me without fuss. They were direct and matter of fact in their request, but with sweet, quiet voices. Occasionally they would gently smile to show their appreciation. An older gentlemen explained the different foods, how they were made, and why they made them. He would tell me about their traditions and way of life. I devoured his information and his openness.
We joined the games in the big field. We taught new games to the kids and they took turns using our cameras and asking questions. Kids are always a good way to break the ice. We immediately made friends with them. A few of the brave children approached us. They teased and laughed. We teased and laughed back. Then the crowd of kids grew. They came from every direction to meet us. Soon, each of us was busy showing the hand slap game, our cameras, how to use our equipment, what a GPS was used for. They would paw at our equipment to get a better look. They wore baseball hats. Some expressed excitement and some were shy and reserved, watching us with side glances. We explained where we were from and asked them questions about their life and courageous exploits. They were happy and energetic kids. When we would mention Michigan, they would ask where that was. This surprised me. These kids were truly from a different place, far removed from our world, yet they understood much of the modern world.
At one point, a young man (maybe around 10) asked me if I was a “warrior”. It was a curious question. I wasn’t sure how to respond, but being a former soldier I said “Yes, I used to be a warrior”. His expression turned to amazement. He turned his amazed look to his friends. They pushed each other, slapped hands and faded into the crowd.
Our team slowly separated and wandered into the crowd striking up conversations, asking questions and trying to make friends. It was a truly charming engagement.
But, we were also on a mission. We revealed our goal of making it to the distant Cape Jones. The reactions were mixed somewhere between amazement and “we were crazy”. Others simply shrugged their shoulders as if it was a trip to the grocery store. Eventually, I admitted that my father had worked on radar stations during the 50’s. Stations like Cape Jones.
The mere mention of my father changed things. Suddenly our Cree guests were interested in helping find a guide. But we were soon to discover that getting a commitment (like we would expect in our modern culture) was different here. There was interest, but we couldn’t even secure a “maybe” from anyone.
Phone calls were made, we posted on community Facebook groups, others would suggest someone who could take us. There was lots of activity, but no results.
We were unsuccessful, but one name would come up in most of our conversations. . . Snowboy. The day before I had met a Snowboy family member.
I was in the commercial center in Chisasibi. The commercial center is a depressing mall that connects a Northern Store (a stable goods store typical in the north) and a few other retailers. A few retail spaces looked to be a storage locker for furniture items and various boxes. The spaces had carpeting that was stained and worn, remnants of tape and old flyers still hung from the unwashed windows. Upstairs was the Hotel for the town. It looked more like a dying mall than a “commercial center”.
In the center is a large, great hall. At one end, a Jehovah Witness attended a table of literature and half-heartedly attempted to strike up a “Bible study” with occasional passersby. He was from out of town and had no idea where anything was located. I paused for a minute to contemplate his fate in Chisasibi. What offense or serious promise of everlasting peace had posted him here in a strange land?
I stood opposite a gathering of Cree men. They sat on wooden benches and at picnic tables. Some were older. . . elders. . .I thought. But a good number were middle aged. They dressed in denim or work pants with flannel tops or black jackets.
At one point an older, beefy man approached me. He had good English, but a hushed tone.
“Where are you from?”, he inquired.
“Michigan”, I replied
“What are you doing in Chisasibi?”, he asked.
“Well. . .”, I thought for a minute. Should I give the long answer or short answer? I opted for the short, “Trying to get to Cape Jones”.
He took a minute to ponder while starring at my chest. He breathed heavily with a slight wheeze. Then he jerked to life, “Cape Jones?”. He paused, “Who’s taking you?”
“I don’t know,” then jokingly, “How about you?”
He smiled and breathed heavily through his teeth. “Have you talked to Jimmie Snowboy?”
“No” I said, “Do you know how to get a hold of him?”
He smiled, then raised an arm while looking at me with his time honored face. Then he looked in the direction he was pointing, as if he had pointed in that direction a lot. “He’s right there.”
I followed his arm. A stout looking Cree man of middle age was sitting on the bench against the wall. He was in a crowd of sitters. . . men starring in our direction, pondering, observing, sometimes talking, but mostly staring. Jimmy had a denim jacket, black hair and tranquil eyes. He caught us looking at him.
“That’s Jimmie, let’s go talk to him”, he said.
I wasn’t sure. He was part of a group that had watched me in dead silence every time I walked by. They stared as if hypnotized, with no expression, no movement. My new friend started walking toward Jimmie, so I tentatively followed, not sure what was happening. Was I crossing a line. . . invading their hallowed ground?
Jimmie got up. I was sure he noticed us and was initiating an escape. He turned and walked away. This guy doesn’t want to have anything to do with me, I thought.
“JIMMIE!” my guide called. Jimmie stop abruptly, turned and walked to meet us. He sized me up, starting at my feet, then slowly raising his appraisal and momentarily meeting my gaze. Then abruptly looked to the man who had called him. They exchanged some words in Cree. Jimmie suddenly got thoughtful. He glanced at me, turned and peered into a distance, then quietly said something. My friend spoke more Cree ending his sentence with “Cape Jones”. Jimmie glanced quickly at me again, then glared back into a distant. . . something. He quietly said something that didn’t sound good. He gave the impression that he was thinking but not really caring. Based on his body language and his hushed tone, he wasn’t interested. They chatted more in their tongue. Jimmie broke his distant gaze, nodded at me and walked away.
“He said he might be able to take you.”
“Really?” I said, very suspicious. I just saw a man who wasn’t interested. He sized me up, didn’t like me and walked away. No way this guy was interested.
“Yeah” my new found friend said. “Call him later.”
“Do you know his number?”
“2005” he said.
Apparently they still use 4-digit phone numbers around here. I had no idea what the other 6 digits were, but I assumed they were the same for every other place in town.
“OK” I replied. Knowing full well I wasn’t going to bother the guy that just turned his nose up at me and disappeared.
My friend put a hand on my shoulder and said, “He will take you, give him a call.” He said this with an air of wisdom and knowing. I had plenty of doubt. But I also had a lot to learn about their culture.
With that, my friend departed. He walked a few steps away, turned to face the “sitters” and stood there. . . like a doorman waiting for the next person to enter the commercial center.
It was surreal. But, we had places to be. “Thanks” I said raising a hand in salute. We waved me off like a bothersome fly. I pushed the door open to the outside and left.
Back at Fort George Island I reflected on this encounter. No one here wanted to take us, no one wanted to commit to us. I was losing hope that we would see Cape Jones.
We spent the evening watching, talking and finally departed for our campsite as darkness slowly fell. We headed out the narrow trails of Ft. George, spotted a fox that was a little miffed that our bright headlights were on his trail. We finally arrived in the deep grass and bushes. We carved out a campsite in a little clearing that shielded us from the buffeting wind. We drifted to sleep as the wind howled and churned.
Tomorrow, we leave the island and try to find a freighter canoe to the distance Cape Jones.
Written by Chuck Hayden