DAREarts Out on the Land in Attawpiskat: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator (North ON)
Cathy Elliott is an artist educator with DAREarts’ First Roots program. Once a month, Cathy shares her stories and experiences working with our First Nations youth in remote northern communities such as Webequie (ON), Marten Falls (ON), Sioux Lookout (ON), Attawapiskat (ON) and Indian Brook (NS). It’s an honour to be able to share these stories with the ArtBridges community and I want to thank Cathy and Marilyn (the founder of DAREarts) not just for their amazing work, but also for their willingness to share. I hope you enjoy!
– Cora, Indigenous Community Arts Coordinator & Communications Assistant, ArtBridges
“In Spring of 2012, DAREarts First Roots Aboriginal Program sent me to Attawapiskat to meet the kids at J.R. Nakogee Elementary School. This was following the winter Chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency due to inadequate housing for scores of families. The community had been plagued with floods, toxic dumps, fires and financial challenges for years. Add these problems to isolation, high unemployment and lack of basics such as clean water and adequate shelter and you have the recipe for despair. Add to that the trickle down effects of residential school abuse and generational disconnect and you have expectation of failure. This is pretty much the norm for a majority of our Aboriginal communities. It severely impacts the confidence of the kids and affects their academic outcomes.
The black eye this particular community received from the images that went out in the media still remains. The more vulnerable people fall back on coping mechanisms such as drug and gambling addiction, alcohol abuse, and lateral violence. The general malaise of negative scrutiny has a wearing effect. Take a look at any comment section of a paper in this country, and you will see that it is used as a bullhorn for racists.
But there are people in this community who are fighting for a chance for success. The outpouring of support for Shannen Koostachen and the public outcry for fair education for kids in places like Attawapiskat is finally being heard. There are teachers who stay. There are parents who organise. There are Warriors here.
Spring forward to March, 2014.
The portable we’re working in tends to leak when the sun gets strong enough to melt the ice on the roof. Other than that, it’s a pretty nice place to be. I start out our day with “From the Heart,” or as the kids call it, The Circle Song as a way of warming us up and introducing myself to them. Peter’s introduction is about his work as a documentary producer and long-time resident of Northern Ontario. This quickly turns into a demonstration of vocal effects that transfix the kids and teachers as the sounds of geese, turboprops, outboard motors and moose and wolves fill the room. We go through the DAREarts values, Discipline, Action, Responsibility and Excellence and how they sit on the four directions. The teacher, Adam Claus, has the first featured words of the day on the chalk board. Up on the smart board we have the karaoke version of “Muskego Land” projected. The kids are very shy, very quiet as they sing the song. Then, Peter hooks up his camera to the board so that the kids can see what the camera sees.
Then things get interesting.
As Peter explained what each shot was (our action words on the board) “tilt,” “pan,” “zoom,” “dolly,” “slate,” the kids get to understand that there’s a vocabulary that goes with the art of film-making. It was so great to watch the footage later and hear that they were actually saying the words as they moved the camera.
We broke everyone up into four groups. The four groups were the directions of the Sacred Wheel, and each verse was assigned to a different direction. This helped us use a Turtle Island organizational method to construct the form of the movie. Out of that came our concepts, images, shot list and the movie itself.
After school, a few of the braver kids came in to sing on top of the bed track. The portable is quiet except for the sound of snowmobiles screaming by. At first, it’s all giggles and hick-ups as they try to get used to hearing their voices on the playback. Then, determined, they do the takes until they’re satisfied with what they’ve done.
Outside is a whole other ball of snow.
It’s much colder this year. We have very little time to create a music video. The little cameras we have are in danger of freezing up. One of the things we tell the kids is that if they keep looking at what they’ve filmed, they’ll run down the batteries and won’t be able to do any more filming. They get it. They understand the economy of time and effort. They also know what the cold can do to their fingers, let alone a camera battery. They tuck the cameras inside their coats, close to their chests and pull them out briefly, then tuck them back again. Like little captive birds on the mend.
Attawapiskat is just a few kilometres away from James Bay. I found out the last time I was here that the upcoming goose hunting season is one that is kind of magical. In March, the Moon of Eagle, mee kiisi peesum, the kids start thinking of spring, and goose hunting season also means that the family has the opportunity to go out on the land and hunt. April is niska peesim. Moon of the Goose. It’s something that has been going on for millennia.
Joe Weeske and Marrietta Mattinas were the Elders who organized the cook-out, and Christine Koostachin, our language teacher (and Shannen’s mom) arranged it for us. We had been indoors, working for ninety minutes at a time, breaking down the lyrics into images and ideas. Then, we had a fantastic time being “out on the land” with the Elders.
While the fire was being built, Carinna and Adam, Peter and I went out with the kids to the Attawapiskat River by snowshoe in the brilliant sunlight. The kids filmed each other and other kids filmed building of the fire.
Bring them all in…
The lyrics of the chorus of the song is about the fish that families bring in to enjoy at meals and Ceremonies. One special surprise was the sturgeon that Joe pulled out of his truck. It was so cold out that it started freezing right away. He got out his measuring tape, and it was four feet three inches long. When Marrietta cut into it, caviar started spilling out. We joked about how many hundreds of dollars we were going to give to the birds and animals. The frying pan came out, and the fish was dipped into flour and a feast was had. I’d never had this fish before. No bones. Chewy. Delicious. The fish head was saved for an Elder.
Sadly, my attempt at making whole grain bannock was a sorry failure. It fell apart in the freezing cold and didn’t get hot enough to cook throughout. What I ended up with was a brown pile of crumbs. I was going to give it to the whisky jack that was hanging around, but one of the girls said, “No, wait. Can I have some?” “But it’s awful!” I replied. She held out her paper plate. I put some on it. Then, Marrietta stuck out her plate. They said, “No, it’s good! Taste it!” I did. The crunchiness of the nuts and grains made up for the fact that it was hot crunchy cereal, not bannock. I will always cherish the kindness of these kids. Yes, I know. They were being kind. And Whisky Jack enjoyed most of it.
A personal note: if you need to pee in the woods, and you want privacy, where do you go? There were 30 teens running around and I needed to do my business, so I walked up the road and looked at the snow bank. Beyond the snow bank was a clump of shrubs and I knew, at least five feet of snow. I’m five foot two myself. Flash back to the last time I was in Attawapiskat on my first day of school. Different snow bank, different situation. That day I stepped onto the snow bank and sunk five feet down to the ditch and felt freezing water fill my boots. The lady at the White Wolf Lodge saw the whole thing. She sent me to my room to change into dry clothes and had the cure for my wet feet. I walked to school with plastic bags stuffed in my boots, laughing all the way. It was plus twenty degrees that March, and the snow was melting at an alarming rate. Later that week, there was an ice jam and flood in Fort Albany. Now, this March, I’m looking at this snow bank and thinking, “What are you going to do to me this time?”
I kind of rolled onto the snow bank and figured, I’ll stamp down an area. Now, I had no snow shoes on. I figured, if I did, how was I going to make this work? I put my feet down. As I tried to stand, I felt myself sink. The displaced powdered snow rose to my chest as I looked up and clocked the branches of the little tree. Every time I moved my feet, I sunk lower and lower. I was thinking, they’ll never know I’m here. As I looked up at the branch, I saw a tiny pussy willow blooming there. The though occurs to me that if the last thing I see is a pussy willow against a glittering blue sky, I will have lived a good life.
As it happened, I was able to do what I went there to do with a great deal of struggle and agility, and I managed to pull myself out of the hole I dug by grappling with the shrub. I walked back to the fire and thought; they’ll never know I went snow-swimming. (Uh, I guess they’ll know now.)
As we stood around the fire, I pulled out my hand drum and warmed it by the fire. The kids took turns playing it, and they sang “Muskego Land.” They asked me to sing The Circle Song again, and as I did, I thought of the countless times I’ve sung that song, to countless kids all over Eastern Canada as an introduction to DAREarts. And more and more communities are asking us to come work with them. When we do, it’s due to the generosity of so many people, businesses and government. The communities always ask, “Are you coming back?” We always answer, “Yes” even if it’s not the following year, we find a way.
It was thanks to the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs that we were able to return this year. I was grateful that we were able to keep up this continuity. This year, the kids are graduating to grade nine. They’ll be going to the high school, and they’ll miss the chance to go to the new primary school. What a shame. They were filming themselves outside the new school as the front loader was pushing snow away from the building in advance of the coming melt. The new school is beautiful. Everything that Shannen wanted in a school. A warm cozy place to learn. But these kids won’t get to go there.
But they will go on. They’re coming to Toronto in June to see Lion King, go to museums, meet up with their pen pals from a school in Mississauga. They have the same motivation that Shannen had. They raised the funds themselves to make this trip. We’re planning a reunion and maybe a dinner with our Toronto DAREarts kids here in Toronto. I sincerely hope that we can work with them again when they’re in high school.
Big big thanks goes to Wayne Potts, who made me welcome two years ago and his guidance this year. Gratitude to the teachers, Carenna and Adam, who kept the kids pumped up yet focussed. Chi-Meegwetch to Jenny Nakogee, Christine Koostachin, Joe Wheesk and Marietta Mattinas for your teachings!
And to all of you DAREarts Youth in J.R.Nakogee from both years: congratulations on a job well done. You are great kids. It’s good to know you. You are the good news coming out of Attawapiskat.”
“Muskego Land” was written by the Grade 7 students of J.R.Nagokee in Attawapiskat FN and Cathy Elliott in 2012. This music video was created by the Grade 7 and 8 students of J.R. Nakogee School in March, 2014. They visualized the work their school mates had created by storyboarding, shooting and singing. Their drawings have been incorporated as illustrations, and shout out to the students who came after school to record the song. Muskego Land the music video was sponsored by the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.