First museum exhibition entirely curated by Quebec Cree on display

A museum exhibition curated by the Crees of Eeyou Istchee is first of its kind and set to travel through Canada to explain the cultural significance of walking in Cree culture.

Footprints: A Walk Through Generations celebrates the cultural importance of walking

Jamie Stevens of Waskaganish, Que. never had a walking out ceremony because he tradition was lost between her parents’ generation who went to residential schools and her own. (Marika Wheeler/CBC )

The first museum exhibition with content exclusively curated by Cree community members is on display in Eeyou Istchee in northern Quebec.

It pays homage to the cultural practices surrounding walking.

"That's how we used to get to everywhere, we walked, to hunt, to go to other places," said Cree cultural programs liaison officer, Jamie Stevens.

"It's how our people survived to get to where we are today."

The new exhibition is on display at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou, Que.

The Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou, Que. celebrates Cree culture in the Eeyou Istchee Baie-James territory. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Rites of passage celebrated

The exhibition includes information about traditional rites of passage that include walking. One of the best known is the "Walking-Out" ceremony for babies about a year old.

Stevens said the child, dressed in a ceremonial garb, is accompanied out of a teepee by a parent and walks some 20 steps to a tree which represents mother earth.

The walk is meant to be the first contact between the child and nature, as before the ceremony the child has only walked indoors.

This walking out outfit for a boy was is made of moosehide and bead work. (Marika Wheeler/CBC )

Spruce boughs are held above a girls head, whereas boys are brought to a dead goose. In some communities, the boy shoots the goose with a small gun. The ceremony is meant to prepare the child to be a hunter or gatherer.

Stevens explains the child usually carries a bag holding sugar or tea to give to an elder after the ceremony, and a stick used for cooking bannock or meat over an open fire.

Four examples of children's ceremonial dress are on display, including two made of smoked moose hide that are adorned with beading or embroidery.

Reclaiming the tradition

Stevens says she never had a Walking-Out ceremony because the tradition was lost between her parents, both of whom went to residential school, and her own generation. It was important for her to bring the rite of passage back into her five children's lives.

The first time she participated in a Walking-Out ceremony was nearly 20 years ago with her daughter.

"Personally I felt like I was walking out when she was walking out," Stevens said. "I had my own outfit too, so it felt like I was doing it at the same time too, it fulfilled that need."

Stevens says in some communities, Walking-Out ceremonies are organized for adults who missed out as children because of residential schools.

A moose hide dress sewn and embroidered 2004 in Mistissini, Que. and worn at a walking out ceremony on 2005 in Chibougamau. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Healing Journeys

The exhibit also includes artifacts from recent journeys including the Journey of Nishiyuu.

It began with six teenagers and a guide from Whapmagoostui, the northernmost Cree community in Quebec, who walked 1,600 kilometres to Ottawa in early 2013 to demonstrate strength and solidarity among First Nations.

Laura Phillips, the exhibitions and collections coordinator at the Cultural Institute says one of the museum's prized possessions is a beaded medallion commissioned by the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee and given to each of the original walkers.

"It's this beautiful medallion showing the silhouettes of the walkers," said Phillips.

The museum's copy of the medallion was donated by the family of the late Isaac Kawapit, known as the "White Wizard" who acted as a guide to the walkers.

'We need to bring it back'

Jamie Stevens says cultural ties aside, walking doesn't have the same place in Cree life as it once did. She says with modern transportation, her people have lost their connection to walking daily, and that has an impact on the health of Crees, such as diabetes and child obesity.

"We need to bring it back, I hope this exhibit will motivate people to walk, and to promote walking for our children," she said.

"That's what we need to do as a community, as a Cree Nation to promote walking as a lifestyle."

The Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association commissioned seven medallions for the original walkers of the Journey of Nishiyuu, including this one which belonged to the late Isaac Kawapit. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

A journey for the exhibition

The exhibition opened in Oujé-Bougoumou and will remain there until August, but then it will go on a journey of its own.

First it will be shown in different Cree communities in Quebec, then into other parts of Canada, including the Museum of Canadian History in Gatineau from May 2019 to January 2020.

"It's very important to share our culture to others. I think more Aboriginal people should do this," Stevens said.

"I'm hoping this could motivate other Aboriginal communities across Canada so they could bring back their culture and language as well."

Laura Phillips, coordinator of collections and exhibitions and Jamie Stevens, Cultural Programs Liaison Officer. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)