Snowshoes, toboggans, ceremonial clothing and even a snowmobile will be part of a new travelling exhibit celebrating the role of walking as a way of life and survival for the Crees of Quebec.

Representatives of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (ACCI) announced the upcoming exhibit during this week's Nishiiyuu Cultural Gathering in Nemaska.

archival photo

An archival photo that will be included in Footprints: A Walk Through Generations, an upcoming exhibit about the role of walking as a way of life and survival for the Crees of Quebec. It is part of a collection of photos taken by A.A. Chesterfield between 1901 and 1904 when he was a clerk with the Hudson’s Bay Company at Moose Factory, Fort George (now Chisasibi) and Great Whale River (now Kuujjuarapik). (A. A. Chesterfield/Queen’s University Archives)

The gathering is a chance for elders to share their knowledge and discuss the role of Cree tradition in modern life.

"We're traditionally a nomadic people, so walking plays a central role in our very being, in who we are," said ACCI executive director Sarah Pash.

"Walking plays a role in ceremony, like the walking-out ceremony and the first snowshoe walk. But it's also become an important part of modern-day healing. The Journey of Nishiiyuu is probably the most famous example of that."

The Journey of Nishiyuu began with six teenagers from Whapmagoostui, the northernmost Cree community in Quebec, who walked 1,600 kilometres to Ottawa in March 2013 to demonstrate strength and solidarity among First Nations.

Since then, Cree groups have walked hundreds of kilometres to protest uranium development, to fundraise, and to draw attention to various causes.

'This is where they find healing'

Pash said the exhibit will include thousand-year-old stone knives and spear tips, as well as recent videos and pictures that show how Crees have created and adapted different tools as their relationship with the land has evolved.

Nishiiyuu Council of Elders archive photo

An archival photo that will be part of the upcoming exhibit. (Nishiiyuu Council of Elders)

"Because of the central importance of walking to our culture, we've developed technologies that have to do with walking that have been so important to our survival," said Pash, "like snowshoes, and all the tools that are used in the winter and through journeys." 

Each winter, youth in the Cree communities embark on weeks-long winter journeys, hauling food and supplies on toboggans through the bush as their ancestors used to do.

For some, it's a way to reconnect with the old ways. For others, it's a chance to get healthy and break bad habits, leaving technology, alcohol and social pressures behind.

"The walk helps each individual in different ways," said Jamie Moses, who organized winter journeys in Eastmain.

"This is where they find healing. They understand how hard it was for our people living off the land and how they survived."

The message is strength

In addition to coats and moccasins used to keep warm during long winter journeys, the ceremonial clothing worn during early rites of passage will also be on display.

The walking-out ceremony and the first snowshoe walk are rituals to mark a child's first steps. The traditional outfits normally worn during these ceremonies will be part of the exhibit.

Jamie Moses

Jamie Moses when he and other walkers arrived in Eastmain after their winter journey. (Jaime Little/CBC)

"The main message is about strength: the strength of our culture, the strength of our people, and what we have gained from our relationship with the territory, with the land, with the animals," said Pash.

"It's going to be about how we will maintain a healthy existence in the future, about healing, about cultural support and maintenance."

Footprints: A Walk Through Generations will open at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou this November, and then tour all the Cree communities of Quebec before travelling to museums in Canada's major cities.

Listen to the audio here:

with files from Betsy Longchap