'Vibrant' First Nations cultures celebrated at new Fort McMurray festival

Cookie Simpson watched her grandmother tuft caribou hair for years and now she is passing that tradition onto others.

Chief Allan Adam says finally seeing festival come together brought tears to his eyes

Leaders celebrate the opening of the ATC cultural festival. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Cookie Simpson watched her grandmother tuft caribou hair for years and now she is passing that tradition onto others.

For the past few days, the 69-year-old Mikisew Cree First Nation elder has been teaching dozens of people the craft at Fort McMurray's first Athabasca Tribal Council Cultural Festival. 

"It was a dying art. There's very few people doing tufting, so I thought, 'Well, I have to teach it.' Creator gave me this gift and there's no way Creator wants me to die with this gift," Simpson said. 

She retired four years ago and now focuses her efforts on passing on the craft.

"The more people that teach the craft, it's better for the First Nations," Simpson said. 

Caribou tufting is just one of the workshops at the festival that concludes Saturday. There are more than 20 people who teach others how to do a variety of crafts and skills, including making beaver mitts, dream catchers and snowshoes.  

Chief Allan Adam, president of the Athabasca Tribal Council, said this festival has been in the works for about five years. 

"I have tears building in my eye right now," Adam said in an interview after the festival's opening ceremony Thursday.

"It's because of the joy of people coming together, and having a vision and having a dream and making it happen is something that leaders have to do."

Cookie Simpson, left, and Shirley-Ann Oldnall. Simpson is teaching Oldnall how to tuft caribou hair. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

A few hundred people attended the festival's opening ceremony. 

"The people will come when the vision is there. And when you look, the people are here," he said. 

The tribal council held annual gatherings in different communities throughout Wood Buffalo for years, but Adam said he noticed that many people couldn't attend because of the location. He said hosting the gathering in Fort McMurray would allow more people to attend.

In 2017, the tribal council held a gathering in Fort McMurray. They set up a tent and people from around the community went to participate in a smudging.  

Adam said more than 300 people showed up, and the majority weren't First Nations. That's when he decided to have a larger festival to include more people.

Chief Allan Adam says this festival has been in the making for about 5 years. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

"The majority of people that come here don't realize that we, as First Nations, are very vibrant in this region," he said. 

He said the festival is a way to show off and share their culture with the general population.

The festival concludes Saturday.

The Athabasca Tribal Council Cultural Festival showcased many different Indigenous traditions, including plucking geese. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)