Grandparents' teachings inspire new head of Cree museum and cultural institute

The Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (ACCI) and museum in northern Quebec has a new executive director, Minnie Coonishish-Longchap who says she brings the teachings of her grandparents to the job.

The Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (ACCI) and museum in northern Quebec has a new executive director

The Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (ACCI) in Oujé-Bougoumou is a museum and cultural institute that opened in 2011. In January, Minnie Coonishish-Longchap took over as its executive-director. (submitted by Minnie Coonishish-Longchap)

The newly appointed executive-director of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (ACCI) and museum in northern Quebec has a small tattoo in Cree syllabics on her forearm that spells out the name "Nanny."

For Minnie Coonishish-Longchap, the tattoo is a reminder of many things — her beloved grandmother, Nanny Wapachee-Jolly, and all the lessons in Cree culture that her grandparents taught her growing up near Mistissini. 

"I've always felt connected to my culture because I was raised by my grandparents," said Coonishish-Longchap, who took over one of the top jobs at the ACCI in Oujé-Bougoumou in early January. 

"I speak Cree. I still go hunting. I still put my net out in the lake. I go on Goose Break. [My grandparents] taught me all the Cree values, that I pass on to my children." 

It's to keep our culture alive for our future.- Minnie Coonishish-Longchap, ex. dir. of Aanischaaukamikw (ACCI) 

Coonishish-Longchap spent a lot of her time out in the bush with her grandparents, including a full year when she was seven years old. 

"I was taught a lot of stuff. I would work beside my grandmother. We would set up snares and clean partridge and clean beaver," said Coonishish-Longchap.

Minnie Coonishish-Longchap was raised by her grandparents, Nanny Wapachee-Jolly and Billy Jolly. (submitted by Minnie Coonishish-Longchap)

In 2014, the now 50-year-old, fulfilled a life-long dream and went back to get a post-secondary degree in business administration from Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue in Val d'Or.

The Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute is a 30,000 square-foot museum and cultural centre that opened in 2011 in Oujé-Bougoumou, Quebec. 

Its mandate is the research and preservation of documents, media, and physical objects that tell the story of the Quebec Cree of the James Bay region. Another important part of the institute's mandate is as a gathering place to transmit that cultural knowledge to future generations of Cree, something that Coonishish-Longchap says she feels passionate about. 

"It's to keep our culture alive for our future, that's how I see it," she said, adding it's important for the youth to know where they come from. 

ACCI has a mandate to transmit Cree culture to Cree youth. ( Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute)

"I'm hoping to bring people here so they'll understand what our culture is and who we are." 

Restaging Mind's Eye play

One of the first projects she's excited about is a restaging of a play called Mind's Eye, which explores some of the legends told to generations of James Bay Cree.

The play is based on a book written by Emily Masty of Whapmagoostui and Susan Marshall. It was staged in 2014 by ACCI using mostly young Indigenous actors and directed by Cree playwright, actor and author Shirley Cheechoo.

Coonishish-Longchap says ACCI sees it as a great way to fulfil its mandate to transmit culture to a younger generation of Cree. The institute is currently looking for funding for an acting camp and is hoping to restage Mind's Eye in Montreal and Gatineau next year.  

Minnie Coonishish-Longchap has the name "Nanny" tattooed on her left forearm in syllabics. Coonishish-Longchap, 50, was raised by her grandparents and says she brings their teachings to her new role at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute. (submitted by Minnie Coonishish-Longchap)

"It's something we are really excited about," said Coonishish-Longchap.

The legends that are part of Mind's Eye are similar to ones told to her by her grandparents out on the land so long ago.

In her first few days on the job at Aanischaaukamikw, Coonishish-Longchap found herself in one of the gathering spaces at ACCI. On the television screens were images of Cree elders. Up popped a photo of her grandmother, Nanny. 

"There's always a sign for things you know and I sat there and said "wow ... I am supposed to be here."