From the trapline to a cell phone: Cree elder celebrates 95 years well lived

"When I was growing up, everything we did was based on our Cree culture and ways. We were still nomadic, and the things we needed to survive came from the land," said Martha Tapaitic Pachano. 

Martha Tapaitic Pachano of Chisasibi, Que., still sharing her culture and traditions

Martha Tapaitic Pachano celebrated her 95th birthday on Jan. 20 in Chisasibi, Que., and shared her vivid memories of life on the land of the Cree territory. (submitted by Linda Pachano)

Martha Tapiatic Pachano has seen a lot of changes in her 95 years living in the northern Quebec Cree traditional territory of Eeyou Istchee.

She was born in the pre-dawn hours at her parents hunting territory, near a lake north what is now the site of the La Grande 3 (LG3), one of Hydro-Québec's power generating stations along the La Grande river in northern Quebec. 

She celebrated her 95th birthday on Jan. 20 with a special turkey meal with her daughter Linda and Linda's family.

"I'm thankful for all the birthday wishes I've received from people ... maybe it is a good omen ... maybe I can or will see my next one," said Tapiatic Pachano in Cree from her home in Chisasibi, Que., more than 1,400 kilometers north of Montreal. 

Vivid memories of a nomadic life

Tapiatic Pachano's early memories are of being with her parents as a young girl and being allowed to get on the toboggan, to give herself a little rest, after walking on the trail with her snowshoes for some time. Cree families at this time lived in camps and would travel the territory depending on the season. 

"When I was growing up, everything we did was based on our Cree culture and ways. We were still nomadic, and the things we needed to survive came from the land," she said. 

"My roles were many, but I was never given the full responsibility in doing something independently, until I was able to do it well without help from others," she said.

Flu outbreak changed wedding plans

Tapiatic Pachano got married on July 7, 1942, to George Pachano, a marriage arranged by their parents.

Martha Tapiatic Pachano was trained as a midwife by her mother and grew up in a teepee on her family's traditional territory, inland from the current townsite of Chisasibi. (submitted by Linda Pachano)

There was an outbreak of the flu at the time, she recalled.  

They had to come from their camp across the river from Fort George Island for the wedding and needed to isolate themselves from the residents living there. 

"We paddled from our camp across the river, went to the church, got married, then went back across again, and did the feast celebration," she said.

She reminisced about their trip from inland Fort George River, where her family's camp was at the time. 

Tapiatic Pachano remembers a certain spot on a lake where people would leave messages to share news with others.

"This is where my late mom was told about a probable epidemic of the flu was happening at Fort George, and that already 50 people had died," she said.

"I still did get married that summer … My wedding cake was the traditional boiled burned sugar cake with raisins, cooked by my aunt … Betsy Pashagumskum. 

"We had all the works."

Martha Tapiatic Pachano still gets out on the land to practice Cree traditions and enjoy the territory. (submitted by Linda Pachano)

Tapiatic Pachano and her husband had six children of her own, three boys and three girls.

One girl, whose name was Mabel, died early in her life, back in 1948, and another boy, named Tommy, died in a tragic accident out on the waters of James Bay in the early 1970s. He was 18 at the time and was in a canoe with friends David Pachanos and Clarence Pepabano. All three boys were lost and their canoe is thought to have capsized in James Bay.

Still teaching traditions

Tapiatic Pachano has spent many years as a traditional teacher and was also trained as a midwife.  

"I had to be with my mother for a long time to learn on how to bring the baby into this world, but by the time I was doing it on my own, the hospital was where most of the babies were born, so I only delivered some babies, and some are still walking around on this earth," she said.

At 95, she still shares her traditional knowledge and wisdom with her people. She is still very active in the community and has a flip phone.

Watch: Martha Tapiatic Pachano, here at 91-years-old, shows how to make a traditional rattle.

Making a ptarmigan sac rattle in Chisasibi

5 years ago
Making a ptarmigan sac rattle in Chisasibi 0:12

A ptarmigan's sac was very often used as a baby rattle, Tapiatic Pachano explained in 2017 at a gathering of Cree elders in Chisasibi. It was blown into, tied up and then hung to dry.

"We were always taught to respect the people in our household, which was usually a teepee, where at least four families would share the residence.  

As children, we were always told to not be playing with other people's belongings or be in somebody else's space," she said. 

"For our future generations, it has always been us as the adults to teach the children on what it is that is expected of them in our lives and they will listen. It is up to us as the adults to teach them, because they will do what they see and what you teach them."