Moosehide workshops ignite cultural awakening in Waswanipi

Growing up in Montreal, Rhonda Oblin Cooper never got the chance to learn how to prepare a moosehide — a skill practised by her people for thousands of years.

'That there is a place where we can learn ... I really appreciate the opportunity,' says participant

Rhonda Oblin Cooper at a moosehide workshop in Waswanipi. (Susan Bell/CBC)

Growing up in Montreal, Rhonda Oblin Cooper never got the chance to learn how to prepare a moosehide — a skill practised by her people for thousands of years.

Now 42 years old and living in the Cree community of Waswanipi, in the James Bay region of Quebec, Oblin Cooper is busy learning the skill and showing it to her 16-year-old daughter, Tyra, at workshops organized by the community's cultural department.

Oblin Cooper is in her second year of attending the workshops at the cultural village by the Waswanipi River, an area where people from the community go to practise their culture.

"That there is a place where we can learn, that there are teachers here — I really appreciate the opportunity," she said.

This year, for the first time, the workshops were so popular that there were often lineups for the workstations, said Oblin Cooper.

On one day in mid-March there were dozens of people working on different parts of the 22 stages of moosehide preparation — skinning, separating the fur from the hide, scraping a frozen hide outside, and soaking the hide in a mixture of boiling water, dish detergent and oatmeal.

Rhonda Oblin Cooper's daughter, Tyra, learns how to prepare moosehide. (Submitted by Rhonda Oblin Cooper)

"Every year there are more people coming," said Mary Ann Kitchen Otter, who ran the workshops this year. "They want to know how to do moosehide."

Kitchen Otter said she learned the skill 10 years ago from an elder named Christine Saganash, so she could "pass it on to other people."

Diane Cooper, the cultural programs co-ordinator for Waswanipi, said she's noticed a trend in people learning these practices.

There's been "an awakening of people picking up hands-on work with Cree cultural skills," said Cooper. "I notice there is a lot of transference of knowledge through teachings and hands-on work."

Cooper has been in her position for 19 years. But when her department first started with a snowshoe-making workshop, there were only two people who attended and no available moosehide to finish them, she said.

Diane Cooper, the cultural programs co-ordinator for Waswanipi, said she has noticed a trend in people learning cultural practices. (Susan Bell/CBC)

When Cooper introduced the moosehide preparation workshop three years ago, her department was trying to show how "everything is interlinked," she said.

"Last summer we noticed it had built momentum because a lot of moosehide preparers had passed on," said Cooper. "Their daughters were left with missing techniques."

She added she is proud to see how much interest there is in relearning the skill.

"I'm proud to be who we are," said Cooper, who has dreams of doing something similar on a regional level.  "I understand the greater picture. A greater awakening of our people."