Why director Jules Koostachin made the short film NiiSoTeWak.
Jules Koostachin is the director of NiiSoTeWak: Two Bodies, One Heart, a short documentary about Cree brothers Tapwewin and Pawaken, 10-year-old twins who are trying to make sense of the world, their family and each other. Jules is also their mom.
In the opening scene of NiiSoTeWak, my twin sons Tapwewin and Pawaken voice their connection to their traditional lands. They both state they are from Attawapiskat First Nation in Cree — although they have never been there.
My grandparents and their ancestors are buried up there. As Cree people, the twins are expected to state their lineage and kinship; it is protocol for us to acknowledge our ancestral relationship to our lands. Even though the twins do not fully understand why they do this, they know they are expected to.
While making NiiSoTeWak, I realized that my 10-year-old twins were just beginning to unravel the meaning of their Cree identity. Although they had been immersed in Cree culture their whole lives, they had never had the opportunity to formally ask questions — until now.
Twins Pawaken and Tapwewin Koostachin-Chakasim.
My partner Jake — also Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation — and I have always known that having twins is special, but neither of us knew the Cree twin teachings. One day I asked my mother how to say "twins" in Cree. She explained that NiiSoTeWak means “walking the path together,” and although twins have two bodies, they share one heart, which is understood as our soul. The bond they share will never be broken.
I decided to ask my sons about their own understanding of twins and the documentary short NiiSoTeWak was born.
The significance of my Cree roots
As a young person living part time in Moosonee (Moshkekowok territory) with my Cree grandparents, I understood the importance of what it meant to be a Moskeko Cree. My Moshoom (grandfather) was always out hunting and trapping and my Kokoom (grandmother) was at home creating crafts, such as moccasins, purses and mitts to sell to tourists. My childhood was full of love, affection and cultural teachings. We lived off the food Moshoom hunted and trapped. We did not have running water and often lived without electricity, yet my grandparents always provided for my brothers and me. It was a wonderful childhood!
These strong roots shaped me into the person I am today. I’ve been taught that in order to know where you’re going in life, you need to know where you came from. I feel privileged to have been raised by two incredible Cree people and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.
I also understand and respect that this is not the case for others. I acknowledge that we, as Indigenous people, have been impacted by colonial violence in so many diverse and complex ways. I also acknowledge that I am the daughter of a Residential school warrior, and her resilience lives within me.
Abraham, me, Zabeth and my brother Frank.
In my early twenties, I found myself a single mother to two sons, Asivak and Mahiigan. Life was challenging, yet our continuous involvement in cultural activities provided us with community support. I ensured my older boys were engaged with the Cree language, spirituality and Cree ceremonies such as the walk out, coming of age, fasting and sweats. This was an integral part of our family’s survival; it helped us stay strong and resilient. It is through this connection to culture that our family found the courage to face each and every day.
The gift of twins
My partner Kenneth (aka Jake) and I met in the spring of 2003. After a few years together, we participated in a Shaking Tent ceremony in Toronto, where I asked if I was going to have another child. We were told that I would, very soon. A few months later, we learned I was expecting, and in 2006, we welcomed our twin boys Tapwewin and Pawaken. As a blended family, we made sure the twins were also immersed in the Cree culture, spirituality, and ceremony that both Jake and I had experienced through our grandparents.
We were a growing family living in an urban centre, far away from our traditional territory. Our link to the North was an essential part of our wellness as a Cree family.
Kenneth (Jake) Chakasim, Pawaken, Tapwewin and me.
Why my family’s story is important
In creating this light-hearted documentary, I wanted to provide a counter-narrative to the colonial one. I wanted children like mine to witness a positive story of Indigenous family life. With NiiSoTeWak, we are taking back our own story, and offering a story about Cree reality that celebrates our children. As Indigenous people, we are overwhelmed with stories of despair, where we are continuously depicted as Canada’s problem, understood by settlers as a deficit. This narrative is steeped in lies and makes it extremely difficult to build meaningful relationships. NiiSoTeWak is a story about humanity, pride, love, family and community.
Story has always been the soul of our communities. It carries agency. It is through story that we can change minds and warm hearts. This beautiful story of my twins offers a glimpse into our Cree family, an endearing testament to hope, resilience and strength. This is who we are, and who we have always been. We are not what Canadian society supposes us to be: we are true warriors. We are still here, and our children are evidence of our resilience as a people.
The Making of NiiSoTeWak
Making this film as a family allowed Tapwewin and Pawaken to explore their identity as Cree twins in a safe place. Jake and my two older sons Asivak and Mahiigan were part of the documentary as well; the shared laughter between my children and their realizations about identity and individuality are forever imprinted in my mind and in my heart.
I felt privileged to witness the twins’ journey of self-discovery. As I observed them interviewing their older brothers, I recognized how special they are and how lucky I am to be their mother.
Since I was a little girl I always pictured myself as mother to a daughter, but here I am with four sons. I am truly blessed. A part of me believes that they chose me to guide them on this journey. I am raising my four sons to be four incredible Cree men.
As the boys exchanged memories and openly shared their affection for one another, I knew I was witnessing the creation of a new story. The healing of a new generation was happening right before my eyes.