Why ceremony and culture are so important to Cree documentary filmmaker Jules Koostachin
Why ceremony and culture are so important to Cree documentary filmmaker Jules Koostachin

Tapwewin and Pawaken are twins.

For their 12th birthday, their mother (and documentary filmmaker) Jules Koostachin brought the entire family on their first trip to their ancestral lands, Attawapiskat. While there, the twins cut their hair for the very first time in a Cree coming-of-age ceremony.

12 year-old twins Tapwewin and Pawaken sit in the sun.

In Jules’ short documentary, OshKiKiShiKaw: A New Day, we follow the twins as they prepare for the ceremony that will mark their transition into adulthood. It’s a story about renewal, reclamation and healing  — and the importance of instilling cultural practice and pride in the next generation.

In the documentary, you talk about how you didn't participate in cultural ceremonies until you were older than the twins. How old were you? How were you introduced to ceremony?

In 1991, I moved to Montreal. I was 19 when I started studying theatre at Concordia University. Soon after, I met other Indigenous students involved with the Native Student Association and through them. I was quickly introduced to ceremony.

I went to my first Sweat Lodge Ceremony in Oka — it was an incredibly challenging and life-altering experience. Ever since, I have participated in ceremonies all over Turtle Island. Later in life, I introduced my sons to ceremony.

Why is ceremony so important in your family’s life?

My cultural identity is at the core of my being. It has guided me through some difficult times. Ceremony has provided my family with a safe place to be ourselves.

It has created opportunities to heal and has grounded us when we faced adversity.

I believe our cultural practices and customs are important, especially for one to know and fully understand their roots and to be strong in their identity. As a mother of four sons, I strive to ensure my children are not only aware of our cultural ways, but also exposed to them as much as possible. 

Furthermore, I fully acknowledge that a disruption has occurred in our family. Being the daughter of a residential school survivor has informed my life choices. Because of this disruption, it is imperative that all my children carry a sense of self and place. I want my children to carry hope in their hearts. And to soar.

How did you learn about the ceremony we see in the documentary, where Tapwewin and Pawaken cut their hair for the very first time at 12 years old?

In my younger years, I met several Elders and Knowledge Keepers who shared their ancestral teachings with me.

One teaching that stood out to me was in regards to why we wear our hair long, and how we are expected to care for it. Our hair is sacred. It carries our memories. I learned that when one loses someone close, they may cut their hair. And when one is entering a new phase of their life, like puberty, they may choose to cut their hair.

I performed the ceremony with my two older children too, but it was harder for me then. I was a single mother with limited resources. So it was important that my partner Jake and I spent time planning how we were going to prepare the twins for their ceremony. 

We chose not to cut the twins hair since birth and agreed that we would perform the ceremony with the twins’ consent. We both decided that returning to our ancestral lands would be best for us as a family and for the twins, because they had never been there.

We are so pleased, because now they have a story and a personal experience when they speak to their home community of Attawapiskat.

What was it like to do the ceremony in Attawapiskat, on your first visit with your family?

We initially wanted to visit Lake River, north of Attawapiskat. This is where my mother was born, and where her brothers and sisters are buried. The trip fell through at the last minute, so we asked my cousin Adrian to select a suitable place.

He quickly suggested Twin Islands. I was beside myself. I knew immediately that it was the appropriate place for the twins to cut their hair.

We ventured out by boat. We crossed over where the river meets the ocean and made our way to the islands with family and friends. Other villagers came along to witness the ceremony, which was nice to see. When we arrived, my eldest son was gifted with a polar bear sighting.

The twins decided that they wanted to cut one of their brother’s braids and one of their own. It was remarkable!  Emotions were running high and I felt my body weaken as they cut each other’s braids.

In a way, I felt like I was saying goodbye to their childhood, but I also felt like I was greeting a new life. We were all emotional. It was a life-altering experience: a New Day!

The twins cut the first braid.

You took this trip with your mom. What was that like? Did the journey change your relationship with her?

Growing up, I always knew we were Cree. But our Indigenous identity was not discussed over tea and bannock. Our family struggled to survive; my mother was a single mother with three children, so she decided it would be best to move to an urban centre.

Living in the city was hard on our family. My mother’s first language is Cree and she left residential school with a grade four equivalency. We always seemed to be in survival mode, so she more was focused on putting food on the table and paying the rent. My mother was deeply impacted by the residential school system and our family lived with her trauma.

Initially, my mother was hesitant about returning to our home community because of her childhood memories. But as soon as she was reunited with her family in Attawapiskat, there was an immediate shift in her energy – she was glowing.  My mother was so happy. While there, she spent a lot of her time with the twins and my eldest son Asivak (we were disappointed that Mahiigan, my middle son was not present, but he was in our thoughts the whole time). She was out and about visiting family and old friends. I’ve never seen her happier!

My mother was proud to have witnessed the ceremony for the twins. I believe being there – with her grandchildren and me, her daughter – created an opportunity to reflect and to possibly let go of some of the sadness she has been carrying in her heart. Her parents, my grandparents, are both buried up there, so she also had some much needed time with them.

Only time will tell how much this journey has impacted her, but what I do know is that when the ceremony was done, I felt a sense of peace. There was some mourning because my twins are entering a new phase of their lives, but there was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.

I don’t yet understand exactly what this weight signifies, but (to make a long story short) I felt light inside. I felt like I was also letting go. I understand it was about the twins, I was so in-tune with them that day.

The journey was healing for all of us in our own way.

Rita, Jules' mom

Why did you want to make a documentary about this journey and ceremony?

Our stories carry agency. Our stories have the ability to change lives, shift perspectives and to heal. They are alive!

I hope that we, as a family, were successful in creating a new story of place and I am aware that we have reignited a fire.

My grandparents instilled in me that we are strong, resilient people. I truly believe that by acknowledging our ancestors, our herstory and the land, we are clearing a new path for our descendants.

This is a story about renewal, reclamation and healing.

OshKiKiShiKaw: A New Day will carry several different meanings for audience members. For us, this journey has meant that my children now have a place to return to and call home.