Out on the Land With DAREarts.
In March, DAREarts returned to Attawapiskat to follow up a project that we did at this time two springs ago. That spring equinox, the sun was shining and the melting winter road was closed. There was local flooding from the sudden snowmelt, which resulted from 20C+ temperatures.
This year, the winter still held Attawapiskat in its grasp, and the temperatures were in the -20C range for most of our time there. This past weekend, over a hundred people from Attawapiskat, including half of our students were evacuated due to flooding risk. It’s a stressful time for all of them because they had to leave and go to far away places, some separated from their families.
We think of them all the time and hope that they stay safe.
A Cold Spring…
The school bus roars over the frozen DeBeers mine road, away from town along the Attawapiskat River, into the muskeg, kicking up powdered snow. The trees shrink. The tamaracks and black spruce are wizened old trees, bent by wind and time. Peter, our video teacher and I are bouncing in the truck following the bus. Our driver is Joseph, who laughs, “That driver’s fast. I drove with him once. He made it to Moosonee in three hours.” The drive to Moosonee from Attawapiskat is normally five hours on the Winter Road. I know that one of the kids in that bus is filming the trees as they whip by. I pray that the camera strap is around his wrist.
Attawapiskat is just a few kilometres away from James Bay. In March, the Moon of Eagle, mee kiisi peesum, the kids start thinking of Spring, and goose hunting season also means that the family has the opportunity to go out on the land and hunt. April in Cree is niska peesim. Moon of the Goose. It’s been this way for millennia.
Days like this are gold for us. It can be a great challenge to get through to kids who are shy teenagers who, especially here, are somewhat leery of strangers from the outside. This year, we’re working with the grade eight students. They remember me from my brief time with them, two years ago, when six classes each wrote a song in under two hours. Slowly, we re-establish a working dialogue of trust over the week.
The portable we’re working in tends to leak when the sun gets strong enough to melt the ice on the roof. Other than that, it’s a pretty nice place to be. Peter’s introduction is about his work as a documentary producer and long-time resident of Northern Ontario. This quickly turns into a demonstration of vocal effects that transfix the kids and teachers as the sounds of geese, turboprops, outboard motors, moose and wolves fill the room. We go through the DAREarts values, Discipline, Action, Responsibility and Excellence and how they sit on the four directions. The teacher, Adam Claus, has the first featured words of the day on the chalkboard. Up on the smart board we have the karaoke version of their song, “Muskego Land” projected. The kids are very shy, very quiet as they sing the song. Then, Peter hooks up his camera to the board so that the kids can see what the camera sees.
As Peter explained what each shot was (our action words on the board) “tilt,” “pan,” “zoom,” “dolly,” “slate,” the kids understand that there’s a vocabulary that goes with the art of film-making. It was so great to watch the footage later and hear that they were actually saying the words as they moved the camera. “Pan left.”
They’re finishing up their year, and some of them already know they’re graduating in June. Goose hunting season is coming up, and that means two weeks off to go out with their families to hunt. Spring is not, unlike the last time I was here, apparent. During today’s outing, it’s minus 18. There’s a nice stiff wind coming from the north, and an ice ring around the sun.
Lightning goes straight from the sky to the sand…
Being human in a place like this takes work, even with all the technology.
Joe and his wife Marriette, our Cree Elders, are unloading the truck. Snowshoes are put on, adjusted, tried and readjusted. The traces are new and stiff, made stiffer by the relentless cold. The snow is at least five feet deep. I watch the kids sink into the snow in their boots and wonder, how on earth would anyone survive such an environment without show-shoes?
Joseph makes a joke about not getting lost out there. “Don’t forget your GPS! What would we do without technology?” I point at the snowshoe. “That’s our technology, right there.” Joe agrees, heartily. I hear a thump as something large hits the ground. It’s a sturgeon, wrapped in plastic. It was just pulled out from under the ice, on a gill net, by a tourist who donated it to us. We all wonder how big it is. Joe pulls out a measuring tape. “Over four feet. Four feet, two inches!” The bulk of it will be eaten by thirty hungry kids and adults, and the head will be kept for an Elder in town.
As we walk out on that beautiful space, I wonder how much of this is still a part of this generation’s everyday life. Grade eight teacher Adam is easy-going, ever watchful, always negotiating. His patience fits right in with Aboriginal approaches to learning. He respects and celebrates their traditional cultural heritage. “My favorite thing was, years ago, when one of the kids said, ‘Just because we’re Native doesn’t mean we like DOING Native things.’
Well, looking at these kids and Elders today, I can see that attitude changing. In the spur of the moment the boys build a goose blind in the traditional way, as they learned from an Elder in recent past. They dig a very deep hole in the Styrofoam-like snow, cut down saplings and branches and create a blind out of snow and spruce. Out come the cameras. The kids have their shot list, but they’re seeing things evolve out of this outing. It comes naturally. They don’t reproduce the scene; the scene unfolds and they catch it.
In the classroom portable a couple of days ago, one of the boys had created a fantastic drawing of a goose in flight. Peter asked him to do another one with its wings in a different position. The result is a goose that can be animated and set into a scene using blue screen. This scene, today.
Out on the land we’re strong and free…
The sturgeon is cut open and out comes the biggest mess of caviar one could imagine. We joke about how much money we have here. Marriette scoops out the eggs and plops them into a bowl. She adds to that the guts. Joe takes the fish remains out in the bush and leaves them there. Someone’s going to eat besides us.
A couple of curious whisky jacks arrive. Caleb, armed with a piece of baloney and his camera, lures one of them to him. It doesn’t seem afraid. In fact, it flies in his face. He gets nervous and drops the baloney. The bird flies away, laughing. Better luck next time.
Sadly, my attempt at making whole grain bannock is a sorry failure. It falls apart in the freezing cold and doesn’t get hot enough to cook throughout. What I end up with is a brown pile of greasy crumbs. I am going to give it to the whisky jack, but one of the girls says, “No, wait. Can I have some?” “But it’s awful!” I reply. She holds out her paper plate. I put some on it. Then, Marrietta sticks out her plate. They say, “No, it’s good! Taste it!” I try it. The crunchiness of the nuts and grains makes up for the fact that it’s hot crunchy cereal, not bannock. I will always cherish the kindness of these kids. Yes, I know. They are being kind. And truth be told, Whisky Jack is enjoying most of it.
Telling stories by the fire…
When it’s minus 18C, the little cameras we have are always in danger of freezing up. We remind the kids that if they keep looking at what they’ve filmed, they’ll run down the batteries and won’t be able to do any more filming. They get it. They understand the economy of time and effort. They also know what the cold can do to their fingers, let alone a camera battery. They tuck the cameras inside their coats, close to their chests, pull them out briefly, then tuck them back again.
As we stand around the fire, I pull out my hand drum and warm it over the flames. It takes on the aroma of sweet cedar smoke. The kids take turns playing it, and they sing “Muskego Land,” while one of the students video tapes. Remarkably, it’s in exactly the same key as the sound recording, exactly the same tempo, so that when the shot is inserted into the video, it syncs up. The magic of movie making.
Our gratitude goes to the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs who made it possible for us to return to Attawapiskat this year. I am grateful that we were able to keep up this continuity. This year, the kids are graduating to grade nine. They’ll be going to the high school, and they’ll miss the chance to go to the new primary school. What a shame. They were filming themselves outside the new school as the front loader was pushing snow away from the building in advance of the coming melt. (It’s also built above the flood plane and will be flood proof.) The new school is beautiful. Everything that Shannen Koostachin wanted in a school. A warm cozy place to learn. But these kids won’t get to go there. I sincerely hope that we can work with them again when they’re in high school.
Big big thanks goes to vice principal Wayne Potts, who made DAREarts feel welcome two years ago and lent his guidance this year. Gratitude to the teachers, Carinna Pellet and Adam Claus, who kept the kids pumped up yet focussed. Chi-Meegwetch to Jenny Nakogee, Christine Koostachin, Joe Wheesk and Marietta Mattinas for your teachings!
And to all of you DAREarts Youth in J.R.Nakogee from both years: congratulations on a job well done. You are great kids. It’s a privilege to know you. You are the good news coming out of Attawapiskat.
Enjoy the video, “Muskego Land” on Youtube.