Article 2 – My Northern Family Culture

by Collette McKay

photo courtesy of Doug Lauvstad

Tansii, I am a mother to two beautiful children; a girl whose spirit name is kiwètin iskwèw (North Wind Girl), and a boy whose spirit name is Piponàskos (Young Snow Bull). Together with their father and myself, we reside in Opaskwayak Cree Nationii. I have been a community member of O.C.N. & town of The Pas since 1997, and my treaty number represents the Pimicikamak Cree Nationiii Band of Indians, also known governmentally as Cross Lake First Nation. I have lived on two reservations my whole life: O.C.N. & P.C.N. I can openly admit that the lifestyle in both communities greatly differ from one another, in context of ‘northern family culture.’ Yet, from the stories that I have been told throughout my life, there is even greater similarities. There are many memories that I hold closely and dearly to my heart. I have been taught many life lessons from my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and especially, my parents – my undeniable, always dependable trio! That’s right, I have three parents: my Mom, my Dad and my Stepmom! Without their guidance and advice, I would not know anything about our family history, family importance and the extraordinary stories about my own blood originating from two separate geographical areas. I want to make this clear: I am not, in any way, shape, or form, discriminating against either reservation!

When I was a little girl, I remember being taught valuable traditional life lessons such as respect for Elders. Before my 8th birthday, I was living in my hometown reservation of Pimicikamak. During my time in P.C.N., I recall speaking only Cree with ‘broken English.’ In this community, this was not at all abnormal as most children back then (and to this day still) speak fluent Cree. For as long as I was in P.C.N., the language, the dialect, and having conversations in Cree really had a rippling effect on me. Unfortunately, when I moved to, and would return from visits in P.C.N., to Opaskwayak Cree Nation, my dialect did not match that of the respective area, which made me feel like I should not speak my own native tongue as it was ‘not the right kind’ of Cree. Moreover, with encouragement from not only my grandparents on both sides, my Dad would always tell me ‘not to give up on my language’ – as it would have its benefits later in life. And he was telling the truth (which is not at all surprising), and to this day, I am able to assist in little ways with my language. Although my late grandpa, of my Pimicikamak family, was a quiet man, it was his smile that gave away the impression that he was happy that I was trying to preserve my native tongue. Even though, he “use[d] the heritage of silence to observe others” (George 6), we knew that a smile from him meant that we were doing well. My grandpa in O.C.N. would (and still will) converse with me and my cousins from either sides. I did not understand the definition of dialect at the time, all I knew was that the words were pronounced differently. And it was not until I went for my first visit in Cumberland House, Saskatchewan that I started to really notice the ‘differences’ in pronunciation. This is the hometown reservation/town of my O.C.N. grandmother. Nevertheless, each dialect that I have encountered all share the same trait – a beautiful language preserved within a family, including distant relatives.

Fast forward to today, I still use my native tongue when I speak to my children, my grandparents and relatives, and my favourite – when Elder’s need translation into English. When my children speak Cree, they have the dialect of P.C.N. rather than O.C.N., and I deeply believe that this is heavily due to the practices and natural language of my family who speak around my children with ease, regardless of the situation. It warms my heart that my family understands that I want to preserve our language and pass it on to my children so that they too can pass it on one day.

The matriarchs of our families, our loving grandparents, played and still play a dominant role of keeping with tradition in terms of speaking our native tongue. From Chief Dan George’s poem, “Words to a Grandchild,” it reads, “I am growing old. There is no promise that life will live up to our hopes” (3), but with the teachings they have taught us, their legacy will live on. A part of having our Grandparents remain by our side throughout our entire life is not up to us, but their teachings can live on forever. It is family tradition to pass on such valuable teachings down to each generation. I feel that there is nothing I can do or say to express the magnitude of the thankfulness that I have toward my grandparents. Beth Grant’s “Honour Song” says all I can say:

I will listen to you.
For every ear that turn away from your story, I will finely tune
my own to hear every syllable, every cry, every nuance of speech,
every whisper, every secret.
I will see you.
For every eye that glanced away, that refused to look, my own eyes will
behold beauty, will reflect our history, will softly cover you with respect.
I will cry with you.
For all the ugliness you were witness to, I will shed tears for
each one. I will cry […] for lost language […].
I will love you.
I have so much, and I give it to you humbly, respectfully,
I will love you as you have loved me. (Brant 57)

Since my younger years, I have always read and witnessed in movies that women are the keepers of homes and the loving caregivers of children. I believed that our duty was not just to cook and clean, but also nurture our offspring. It came off as just chores when I was younger to inevitably revealing the true meaning behind each of these so-called chores. What I have come to realize, now that I am a woman myself, is the huge role my grandmothers played in my childhood. A mother who is secure in her own faith and whose character is firm in her own life is going to be a powerful influence on her younger generations. Knowing that someone cares for them and is committed to them above every earthly endeavor gives a child confidence for whatever obstacles he/she may face, and it serves as an anchor for him/her in the storms of life. They always taught me that the dishes are not just in the sink for us to do, but they also serve as a reminder of how much we have just fed our family. The continuous cycle of laundry symbolized that the children always had clean clothes on their backs until the next mess occurred. The level of cleanliness in the home signified the importance of playing outside as much as one could in one’s childhood. It was the outside lessons that stayed with me – whether it is revisited by the smell of sap on a tree after a rainfall, or the image of both my grandmothers standing at their own clothesline in their own backyard, or the feeling of down-to-earth amplified as I thought of these wonderful, caring, and loving women – who I am fortunate and very humble to be able to call ‘Granny’ & ‘Kokum.iv’ All my relations can feel the humbleness each grandmother exerts on us – though they are small in height, their level of power as a woman is immeasurable. With a simple glance at their own hardworking hands, the soft wrinkles in their faces portray a life of witnessing milestone accomplishments from many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Their life set the wrinkles in place from the countless times of smiling at each milestone.

Not only are my grandmother’s words very important to me, all my aunt’s voices can be heard when I think of them. Of course, there are the serious tones I hear when I try to complain of little things. Yet, I hear their laughter when I think of the advice they have given me or stories they have told me. For instance, I was “always told [to] never walk over men while I was in my ‘moon time’ or they would die from my power” (Halfe 244). Although, “I thought that was the idea” (244), it turns out that I was being groomed to one day step into the traditional realm of Sun Dances, Pow Wows, and all the great events that Pimatisiwinv style has to offer. And this started with understanding the power I hold as an Indigenous woman in the traditional life.

My mother and stepmother play an exclusive role in nurturing as their unique human ties with their descendant position them to extend their influence far beyond their family circles. They will always play a major role in establishing the values and characteristics not only of their children but also of a community. Although raising a child or looking up to your parents is not exactly considered ‘northern culture’ or ‘indigenous ancestry,’ the ways that I have been brought up since childhood would say otherwise. A mother, stepmother, or mother-in-law, all have one similarity: they have been appointed by the Creator to be the rock of strength and haven of protection for their innocent children. They also carry with them the opportunity to mold their children/stepchildren by laying down a respectful, courageous, and rewarding foundation for their descendants to step off when they have built their own. The best present they have given me and my children has been their presence in our lives from the moment of conception with my mother and the moment I met my stepmother. The best gift I have inherited from these wonderful women is how I raise my children. My children have become the best gift to me as they have become under my guidance, which just excites my heart. The roles my mother and stepmother have taken in their own respective homes and contributions they are making in the lives of their own families, friends, and even with the strangers who cross their paths – they both continue to be the greatest gifts in my life along with my child and stepchild.

One thing that my whole family all have in common is the ability to comfort one another during a time of need – for example, a death. There have been three impactful deaths that have occurred in my life:
My musically inclined Aunt, who is ‘Jamming’ with the angels,’ was the first death I dealt with. She was the musical butterfly of our family. She always had a smile on her face whenever children visited. Her death hurt me the most because it was the first experience I had of losing someone so dear, not only to me, but to my other relations as well. The power she held over me was the gift of music – she introduced me to many genres of music, with only one sticking: the alternative rock n’ roll. I miss her tremendously and those moments hit me when I least expect it, especially during a live concert. Her parents, my grandparents, always told us to let it out, do not ever bottle it up. The strength of my grandparents during this difficult loss of their baby girl resonated with me in a way that I never thought possible – I, too, have that strength and am willing to use it.
My beautiful fairy cousin’s passing triggered the notion to tap into my inner strength for the sake of her sisters, parents, and friends, so that I can comfort them. There was a time when I was very weak, and it was in the arms of my husband that I let it all out. I kept hearing the words of my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles telling me that I can be strong. Now, when she comes to visit me in my dreams, I greet her grin for grin, hug for hug, and smile for smile. Some dreams are wordless, but that is okay – her smile is all I need to see so that my heart can be content until her next visit.
My heart was put to test when my Mosomvi passed away; I felt that I was not up for the task of masking the pain and hurt my heart had already endured, his spiritual journey felt like it could break my heart. And it broke in the forms of tears that were flowing down my cheeks during my drive to go pay my respects and act as a boulder to lean on for my hurting family. I had four hours to reminisce while driving along the open highway, with music as my companion. Who knew that the words from a song could make one pull over onto the shoulder of the highway just to let out a scream of frustration that doubled as floodgates for my tears? I finally understood why everyone told me not to bottle it up.
I did not only shed tears for my Mosom, but I also shed tears for my Aunty and cousin. It comes off as selfish, but I wish they were still alive and around my children so that they can teach them what they have taught me. I heard someone mention to my father that “a rock can’t always be strong – it can break too, and that’s okay” (Unknown). And that is what I thought of myself, with regards to my siblings, the rock of the family. They perceive me as such because I carry the traits that my father, which manifest during difficult times, and like the proverbial rock, I break down, too.

My Indigenous ancestry only runs as far as I know and that is quite a long way. I am one-hundred percent Indigenous to this land. There is not a single drop of other ethnic groups within my blood. I came from this land and will be reunited with this land, like all my ancestors before me. “The true north, strong & free” (Robitaille) signifies the importance of maintaining northern life to me. In my opinion, this also resonates the importance of inheriting one’s culture with next to no hesitation. Although there are times when I feel lost, I think of all the values and virtues that I have been taught, and patiently wait for the time that I am able to pass the information down to my children so that they can extend their vast knowledge of our family to their own children one day.

I might not have been raised on the trapline, but I can hunt and fish. I might not have attended Residential School, but I feel the effects it has had on my families. I might not have attended the Korean War, but I carry the strength and courage my warrior ancestors who did. I might not be the next matriarch of my own family, but I will some day get there with advice and guidance I was given throughout my life. I can start a fire, make food, and feed others over the flame. With gifts such as making a fire, I know that I am equipped for survival skills. Along with learning of animal migration throughout seasonal changes, I understand the formality of a trapper. I can set snares and skin animals. All this knowledge and skillsets have been taught to me from many members in my families.

To conclude, I have been taught the valuable lessons of life as an individual for survival, as a mother and stepmother to nurture my children, as a friend to engage in socialization, and as a human with decency to respect those around me. I would love to have my life stay the way it was before the first death within my family; however, the Creator has different plans for my family. I was given the gift of finding a partner in life who values the same virtues I do, and we will practice these throughout our lives together as husband and wife. I hope we can exert the same unconditional love that my grandparents have showcased for one another. To date, my grandparents in both reservations have been together for over 60 years.


i Tansi roughly translates to “hello” in Cree.
ii Opaskwayak Cree Nation – north of town of The Pas, MB.
iii Pimicikamak Cree Nation – 2.5 hours SE of Thompson, MB.
iv Kokum – grandmother in Cree.
v Pimatisiwin – the Good Life.
vi Mosom – grandfather in Cree.
vii Ekosi – thank you!

Works Cited
Brant, Beth. “Honour Song”. Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2001. Print.
George, Chief Dan. “Words to A Grandchild.” Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology -. Toronto:
Broadview Press, 2001. Print.
Halfe, Louise. “She Told Me.” Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology. Toronto: Broadview Press,
2001. Print.
O’Canada. National Anthem of Canada. 1880. Print.

About the Author: Originally from Pimicikamak Cree Nation, Colette McKay is a loving mother to a handsome boy and a beautiful girl. She is married to their father and they all reside in The Pas/ Opaskwayak Cree Nation. A passion for reading and writing began when her Grade 4 teacher read, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Her favourite past times include making memories at concerts, traveling, spending time with her children, extended family, and her friends. Aside from her studies, you can find her playing baseball in the summer or watching hockey in the winter and cheering on her children as they partake in sports activities too. Currently enrolled as an undergraduate for her Bachelor of Arts at the University College of the North – The Pas Campus, with the expectation to graduate in June of 2020, she has her mind set on continuing her studies as an undergraduate in the Kenanow Bachelor of Education After-Degree program in the fall of 2020. Her future aspirations include obtaining a Master of Arts in Education and collaborating with Cree Teachers to revitalize the language.

Instructor’s Remarks: Colette Mckay has many talents: besides being a wife and mother, she is also an excellent student. In a drama course, her performance helped the class to generate manuscripts that can be viewed and read. In the course on Gothic Novels, she brought her frightful feelings and experiences to bear on images. Her reflections on her Indigenous traditions and Northern culture reveal the beautiful heart that she carries within her – Dr. Ying Kong.

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