Artist Dominique Normand documents Crees on the Journey of Wellness

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Dominique Normand

Multi-media artist Dominique Normand has a simple theme she hopes people will get from her upcoming documentary about Mistissini’s Journey of Wellness: celebration of Cree culture and traditions.

“They’re such beautiful people. They’re so wise and easygoing, they have respect and know how to be quiet inside – to talk little and laugh a lot,” Normand said. “They’re amazing people who love quality in what they do, who take time doing things right the first time. They’re excellent teachers. They do it slowly without many words, but you have to be totally there and absorb.”

Normand joined this year’s Healing Journey, a month-long retreat into the woods to learn Cree traditional hunting, fishing and camping practices, following years of involvement in Cree communities. The Journey, led by Mistissini’s Kenny Loon and his wife Charlotte, “consists of participants selected by the Social Development Committee because they’ve expressed the intention of making big changes in their lives.”

Participants may be trying to turn over a new leaf with regard to drug or alcohol use, aggression, family violence, or interpersonal difficulties. Mistissini’s Social Development Department selects individuals based on their willingness to make sincere changes to past habits and behaviours.

Journey participants range in age from the late teens to Elders in their 50s or older, all brought together by the desire to learn the skills involved in living off the land: net fishing under ice, setting up snares, hunting and dressing birds and caribou, and knowing how to build a proper tent from the ground up in the traditional style, using poles and boughs cut from black spruce.

group2 copy“It’s also testing yourself,” Normand added. “Endurance, cold, the lack of comfort: that’s what it’s all about. That’s what I got from the experience.”

She initially encountered Crees at the Shawbridge Pow Wow, close to her home in the tiny Laurentian community of Arundel. Repeated meetings led to invites to visit Eeyou Istchee, and in time she began to make regular trips, bringing with her art supplies to teach painting and drawing to young people.

In her own art, Normand was drawn toward Native imagery, though she didn’t know why. Only much later, she says, did she discover that she had Maliseet heritage from her father.

“It confirmed for me where that fascination comes from,” she said.

The Journey of Wellness is a far greater commitment than simple art workshops, however, and Normand undertook the journey in order to show and explain the traditions that have kept Crees alive in Eeyou Istchee for thousands of years.

“[White communities] don’t know our neighbours,” Normand said. “They don’t know who they are, and they’re a bit afraid of them. It’s ridiculous. I just want to show and tell everyone that [Crees are] beautiful, because there’s lots of prejudice. It seems like it’s a calling and it’s what I have to do.”

As well, she wanted to document traditional practices for future generations of Crees.

“I filmed the process of how to put the net a long distance under the ice, and how they cut up the meat of the caribou, and the preparation of the food and the bannock,” Normand explained.

Though she spent a month immersed in the experience, she didn’t press participants to talk about the personal challenges that led them to the Wellness Journey.

INTENTWITHKC“Some of them came to me and opened up. It’s a delicate thing. Most people are pretty secretive. There were also very interesting sharing circles. That’s where people open up and talk about their challenges and difficulties and sadness.”

Those circles, however, took place in Cree. Normand understands enough of the language to know what the subject of the discussion was, but admits that the finer details or nuances escaped her.

“And anyway,” she added, “I didn’t feel that it was my business. I wasn’t there to intrude. I was there to help them promote the event, and also to help them have a piece of film that will inspire other people to want to make the journey. And also to leave some heritage of how it’s done when you live in the bush.”

Normand will present a rough cut of the film to Journey participants in Mistissini before Goose Break, and will edit her final cut based on their responses. The film should be available for public viewing by this summer.

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