Remembering a mother

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My mother, Susan Kataquapit, passed from this world on July 23 at the age of 73. My brothers and sisters, her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren are feeling the loss of our matriarch and the connection to our traditional past.

She was one of the last of a generation of Attawapiskat Elders born and raised on the traditional Mushkego lands 100 kilometres north of the modern community on the James Bay coast. During a visit 20 years ago, our grandmother Louise Paulmartin pointed out where all her children were born near the mouth of the river. She explained that it was the Paulmartin women and an extended distant family of mothers and aunts who acted as midwives in the wilderness to bring my mother Susan into this world on March 11, 1943.
UTNS Marius-Susan-Kataquapit-2005

She was born into a hardworking family of hunters and trappers. The Paulmartin men were well known for their skill in living off the land. Equally hard working, the women maintained the close-knit family bond that helped ensure their survival in the wilderness.

Mom often told stories of her early life. Her chores included fetching fresh water in a canoe with her sisters, and tending to the fishing nets. In the winters, she snow-shoed or dog-sledded far into the wilderness with her family to gather wood, tend to traps and collect snow for drinking water. At times the family would travel 30 kilometres to the nearest Hudson Bay trading post at Lakitusaki, or as it is known in English, Lake River.

Mom had an adventurous family life. They hunted, fished and trapped in the winters and travelled south every spring to spend their summers on the shores of the Attawapiskat River. She could maintain a wilderness camp and keep her family warm and safe from the elements.

When mom needed to find a life partner, Marius Kataquapit entered the story. Dad was born and raised on the Attawapiskat River, and was considered an adventurous boy who had left to work in the southern world at only 16 years of age.

When he returned to woo our mother, the Paulmartin clan were reluctant to support the pairing. However, this upstart young Marius persisted and worked hard for her affection and the support of her family. He finally got his wish.

After the marriage they lived in Moosonee, where dad could find steady work. Life in the railhead town, where the modern met the traditional, was not easy in the 1960s. The young couple returned home in the early 1970s to raise their children close to their extended families.

Dad left us often to do the heavy tasks of hunting and trapping but he always reminded us he did so knowing that his family was well cared for by an intelligent, strong and capable mother. She kept us healthy and safe while teaching us to be hard working and kind. We marvel now at how she was able to do it. There was no running water back then; maintaining a household with nine children without sinks, showers or toilets was not an easy task.

Mom still made time work as a cook at the local hospital to help support her large family. In her spare time she sewed, stitched and beaded decorative moose hide mitts, gloves, hats and coats to sell.

As our teacher, she guided us in her own quiet way and preferred to lead by example. Even as she grew old with debilitating arthritis, she constantly struggled through it to help her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As she worked to make our lives comfortable, we learned from her that, with effort, anything was possible.

In the early 1980s, she suffered her first major loss when her father Xavier Paulmartin died of a stroke. But with a growing circle of young children, it was easier to heal the pain. The only time I ever really witnessed mom falter was when she lost her 16-year-old son, my brother Philip, on a tragic Christmas night. Years later, she again felt this pain with the loss of her wonderful little grandson, Nicolas.

Even with all the pain she must have carried in her heart and in her body, mom was a powerful spirit. With all the turmoil and hardship we faced, she was always the foundation that we could count on. I feel her still in my heart, my memories and my thoughts.

I will always feel guilty for not spending more time with mom and dad. Yet, I realize she was proud and happy for me, my brothers Lawrence, Mario, Anthony, Philip, Joseph and Paul. My sisters Janie and Jackie were more than daughters – they were also her best friends.

Her spirit now roams the land where she was born and raised. On those distant shores, she has regained her strong, young body. She is able to run again across the flat tundra of the Nawashi River where her parents and her ancestral Paulmartin clan wait for her. Her husband Marius is there too, ready to make her laugh. In her renewed strength, she is able to hold on to her son Philip once again and take her grandson Nicolas into her arms.

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