Remembering Uncle George

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It seems like every time I head out on a vacation for the past few years I get tragic news. Recently, as I was leaving the country, I heard that my Uncle George had passed away. This made me very sad and my mind flooded with memories of my childhood back in Attawapiskat when I was surrounded by a very large family.

George was a special Elder in Attawapiskat and he had a rich and deep knowledge of the Cree culture and history of the James Bay coast. He was born and raised in a traditional lifestyle on the James Bay coast. At an early age, he travelled and visited the length of the James Bay coast as his family followed a nomadic lifestyle of hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering led by their parents James and Janie Kataquapit. They survived through bitter cold winters, warm summers in the mushkeg wilderness, through feasts of food they had gathered themselves and during difficult famines when the land grew empty.

Amongst all the brothers in his family, George was not the eldest, as his brother Thomas held that role. However, due to Thomas’ poor health and inability to hunt and trap as freely as his brothers, George was the one who led his younger siblings on the land. My father Marius highly respected his older brother. In fact, all the brothers looked up to George for his leadership in a number of ways.

George knew the land around Attawapiskat and adjacent rivers and lakes. He also had a mindful and spiritual character with a strong faith in the Catholic Church. Even with all the turmoil that the church may have caused his family through the residential school system, he remained a devout Catholic. Dad often told us that it was George who led them on Sunday prayers when they spent time together on the land. Even though they may have been miles away from a church, they always found time to maintain their faith in something greater than themselves.

As young children, we learned early on to respect our Elder and uncle George. He was a strong and proud character. In many ways, he was like the rest of his brothers. He enjoyed laughing at silly things people said or did. He was quick to point out and remember a fun story about himself and his brothers or times he spent on the land with his own family.

I was never as happy to see Uncle George as when his younger brother David came to visit us every summer when I was a boy. David lived a separate life in Moosonee but he visited us every summer when our Mooshoom, grandfather James Kataquapit, was still with us. Mooshoom lived with my family for a few years and during David’s annual visits, my dad Marius, their brothers Thomas, Alex, Leo and Gabriel and their sister Celine came together for a game of cards in our home. Dad always set up the game table in the centre of the living room, with all the brothers seated at what seemed like to me a grand gathering of great Elders.

They had great fun and there was plenty of joking, laughing and teasing, especially towards their father and matriarch, who was happy and content to see family around him. For the younger children, it was a windfall as we crawled around under the table and between the chairs to ask our uncles and our grandfather for a dollar or two.

George and his wife Cecilia bore a family of strong individuals who have become essential to the fabric of our community. I worked with his sons George Jr. and Ernie and daughter Florence at the Northern Store during a difficult period of my life when we had lost my older brother Philip. They were comforting forces in my young life that helped me through a dark time.

I saw Uncle George during that funeral and his words still echo in my memory. He said life was fleeting, that we never know what may become of us, but it was our family that we live for and it was our faith in each other and in a higher power that keeps us together. He honoured my mother for having led a spiritual life, for being a good wife for his brother and for having raised a good family.

Now here I am on this page of words to do the same for him. Chi-Meegwetch Nookoomis (Thank you, my uncle).

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