Cree Indians: Warm-Hearted and Kind
A Portrait of Indigenous Culture
Edge of the Arctic – Moose Factory, Ontario
It was minus 35 degrees Celcius when the Polar Bear Express train left Cochrane on a regular five-hour route along rugged mountains, pine forest and snow covered cliffs and rivers en route to Moosenee. My first assignment as an official photographer for a US-based company was both exciting and memorable travelling from Northern Ontario to as far as the West Coast. This time it was different.
The train ride felt like a huge relief after an eight-hour drive from Toronto. The train's dining area and restaurant were bustling with people ordering lunch for their kids. The smell of freshly brewed coffee, freshly cooked food and Canadian beer made me feel like I was in a downtown bar. I settled to read a book written by Columban priest Sean McDonagh's "To Care for the Earth." Every now and then I would look out to see the wide expanse of Northern Ontario's wilderness and enjoyed the picturesque view of the train passing along an elevated bridge on top of the magnificent splendour of the St. Lawrence River. Upon arrival at Moosonee Station my contacts took care of my heavy luggage and equipment. It took another hour to arrange my flight by chopper to Moose Factory. I beg my photography company to allow me to take the road trip via the frozen river. Due to the weight of my studio gear, cameras, strobe lights and specialty Christmas background, the director instructed me to take the helicopter ride, reasoning that it will be more expensive to fish me out of the river and my photographic equipment if I fall into the still thin layer of snow covering the Hudson Bay River.
A $200.00 dollar price occupying the chopper for a five minute ride to Moose Factory gave me the aerial view of the forest surrounding the first English colonial settlement of Canada at the mouth of the Hudson Bay River. " This is the Edge of the Arctic," the pilot pointed to the looming horizon now filled with layers of snow and icy waters. It also afforded me the chance to see the huge Carabao-like creatures which I later came to know as the Canadian Moose.
Moose Factory, is a Native Reserve. It is not a place where you order Moose meat for dinner. There was none to my dismay except when you order Caribou meat at $ 35.00 a plate. Hmmm…I could just imagine how it was when some new-found Filipino-Canadian couples treated me to a five family dinner treat one Saturday and Sunday in Edmonton, Alberta. The best and the one I could recall were not the delicious and tasty lechon and various Filipino delicacies. It was a couple of big sausages made from deer and moose meat.
Back to day one of my stay in Moose Factory, I booked a two-night stay at the Cree Village Ecolodge Hotel in Moose Factory where you see the wide expanse of the Hudson river. It was also here where I came to appreciate the wondrous value of North American Indians taking care of their culture and environment. They had elaborate native paintings, Cree Indian artwork and other native display. The place smelled fresh and well-ventilated. The architecture was exquisite. The Hotel was made of hard wood from the surrounding forest. The chairs, walls, railings and the comfortable bed were woven intricately and secured not by nails but by delicately carved wood nails. The washroom is also an ecological marvel. After using the toilet, you flush it without water and the sound of jet stream pressure tells you that your waste is on its way to become a part of the biomass that turns into electrical energy and purified gas for cooking food.
What surprised me was how I blended with the native Cree or Ojibway people here and in most Indian reservations. The children played around my studio set-up and constantly talked to me in their native language. Two elderly women came after another one day to bring their kids and family for their portraits at the Northern Store (formerly Hudson Bay Company).Amidst the 15 minute per client gap on the set, they talked to me in rapid sequence in Cree language while I was writing down the photo session sitting report. I smiled and said I am Filipino. One of them asked where I came from. I replied with a sheepish smile and told her: I came from the Philippines. Her curt response almost made me laugh so hard. ”Òh that distant tribe.”
Was it the ice bridges that could have separated my ancestors from this original tribe or was it because I am one of the few Filipinos who ventured this far? I don`t want to distantly guess. The next day, I was drinking coffee at the only restaurant on the island and a middle-aged man came to sit beside me. He was more native Indian looking than I was and had been drinking early. I guess he was curious to see someone from another “distant`tribe.” He started asking me where I came from. He laughed derisively when I replied: “I’m from Toronto.” He surely knew I was not a Cree or Ojibway when he correctly said,“Oh, I see, that little town beside the lake?” I politely replied, “Yes, you said it right brother.” I finished my coffee and bade him farewell not wishing to linger. My portrait studio is scheduled to open at 9:00 A.M. One of my strobe lights stand needs a replacement bolt. This, of course, was caused by my constant move from various towns from Muskoka up to Red Lake and Ear Falls at the boundary of the Manitoba border every three days in a row for one month.
At the electrical and hardware store I ordered the missing bolt and other office supplies. When the store clerk totalled the amount he asked for my Indian band number. Already, lighthearted from the experience with my “native Indian” brothers and sisters, I quickly responded “7-eleven” (a store name commonly found in Ontario) thinking he was playing a joke on me. He punched the number and to my surprise I was not charged any tax. I apologized and told him I am not from the “reserve.” But he told me not to worry and wave his hand with a smile. That first portrait day, I had so many sleepy and crying babies lining for their turns with their parents having a hard time catching the active ones who were running around the set. With family pets, I had to sound like a dog to catch the attention of a playful cat and vice versa. The pets would look at me with a curious gaze and wondered why everyone seemed happy and smiling.
The snow storm was coming and the forecast was -35* C with a windchill factor of minus 40. I bade goodbye to my friends and clients at the Northern Store. On my way out, a senior staff and a village chieftain handed a heavy package to me. “Here’s your Holiday wish, Ed. I had a lucky hunt this year.” It turned out to be my favourite – Moose meat.
I got off the Polar Bear Express holding my ears for fear it might get frozen and fall off. The wind was howling and the extreme cold forced me to run as fast as I could to the comfort of my Mazda car. The snow had thickened after a week at the train station. Time to rush home before the blinding snow.
Christmas was just around the corner. On my way, I saw a flock of small silvery white birds flying and darting in and out of the trees in playful formation on their way to their migration. Except for a pair of moose nibling road salt along the embankment, not a soul can be seen driving along the highway for more than two hours. Your phone and pager do not work until you hit the town of Wawa. The car radio can only pick up CBC FM station and just a noisy hissing sound when you turn the knob to other channels. At the tourist look-out, I stopped to listen to the sounds of insects and wild life and rewarded myself with a couple of leg stretches before heading to my eight-hour journey back to Toronto. The edge of the Arctic was chilly and cold at that time of the year but I was lucky to have met many warm-hearted Native North American Indians along the way. I had my best Christmas and a uniquely tasty moose meat with the rest of the family. I am sure glad to be of Filipino descent and to be mistaken as a member of a distant tribe. Cheers!
By: Edwin C. Mercurio - Written New Year's Eve 2012