Museum of History: Exhibition prepared by Cree a giant step forward

Dr. Sarah Pash is the CEO of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute. Photo: Peter Robb

A new exhibition at the Museum of History is all about walking the walk.

Visitors to the museum will be strolling through an exhibition created by the Cree of northern Quebec called Footprints – A Walk Through Generations. Some 150 artifacts tell the story of the Eeyou Istchee — the People of the Land as they journey through life. The Cree call themselves the Eeyou.

It begins with a child’s first footprints on the Earth in what is called the Walking Out ceremony.

The Cree believe that walking demonstrates a respect for the teachings of Eeyou elders. Walking also encourages healthy living, something the Eeyou call Miyupimaatisiiwin (or living life well).

Snowshoes are among the artifacts on display in the exhibition Footprints — A Walk Through Generations. Photo: Peter Robb

The artifacts show the importance of putting one foot in front of the other in Cree culture. They include snowshoes, moccasins, parkas, tools for hunting and trapping, mittens along with ceremonial outfits.  

The artifacts are accompanied by audio, video and photographs that showcase the land and its people, along with work by contemporary Cree artists.

More importantly the exhibitions was curated from a Cree perspective in collaboration with elders from the 10 Cree communities in Northern Quebec. It is  presented in Cree, English and French. It has already toured to the Cree communities in northern Quebec and it will be at the Canadian Museum of History from June 11 to Nov. 3. The next stop after that will be Timmins, which is located near Cree communities in northern Ontario.. 

The exhibition was assembled by the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, located in the community of Oujé-Bougoumou on the shore of James Bay. The institute is a 30,000 square-foot museum and cultural centre. It is the Crees’ primary location for the preservation of documents, media, and physical objects, designed for preservation, conservation, and knowledge transfer.

“This exhibition celebrates who we are as Cree people and our connection to this land we have travelled across and lived with for centuries,” said Dr. Sarah Pash, who is the CEO of Aanischaaukamikw. She is also the chairperson of the Cree School Board.

She told a small crowd at a media preview on Monday that the exhibition “is an example of the way in which we, as Indigenous people, can tell our own stories and share our culture in exciting and engaging ways.

“As an Indigenous nation, we control the maintenance of our own heritage ensuring that our language, our stories, our ceremonies are accessible for generations to come in ways that we determine.”

Aanischaaukamikw uses standard museum practices to establish this exhibition, she said, “but we adapt them to suit our purpose, allowing us to self-curate and to determine what of ourselves and our culture is shared with outsiders.”

The point of Footprints was to share Cree culture with new audiences across Canada, she said, on their terms.

“The walking way of life keeps our minds strong-willed. our spirits resilient and our bodies well nourished and healthy.”

Organized walking has become part of the way the Cree are trying t0 heal their land and their communities that have been beset by many of the issues confronting Indigenous peoples today, she said.

Aanischaaukamikw opened in 2012. 

“We decided that one of the first things we needed to do was to start community conversations and interviews with elders to figure out where we were going,” Pash said in an interview later.

The centre started looking at ceremonial objects that had fallen out of use in the communities, it was decided that “we needed to talk about why all these things are important and what the ceremonies centre on and what is at the core of our being.”

Out of the discussions with elders and others, the theme of walking emerged as something that was at the core of who the Cree are, she said.

“We work from a stance that we are fully capable of telling our own stories.”

This is an era of what is called reconciliation, she said. “It is time for all of us to be pushing the envelope and saying the way things were done in the past are not the way things can be going forward.

“One of the telling points of whether the whole project of reconciliation will be successful is how much attention is paid to Indigenous heritage, reclaiming Indigenous heritage and maintaining Indigenous heritage. And that’s what this (exhibition) is all about.”

She said museums have a lot to do with reconciliation.

“For so long museums have taken it upon themselves to decide what gets told about Indigenous peoples. And frequently they are interpreting a line in an anthropologist’s notebook” done by a white man in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

“That’s not going to cut it any more.”

Things have been changing, she said, exemplified by an exhibition such as Footsteps finding a home in the Museum of History.

“I also notice change in the work that the Museum of History and the Royal Ontario Museum are doing that is geared toward figuring out how to have really authentic partnerships with Indigenous communities.

“We have a great relationship with the Museum of History, in fact we have an MOU signed with them” that includes such things protocols around access to the collection and repatriation of artifacts.

“These days we are also talking about repatriating data and documents” to repatriate the stories that are in the files of museums.

For the museum, this exhibition continues a long relationship with Indigenous peoples, said Jean-Marc Blais, the museum’s director general. Seventy-five per cent of the museum’s collection is made up of Indigenous artifacts and records.

In the past, the relationship was often a one way street. Exhibitions such as Footsteps signal a change.

“How can you understand Canada if you don’t allow Indigenous peoples’ voices” to be heard, he said.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.