“My daughter, do not ever forget your traditional way of life.”
I was born on December 9, 1947, in Gull River, Wood Buffalo National Park. Gull River has been a predominantly Cree traditional area for over 7 generations. It is southwest of Fort Chipewyan, located in northeastern Alberta. My mother tells me that my family had just moved into a new cabin. The window frames were covered with canvas, and my father went to the trading post to pick up the windows. My paternal grandmother, Magleet, was the midwife who delivered me, with my paternal Aunt, Rosalie Tourangeau, assisting. My mother, Philomene Courtoreille Whitehead, was married to Alec Whitehead. He passed away with tuberculosis during the pandemic, and later my mother married my father, Sal Marten. I have 9 sisters and 2 brothers: Elsie Whitehead-Whitedeer (late), Katy Whitehead-Marten (late), Louise Whitehead-Campbell (late), George “G.M.”, Christina (late), Sammy, Terry, Alice, Stella, Georgina (late), and Linda. My Godmother was my paternal Aunt Rosalie Tourangeau, and my Godfather was Uncle Fred Courtoreille, who brought Father Picard in his dogsled to Gull River.
I was baptised at the cabin. The baptismal ceremony and godparents are very important in our culture. My godparents named me Rita Mary; my brother Sammy named me Chêtet. My paternal grandmother, Magleet, organised a feast, and my mother cooked a nice traditional meal for the guests and family. My mother taught us to be respectful to all our Godmothers and Godfathers, who had a role to play in our lives.
Cree is my first language and my culture. It was taught to me by my mother and my father based on their parents’ knowledge and ancestral teachings since time immemorial. Virtues and Values were the fundamental teachings of my ancestors. I am very grateful to my parents for the wealth of knowledge that they shared with me, and that they taught me my traditional way of life. My father’s message is “Nitanis, Kayâ wîcatsh Sakâw Pimatisowîn wonkiskisî,” which means “My daughter, do not ever forget your traditional way of life.” My mother’s message is “Nitanis, Mitone nâspitsh Sakâwiniwîk nikîhikwâk itwêkan,” which means, “my parents are authentic, genuine Bush Cree people; say this to elders you meet in your travels, they will understand what that means.” These two messages I cherish, and they are very dear to my heart: they sustain my Lifelong Healing Journey.
I remember growing up in Gull River in the winter cabin, walking in the bush trails, listening to squirrels, chickadees, chewing spruce gum, and picking frozen moose berries to make jam and share a teaspoon with my mom and siblings.
My little sister, Terry, and I would sometimes go see an abandoned cabin. It belonged to Sakahal and Sara Ratfat, Elder Mary Rose McKay’s grandparents. Both of her grandparents were sent to the hospital with tuberculosis, and Mary Rose went to live with my Uncle Snowbird and Aunty Maria in Embarras.
During the winter nights, we watched the beautiful northern lights. In Cree, they are referred to as ghosts dancing in the star-covered sky. I always pictured my late grandpa dancing with his brand-new moccasins in the sky. Our chore at night was to take my Grandma Nocikwêw (who was blind) to the outhouse. She would say to check the moon and north star to predict the weather, and my sister, Terry, was a good listener. Today, she is still familiar with that teaching, and she now teaches her grandson, Nicholas, about it.
One morning, I noticed that the cabin was cold, and I saw men changing the stovepipes. They put in an enterprise cook stove which had a water reservoir attached and a pot-belly heater, and, in no time, we could feel that the house was toasty warm. They also delivered a maple dresser and mirror, along with four maple table chairs. These household items were delivered in a bombardier from Fort Chipewyan, and my mother was extremely happy to have such unexpected gifts from my dad. That dresser became a part of the altar when priests came to say Mass. Thinking back, we had a very nice cosy, homey, loving home. There were Christmas ornaments hanging in the ceiling, and there was a trophy set of antler horns displayed on the wall from my brother G.M.’s first hunt when he was nine years old. My brother, G.M., became our family’s provider, a skilled marksman, a tracker, and a hunter. Those techniques he learnt from my dad, and we were always happy to have good food. My mother was very proud of her sons. The priest that visited families gave out religious prints by Michelangelo (little did I know then, that I would see his artwork at the Sistine Chapel in Rome) and a roman numeral Cree calendar; I am sure that every Cree family had those hanging on their wall.
One of the fondest memories I have is visiting my paternal Nokom Magleet and Uncle Louis in Frog Creek. My grandma loved her cabin. It had a loft, and I once saw a squirrel running down the ledge of the stairway, which stopped and looked at me. I thought my Nokom’s house was the best place to be. Sadly to say, the cabin was lost during a wild forest fire, and after that she moved to her Gull River cabin. My grandmother always gave me a treat after bringing in wood for her. She had a four-hole stove, and that’s where I roasted the fat, such a nice treat!
Wâhkohtowin, “Kinship”, in my traditional upbringing was extremely important. I was blessed with wonderful parents, siblings, numerous paternal and maternal grandmothers, uncles, aunts, and relatives. My favourite paternal grandmother, Magleet-Margaret, was the Matriarch of the family. She loved to barter with her Métis friends when she came to Fort Chipewyan. She passed away at Frog Creek on April 17, 1959, during the Spanish flu epidemic. I was in the residential school, and I did not know of my grandma’s passing until that summer. I never said goodbye to my Nokom, and I felt the tremendous loss of my Nokom’s presence in our summer camp. She would ask my mom for me to spend the summers with her. I was her “Ni Chîchachimis”, which means “my little Chêtet.” I always enjoyed visiting my Nokom Magleet.
As a child and young adult, I attended the Holy Angels Residential School. The classrooms were on the second floor of the residence. The school was renamed Bishop Piche School after Paul Piche was ordained a Bishop. The Federal Government I.N.A.C. provided funding for a bigger school, which I attended for the next five years. Despite hierarchical racism, and the mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional abuse I endured for nine years, I knew that I was a visiting student. I knew that I would always return to my family and my traditional way of life. I believe that an ideal education system today should provide a student with a strong understanding of their language and cultural identity in conjunction with promoting academic excellence.
We were blessed to spend July and August on the land. My sister, Alice, follows that authentic bush lifestyle, and she loves being on the land. She prepares traditional dishes, and she smokes dry meat to perfection using willow and alder wood to give food its flavours. She can serve a five-diamond meal! She often brings treats for me: pemmican, home-made highbush cranberry jam, and moose fat with dried meat at the elder’s home (delicious). Her sons, Ryan and Derek, are hunters now that my brothers are retired. I can always count on my nephew Ryan to bring me chakapasês, a speckled-belly goose, which is a sought-after bird to serve for festive occasions.
My career of 50 years has been in education, management, and leadership. My first summer job was as a cashier at the Hudson’s Bay Company. Then on October first, Sister Superior recruited me as the supervisor at St. Henry’s Mission in Fort Vermilion, which was a great opportunity to meet my maternal grandfather, Jean Courtoreille, my maternal aunts, Clara Peters and Georgina Roberts, and my uncles George and Gabe. In fall of 1970, I was hired by Hereditary Chief Fred Marcel as their first Cree Language Teacher, and my childhood friend Hilda Lepine was the first Dene Teacher. After three years, Sister Brady and the staff encouraged me to pursue my Bachelor of Education, and, after many years of hard work and determination, I received my degree at the University of Alberta. My educational degree is like a passport that led me to successful employment in the best of both worlds, establishing a good rapport and making lasting friendships with First Nations, educators, industry, governments, and educational institutions.
I was inspired to run for Chief, and I became the first female Chief of Mikisew Cree Nation for a 2-year term. After that, I spent 9 years on the leadership Council. I worked for the Northland School Division as the Cree Language Instructor for K–12, Family Liaison, and Supervisor of Native Language Programs. I worked for Mikisew Cree First Nation’s Education Director, and I was the Director of Education with the Athabasca Tribal Council.
I am currently working as a consultant for the Language and Culture Revitalization Program for M.C.F.N. I am a fluent Cree speaker; I can read and write Cree syllabics. Currently we are pursuing a partnership with A.T.C. and Bigstone Cree Nation to develop a Cree Language App and a Cree Font Keyboard. The keyboard will be based on the original Cree syllabic chart that my Grandfather Joseph Nachowêsis and other M.C.F.N. Elders were taught by missionaries circa late-1800s. My grandfather used to read his Roman Catholic Bible in syllabics daily until his passing. My dad, mother, and brother G.M. all read and wrote in Cree syllabics.
Thank you to the Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief and Council for taking the lead in revitalising our language and culture. I am deeply honoured to be the Language Consultant, and to share our history and pass this knowledge. My upbringing has strongly influenced my work in sharing, advocating, and promoting Cree language, Cree history, cultural diversity, cross-cultural awareness, and adapting to the computer technology world—“Mamatôw sîcikîwina” means “phenomenal computer world” in Cree.
My message to my beautiful children, my beautiful grandchildren, and all my beautiful nieces and nephews is to be proud of your rich, diverse cultural identity. You must carry the torch and pass on teachings of your Cree, Dene, and Métis heritage. Be happy and acknowledge all the people you meet in your travels. I am truly honoured to share my lifelong experiences. Experiences such as constantly travelling at an early age as seasons changed in my traditional territory, and subsequently travelling to Europe, Hawaii, Australia, New York, Yukon, and coast-to-coast in Canada. Take every opportunity to travel and see the world. I have found it to inform and enrich one’s world view. Kisakîtinawâw, I love you all.