[CANADA] Within The Atikamekw Territory

I woke up early this morning.

Must be due to jet lag, that my body hasn’t overcome yet.

Everything is quiet in the village, even the dogs still sleep. It must be around 5 a.m and the sun is rising slowly, as usual. I love these kinds of mornings when I can gaze out at the misty star arise over the lake.

Later today, I will “go in the bush”. This is how we call the forest here. Carlo and Norbert, guides of the local tourism board “Tourisme Manawan”, are going to get up soon and pack up all the materials on the boats, since several visitors are planning to come over today.  They are going to spend two days within the deep boreal forest, on an island called “Matakan”, meaning “the camp” in atikamekw language. Over there, a traditional camp is permanently settled, for a real and authentic experience “in the woods”. An amazingly peaceful and preserved place, where you really can connect with Nature, at the heart of the atikamekw ancestral territory.

I open my eyes. I think I fell asleep again. I look outside. It is 9 a.m. already.

Clouds are chased by the wind. I think the weather will be great today! I will go meet the foreign visitors when they arrive later in the day with some friends.  Uncle Makio promised me he would take me there. His real name is Jean-Marc, but I call him my Uncle, or Nimicomec – spell it “nee-mee- show-mech”. Always sweet and happy, loves to read jokes from his little note book, hidden in his pocket. He loves to tease European girls!

We met at 2 p.m. at the village’s landing stage, where boats are pushed into the lake. Some children and dogs are bathing in the dark water of Madon lake, called Metapeckeka in atikamekw. We are in september and the temperature is really awesome.

The wind blows in my hair, while the boat starts to leave the bank. While on the lake, the air is cooler. The crossing is about twenty minutes long, before we reach the camp, so I have plenty of time to enjoy the magical view. The village disapears from our eyes. In front of us,  Nature. The wild one. The true one. Ancestral territory of the Atikamekw, they share with the moose, beaver, black bear and the wolf.

After a slight turn we are able to see the small cabins by the waterside. These are Atikamekw trap and hunt family camps, scattered in the territory. In winter, when the temparature goes below zero, some Atikamekw snowmobile riders find shelter in these cabins, if their vehicle happens to break down inside these shelters they can build a fire and wait until someone in the village comes and rescues them.

Suddenly, we see it.

The golden eagle. It is up there, at the top of a dead pine, and finally flies away as we approach, heading to a quieter place.

Then, Makio slows down the boat as we are getting close. At some places, we have to be careful, since invisble rocks could harm the hull. Some floats are attached at the most tricky spots, to help us find our way.

We hear the sound of another motor. Seaplanes! They have just dropped off travelers on the island and are preparing to fly back. We watch them take off and disappear.

Soon, silence comes back. We only hear the water lapping against our boat. One last curve. Here we are.

This little one is Tcotcitcon.

Atikamekw translation of “Saucisson”, sausage in French. In fact, Baptiste is his real name. Everyone here has an official name and a nickname given by “kokom”, your grand-mother. Tcotcitcon is in the camp with his parents,Debby and Carlo working as cook and guide during tourism season in the woods. He seems happy to see me. I have known him since he was 4 years old. Tcotcitcon speaks much better Atikamekw than French, and taught me some very good expressions, He likes to wear a Yankees baseball cap and eat slush that colors his tongue in blue. He loves to play “Touch” with grown up people around the camp. We can hear the echo of his laugh in the bay. And as a proud Atikamekw member, he loves to go fishing with his daddy.

Welcome to Matakan!

My friend Carlo greets me with a warm smile. Visitors are moving into their canvas teepees. Fresh perfumed pine branches are upholstered all over the sleeping place. In the center, a firebox is ready to be used.

I go hug my friend Debby who is getting supper ready.

“Take some rowan-tree infusion”. I take  a sip of the warm liquid and smile. I go join the rest of the group, sitting close to their guide, listening to navigating instructions about boats and canoes. Later, we will go set down the fishing nets, for tomorrow’s meals.

A sweet odor emanates from the kitchen. Blueberries are stewing in a pan and a “banik” a traditional bread is baking. Debby laughes when she sees my happy face. “Here, taste a bit of my home-made jam!”

Yummy! Carlo is already calling me outside. “Let’s go set down the nets!”

Tcotcitcon is coming with us. We dress warmly because of the brisk wind on the lake.

Sunset is almost there. Some of our members are further on the lake exploring the surroundings. We overtake them and reach the fishing area to set up our nets. Tomorrow morning we will come back and check them. Tcotcitcon sits in the front and let the boat’s movements rock him. Because of the speed, we sometimes get spray in our faces.

We come back to our camp at the end of the day. There are oil lamps lite and we are invited to sit in the warmth of them for a good meal.

“ACI!!” Tcotcitcon is hungry. Aci – pronounce “ajee”- means “here it is” or “it is ready”. We sit at the table. Debby, Carlo and Norbert bring us plates filled with moose meat and vegetables. Atikamekw people traditionally hunt  moose during the fall season. Traditional bread, called “banik”, is warm and crunchy. Delicious! I was taught to prepare banik with the frying pan. Debby and kokom Aline are a few of the best cooks in the community and were my teachers. Traditionally, banik is cooked under ashes of a wood fire.

The wind whispers in pines and birches and the boats are moved by cadenced waves. Night wildnerness calls break the silence. In the dark a light is shining as a boat approches slowly. It is Sakay, one of the most talented musicians of the community. He has come with his guitar to share the evening with us. Sakay sings in Atikamekw and French, telling the story of his nation. Sitting around the crackling fire, warmed by the light and Sakay’s voice, we listen peacefuly and let our spirits fly.

Tired travelers start to leave the camp fire for their tipis. Norbert has lighted them all, transforming our shelters into orange lanterns. You just need to follow the smooth path in the dark with a headlamp between the trees, a truely magical scene. Later, I will lie in my warmth of my sleeping bag. I really love to sleep with Nature, on the ground. You can feel the Earths vibrations. Lying there, listening to the crackling wood, the whispering wind and admiring some of the shining stars appearing out of the open smokestack…and falling asleep, just feeling so secure.

The darkness surrounds us. I lie on the bench and look at the appearing stars. At that moment, we can only hear the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. The moon arises and I take a few moments to watch it.

Some little snaps close to my ear wake me up….maybe a squirrel…What time is it? Sunbeams skim the tipi’s canvas.

I get out of the teepee and find hanging bear skins that I did not notice yesterday. Sometimes, black bears explore the surroundings. Guides here are all skilled hunters, and catch a couple of bears a year. The skin and fur are used for glove craft, mocassins or winter coats. As usual with hunted and trapped game, their meat is cooked and eaten. Atikamekws ancestors were hunter-gatherers, and nowadays, hunting, trapping and fishing are still necessary for many atikamekw families.

Tcotcitcon is already up. He knows we are leaving soon to get the nets out and prepare the fish for lunch.

The atmosphere is peaceful and sweet. This is a place where you take the time to live. No internet connection. What I love the most, is that the experience offered to visitors is as natural and authentic as what Atikamekw families who live year all year long experience. You spend time with family and friends, invite them for a great meal made of moose meat, banik or fresh fish. Children bathe in the lake, go fishing and ride a canoe. Atikamekw people are really warm and welcoming, they instantaneously treat you as a family member.

This morning, some of our visitors took the pedestrian path, looking for some medicinal plants. Others like me, take their time to enjoy their breakfast. Debby has cooked some frybread, going perfectly with coffee and blueberry jam…

Some hand-made birch bark baskets aredecorating the dining room. As “people of the bark”, they used to build canoes with this material. There are still a few craftspersons today, able to create those pieces of art, from an ancestral know-how.  In those times, baskets were used to collect maple water. Now they are designed for decoration. Atikamekw craftspersons are really talented with wood, bark, perls and fur.

It is time to finish my cup of coffee and get ready. Tcotcitcon is impatient. Let’s go check our nets!

On our way there, we spot the petroglyphs, engraved on the cliff. Prints left by the Atikamekw ancestors, a long time ago…

Then we take a look at the so called “Ile de l’Amour” – Love Island. It is a tiny island, big enough for a room cabin. At this place, the Atikamekw are building a “love nest” for lovebirds, wishing to spend a private weekend at the heart of their natural paradise. The construction site is really encouraging. You lucky couples for next years opening…I am thinking of you (:

After several minutes of navigation, we meet another boat.

Daveen, Eddy and Forrest, have come from the village to help us drag the nests.

Woohoo what a great catch!

About 40 fishes of all sizes, some being really big and heavy. Trout, pike, “coregone” or white fish – which gave its name to the Atikamekw – and some gold fish too.

Back to the camp. Everyone is happy! Tcotcitcon proudly lifts up one of the biggest gold fish of our catch. A delicious one.

Now we need to get the fish ready. Forrest, 15, is the master.

He is Debby and Carlo’s second son and little Tcotcitcon’s older brother. Forrest, as proven by his name, has been living in the woods since he was a child. His mom tells me a story about his childhood. One day, the family was in their camp, and 4-year-old Forrest was missing. They got up and weren’t able to find him. Suddenly offshore, they noticed a canoe. The little guy was paddling calmly to the side. Once arrived, he couldn’t understand the problem : “But Mom, I had my life jacket on!”.

When the catch is too big, we don’t forget to keep some for atikamekw families in need, and for the elder as well. Norbert will share out the fish during the day.

Once again, a boat is coming, slowly over us. Gildor is driving.  Aboard, a couple of elders, well known in the village for their craft skills : Madeleine and Armand.

Carlo comes forward and offer them some tea as welcoming greeting. They share some words in atikamekw.

Since I have know them, and on a general basis, indigenous people are discreet and rather reserved. Visual contact is not as market as european or occidental manners would ask for, and physical contact is rare. As an introvert person, I am not embarrassed by their nature. So, smiles are often used to communicate and say hello. But if we wish a much more intensive exchange, here is the best solution :  speak their language! I promise that from that moment on,  you got all their attention! I have often checked this tip with elders, and these are always really funny moments. KWE. It means “Hello” in Atikamekw. Try it out next time you come around. This magical word opens many doors! (:

Madeleine and Armand are two cheerful but discreet elders. They came here to give us a demo of birch bark handicraft. Great artisans, they bring to life beautiful bark baskets. The sun is shining over our little workshop. The air smells delicious pine and fried fish that Debby is starting to prepare for our lunch. Armand even takes a look at our morning catch.

I come close to them. Madeleine and Armand are sharpening their tools and select the right materials. It is fascinating. Their practiced hands slowly give life to a little canoe.


The feeling you have being with elders is always a really special one. They intimidate as well as they touch us. The wear on their bodies and faces,  are prints of the time and their story. But eventually, no matter the language we are using to communicate, even without words, as it often happens to me with aboriginal people. Just being here close, sharing a moment and feel the wisdom exude. Listening to their laughs and hear them mess around in atikamekw, and talking some shy words in French to explain their handling. An authentic moment!

After our meal, we all separate to explore the surroundings. We are a few getting in a boat to go see a beaver hut at some secret bay. In general, beavers can be seen at twilight, sliding in a wave, as the sun disappears. This is afternoon, and even if beavers are certainly taking a nap at this time, the atmosphere in the bay is simply amazing. With its high hebs, dark orange water, pines. We float quietly, and let ourselves get filled with this beauty. In the woods, unexpected encounter may happen, and our senses are on alert.

I remember the first time I was “in the woods”, within the Wendat territory. Some fresh moose tracks were crossing the path. Walk on the track, touch the print with a finger, thinking it may be observing me hidding somewhere, I was so excited!

There are very gifted trappers in the community. Jean-Roch is the first one who offered me to taste beaver meat. He is well known to catch them with his hands. Last fall, he brought me with his sons to check the traps immerged in the lake. No luck this time, the ice was not thick enough to capture the game.

Back to the camp, I have a surprise.

Fernand, an elder of the community, a wise man and very good friend of mine, has come to share his wisdom and knowledge with us around a teapot, all sitting in the teepee circle. I always enjoy his presence. Fernand is a medecine man, helping others with his traditional knowledge, with plants and prayers. He happened to heal me a couple of times, when I was not feeling good during some of my long stays in the community. When asking for a consultation, common respect teaches to bring tobacco. So, when I needed his help, I was used to buy Fernand’s favourite cigarettes at the grocery.

We all sit in a circle on the perfumed branches, and listen silently to Fernand’s story. He speaks slowly and softly, taking time to drink his tee. Sometimes, he closes his eyes, to empower the words coming out of his mouth. He talks about his nation, his community, his story as a member of First Nations. He confronts us with life challenges. We also discuss about spirituality, its numerous symbols and the way indigenous people mix their traditions and modern life today, to define their identity in a new way.

I loose track of time, immersed in his teachings. The sun is already going down. I hug Fernand as he returns home to his lovely wife. But as the sunset light paints everything in orange around us, some new people are arriving.

Here are the Black Bear Singers.

They are Manawan’s singers and drummers. Young men and ladies, singing traditional guttural songs and hitting the big drum in rythm alltogether. Black Bear singers  –  referring to the black bear living in their forrest – have won numerous awards for their art, and perform at shows and pow wows throughout North America several times a year. They are the “local pride” and deserve it. They are really good.

After introducing their art, men start to beat the drum slowly. They have brand new songs and want to share them with us. A leader beats stronger and give the first voice. Then, the stabbing voices gather. Men press their fingers against their Adam’s apple to sing with a more high-pitched tone. Women add their clear and vibrant voices to this harmony, giving more strength to the lyrics. It is a kind of unbroken war call, rythmed by powerful drum vibrations, embodying Mother Earth’s beating heart. You just can’t be unmoved by such chants, deeply capturing the origins of humankind and connection to the universe in our chests and stomachs. If you dare to go closer to the drum, beats are not only sounding in our head, they vibrate in our whole body.

The day ends up peacefully, as always in such a magical place.

Different shapes of colour reflect into the lake’s mirror, changing at every minute.

At this moment, I am just relishing this feeling of fullness that overwhelms me. Heaven is here.