I gently reach down and pull my long, shabby dress off the ground as I continued plucking from the bush in front of me. The mothers and other women of the village are chatting and telling stories beside me as we work. The men are out hunting, and the small children dance along the dirt paths and partake in frivolous games and leisurely adventures. As long as I can remember, this is how the Atikamekw tribe has carried on. We have always seemed to enjoy our nehirowisi pimatisiwin (simple way of life). That way we could always enjoy the little things. My mother tells a joke to a close family friend, Mrs. Honanie, and I can’t help but to show a smile in appreciation. My mother has a wonderful sense of humor but not always as much wit. As I smile, a white puff breath escapes into the atmosphere.
Then my friend appears next to me. “Aiyana, I heard the hunters have caught a few caribous! We’re having a feast tonight.” Tala says with a wide smile. She begins to deftly pluck the berries off the same bush me.
“Great news!” I turn to my mom and ask, “Mama, may I go check my onihikewin (trappings)?”
She breaks from her conversation, gives me a nod, and then continues to lively chatter amongst the women as they work.
“Tala, I’ll be back.”
“Ok!” she says cheerily.
I stand and stretch out my legs as they adjust to being unfolded. I readjust my fur hat and head towards the woods for hunting. Some of the women are allowed out here, but not many choose to. I personally enjoy setting traps to catch smaller animals and of course leave the larger animals to the men. Just being able to slip into the silence of the woods is a privilege. As I begin to near where I had set the traps, I lighten the treads my moccasins create and crouch lower. The leaves quietly shift below my feet and so does the wind, caressing my face with a bitter breeze. I notice one of my traps down and quickly overturn the rock only to find only more damp leaves. I reset the trap and continue on until I reach another one of my triggered traps. I lift the rock and there’s a rabbit! I exuberantly pick it up and examine its motionless state. A grin spreads across my face. I reset the trap and stealthily proceed to the next one. I lift the rock to find another creature! This time it’s a rabbit much larger in size. Unbelievable. Two in a day! As I collect the rabbit, a larger smile reaches my lips and a breath escapes into the chilled air. I trudge back through the woods to the natoho meskano (path). As I arrive back to the village center so do the men. I walk next to Gad who is admiring the two large caribou they caught.
“Kwe!” I greet him. “How was hunting?”
“Quite successful. Two large caribous. We were lucky today.” He says with a proud smile. Then he notices the treasures I hold in my hands. “From the looks of it, you didn’t do too bad yourself!”
I let out a laugh and agree, “Two rabbits! I guess I got lucky today too.” I plop the rabbits on the table along with the other meat and brush my dress off habitually.
“So why do you do it?”
“Huh?” I ask, being caught off guard.
Gad casually sits down and asks, “Why do you set traps? When all of the women only stick to mowisowin (collecting blueberries).”
I shrug. “I’m not sure. I just want to help and we’ve got plenty women to gather already. Besides, maybe we’d like to have some meat on days where you can’t catch a thing,” I tease him loudly.
He laughs and lightly punches me on the shoulder, “Yeah, sure.”
Then the familiar blare of a horn sounds, capturing all of our attention. The conversations around the village gradually die out as all of our attention is drawn to the table near the fire where we keep the meat. Chief Akmongwi holds the horn up and stands broadly. When he seizes all our attention he speaks loud and proudly. In his booming voice he says, “Our mighty hunters have struck much luck today and caught two great caribous. Today, we will feast.” I hold up a fist and cheer. The others around me let out exclamations of joy and pride. Chief nods with self-fulfillment before continuing, “So we will need every person helping. The women cooking and the men preparing the campsite. We will eat well tonight, my people!” We continue our cheers and then everyone disburses into different directions to busily prepare. The buzz among us is an upbeat one.
“Wow, a makocan (celebratory communal meal)!” I say past people in the crowd.
“Yeah, should be fun!” Gad says back as the crowd between us widens.
“I’ll see you there, Gad!”
“Ok, see ya!”
Then suddenly Tala is at my side again. “Feast!” she chirps happily.
I smile, “You bet.”
The crowd continues to rush all around us. My mom happens to be one passing, “Aiyana, come. We must prepare the food.” Tala and I go with my mother back to the main cooking area where some women are already skinning the caribou and cutting the vegetables. My mom joins the women in skinning the caribous when Tala and I go over to help slice the veggies. I grab a potato and begin to skin it. Tala sits next to me and begins to chop a carrot.
“So what do you think of the men?” She asks teasingly.
“They did a good job with the hunting,” I say cunningly, knowing that wasn’t what she meant.
“Oh c’mon. No beating around the bush, Aiyana!” She says with a laugh. “Do you fancy any?” She asks, drawing nearer for a moment. I throw my potato pieces into the cooking pot and grab a new one to begin cutting. I glance over to where the men are gathered.
“There has to be someone!”
“Hmm,” she says, slumming down.
I let out a laugh and say, “How about you, Tala? How do you have your eye on?”
Smile spreads across her face, “Weeeeeeell…”
I put the potato and knife down. “C’mon,” I nudge her.
She lets out a mumble.
I smile and lean in. “What was that?”
“Lonato,” she says in a low voice.
“Oh, Lonato,” I nod with a wide smile. “He’s pretty good-looking.” I look over to where men are gathered to see a tall and slim figure with a boyish face. He has dark brown eyes and his raven hair in a short braid. He is laughing along with the other men his age.
She giggles. “I know.”
The horn is blown again. But his time instead of simmering down, the village excitably gathers in the village center in a clamor. The delicious scent of the food fills my senses. Caribou, rabbit, and fish meat have all been prepared with a wonderful mix of vegetable stew and rice. My mouth waters slightly just watching the steam rising from the large pots.
“Does that look good or what?” Gad says, eyeing the food.
Tala and I nod. Finally, when the whole village has gathered, Chief Akmongwi steps forward. He fills his bowl with satisfaction and then takes a scoop. The village pauses for a moment in suspense. He holds his bowl up and announces, “Wonderful.”
We cheer. The light tension releases then the laughter and chatting and liveliness is brought back to its audible level. Then the village elders and important men get their first servings.
“Our turn!” Tala calls out. We then go forward and are served our food. We escape the chaotic crowd and go sit on our pelts with the other people our age.
Kotori greets us with a muffled “Kwe!” and a full mouth.
Tala and Gad greet him back. I laugh, “Slow down, Kotori.” He always has loved his food…
He swallows the food and smiles.
“Hey, he’s a growing boy.” Mika says as she approaches and sits with us.
We laugh. “Where’s your twin, Mika?” Tala asks.
“Oh, he should be here any minute.”
I begin to eat my food. I slip the hot stew and rice into my mouth, “Mmmmm. Nothing like a hot feast on a cold day.”
“Amen to that.” Kotori says, wolfing down more meat.
“The hunt for this was not easy.” Gad says with a laugh.
Then Cheveyo, Chief’s son, appeares. “You’re right, Gad. It took the fastest and strongest of us to catch them.” He says, insinuating that Gad isn’t part of that group.
We glance around at each other uncomfortably and then suddenly Mika speaks, “I’m sure you’d know from chasing behind them all the time, Cheveyo.” She smirks with narrowed eyes and a crafty smile.
He shoots a smug grin back at her and continues walking, as if he’s got somewhere of top priority to be.
The tension in the air releases. “Oh, goodness.” Tala says, shaking her head.
“I can’t stand him,” Mika says. Mika is definitely one of the wittiest people I know.
“I’m not quite sure why he likes to pick on me,” Gad says with a modest laugh.
“Someone needs to knock him off his high horse.” Kotori says, with his mouth still stuffed.
“Yeah, I think he’s just your classic narcissist. He’s the Chief’s son, so he thinks he’s all that.” I say. Everyone nods and agrees.
Then Ciqala, Mika’s twin, appears. “Oh, there’s your other half.” Tala says, smiling welcomingly.
“Hey, guys.” He says. We greet back. “So props to the ladies, wonderful food.” He says with an amiable smile. There was always something about Ciqala. He has always been a charming, charismatic, warm person. Even on the coldest of days.
“Thanks.” The three of us say.
“Nice hunting!” I counter.
The guys say thanks.
“Contrary to his beliefs, Cheveyo isn’t the only one who can hunt.” Gad says, scooping some meat into his mouth happily. We laugh. Then Catori and Lonato arrive.
Catori quietly and gracefully sits down, “Kwe,” she says sweetly.
“Hey, guys.” Lonato says as he sits.
I silently nudge Tala. She glares at me. I laugh quietly and greet them.
“Hmm, this rabbit is good.” Lonato says.
“That would be thanks to this girl.” Gad says, pointing at me. I laugh and push his hands away.
“Oh, really? They stood no chance against you.” Lonato says teasingly.
I chuckle, “Yeah, I’ve been catching a few over the last few days so I guess it was perfect for a feast.”
After we had all had finished our few servings of food, four for Kotori, we decide to set out and have fun. We all run to the outskirts of the village and round up our dogs to hook them up to the sleds. Ciqala and Mika on one, Kotori and Catori on another. I quickly grab Gad and hop on a sled, leaving Tala and Lonato to ride one together. As we pulled off, I wink back at her and laugh. They get on together and followed behind. So we on the four sleds caravan through the open snow. The sound of the sleds gliding across the snow is music to my ears. As our two dogs dash through the snow, Gad links an arm with mine and holds on with the other. “Whoohooo!” I yell, feeling the cold air rush past me. We look at each other with excitement and fun on our faces. Little strands of my hair had become free from my two braids and whip my face. I feel free. Suddenly we emerge back into a woods environment and hear the trees fly by as we pass each one. Ciqala and Mika’s sled in the front begins to slow down so the rest of us do as well. We all glide smoothly to a stop in a pasture in the middle of these woods and hop off.
“That was one heck of a ride.” Gad says happily.
“Seems to only get better each time.” Mika says.
“Now time for fun?” Kotori asks excitably.
“Oh, yeah.” I say confidently with a nod.
Grins spread across all of our faces.
Kotori flips his palm upward, creating a small flame in his hand. As the flame dances across his palm, a larger smile spreads across his face.
Wait until you see what the rest of us can do.