My uncle Cheekanish passed away on Nov. 24 at the age of 88 in Attawapiskat. He is my father Marius’s older brother. Uncle Cheekanish’s English name was Leo Kataquapit. My family mourned at his passing but we also celebrated his memory as he had lived a long full life that he filled with as much fun, happiness and goodness as he could. Uncle Cheekanish and his wife Theresa raised a strong family of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren that inherited their sense of laughter, warmth and kindness. His children include Robert, Maria, Noella, Peter, Rollande, Jeffrey and Jerry.
I remember my last visit with him and his wife Theresa in 2016. It was a visit full of laughter and recollections that I had together with my cousins Ron Kataquapit and Roger Nakogee. Leo was a master storyteller and he had a knack of mixing every memory and teachings with plenty of laughter so of course it was easy to remember his stories.
He told us about the origins of his Cree nickname Cheekanish and the fact that it came from childhood. As a boy, he had a minor accident that involved his aunt who was using a small axe to cut wood. The axe his aunt used had nearly hit him in some minor way and he ran back to his parents and tried to explain what had happened. The Cree word for little axe is Chee-kah-eh-kah-n-ish. As a little boy who was still learning to speak, all his parents could understand from his excited cries was how he mispronounced the word and shouted instead “Cheekanish, Cheekanish”. His parents were happy that he was not seriously hurt but they found it funny to hear his words and the name stuck with him ever after. Just about everybody I knew up on the James Bay coast ended up with some kind of nickname from childhood and he was no exception.
He was born in 1931, far north of Attawapiskat near Winisk closer to the Hudson Bay coast. His father James and mother Janie lived in this area before moving south to Attawapiskat. My uncle mentioned that he was born at a place called “Sesematawa Sakeehegun” during a time when life was very difficult for everyone. Life there was lived as it had been for thousands of years by our ancestors. He remembered many stories that his parents passed down to him about how their world was filled with Native tradition, spiritual beliefs, visions and legends.
As a young boy, he said their family often struggled through periods of famine. He recalled one winter where his family had not been able to find enough food. Amazingly his mother managed to provide enough sustenance by melting snow to water and that had to do until the famine ended.
He had moments of further suffering as a child when he was forced to attend residential school. He described how horribly he was treated and how the experience had left him with terrible memories of what was done to him and others. Even though these things had been perpetuated by the church, he still held a strong Catholic faith blended with traditional spiritual belief and he looked up to the Virgin Mary as a figure that had saved his life through prayer many times.
As a boy he learned to hunt, trap and fish with his father James and his brothers George, Alex, Gabriel and my father Marius. He looked up to his brother Thomas and he also took care of their sister Celine and their youngest brother David. Uncle Cheekanish explained that he didn’t use a firearm until he was 17 years of age. Before then, he had done all his hunting with snares, traps and a bow and arrow. I had never realized that my ancestors had used the bow and arrow. My father Marius often remarked that Uncle Cheekanish was the best hunter and trapper in the family.
Even though he was raised on the land in the wilderness, he also learned how to play music and became an accomplished fiddle player along with his brother Gabriel. In his prime, Uncle Cheekanish played at many community gatherings and events. He loved making people laugh and he enjoyed it even more if he could make them dance and sing.
Everyone who knew him or met him, from old-time hunters, traditional people, family, friends, as well as non-Native visitors, medical people, teachers and visitors to our community all went away with a story.
We are losing our Elders in Attawapiskat and I was sad to learn that Eli Metatawabin had also just recently passed away a week before Uncle Cheekanish. Elder Metatawabin was from the same generation as Uncle Cheekanish and they were good friends throughout their lives. Elder Metatawabin was a kind gentle character who had been part of the lives of so many people in our community. He didn’t have a family of his own but he had a community full of people who considered him part of theirs.
I’m sure that Uncle Cheekanish has found an old fiddle again and invited Eli to a party somewhere. Uncle Cheekanish has met up with his brother Gabriel and they are all laughing and playing again like they did as young men with their parents and all their loved ones before them. I can hear the fiddles, the clapping, the stomping, the shuffling of flying feet in step dances and the laughter of a hall full of family and friends. Cheekanish and Eli are still making us all smile in their memory and I love them for that. Chi-Meegwetch Nookoomis Cheekanish Neh-sh-tah Eli, Kee-sah-kee-eh-tee-nah-n (Thank you so much Uncle Cheekanish and Eli, we love you).