'The only way to master your culture is to go on the land and learn what the land will teach you." That comment by Matthew Mukash says a lot about why the former grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees has become a film producer, via the forthcoming The Journey of Nishiyuu. The documentary tells the story of six young Cree who walked more than 1,600 kilometres from James Bay to Ottawa last winter, at the height of the Idle No More movement.
The film, financed by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, explores the spiritual basis of a journey which – like the Attawapiskat walkers' trek that ended in Ottawa this week – was mostly represented in the mainstream media as a protest march about First Nations issues.
Terry Fox, Steve Fonyo and Rick Hansen made their long overland journeys to signify their personal resistance to disability and disease and, by extension, everyone's ability to overcome obstacles. Their treks are hallowed in Canadian memory, while native walks are often seen simply as acts of resistance against government and industry.
But long-distance native walks, including Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue's current three-week journey across Labrador, are more than attempts to draw attention to specific issues. The films being made of these journeys show native people walking to encounter their own selves and cultures along the way.
Benjamin Masty, a former CBC North broadcaster recruited by Mukash for The Journey of Nishiyuu, says the politics of the action were not his prime concern as he filmed the young walkers trudging over the land on snowshoes, with guide Isaac Kawapit.
"What I really wanted to capture was their struggles," Masty says. The walkers' dreams were important, too, including those in which 17-year-old David Kawapit saw "a spirit, the Spirit of the Journey he called it, a vision of an old man – an elder – guiding them on the walk," Masty says.
Native northerners are becoming audiovisual people, and their cameras are increasingly focusing on attempts to regain the inner meaning of traditional ways. The Journey of Nishiyuu, which premiered recently in the James Bay settlement where the walk began, joins a small catalogue of films about native journeys on foot, including last year's Meshkanu: The Long Walk of Elizabeth Penashue, and a 15-minute reflection on the Nishiyuu trek produced by the Grand Council of the Crees that is also called,
confusingly, The Journey of Nishiyuu.
Penashue is an experienced activist who has been arrested five times during protests against low-altitude NATO flights and developments such as the Voisey's Bay nickel mine. The environmental side of her latest annual walk was underscored by the refusal of Nalcor, the Newfoundland and Labrador energy corporation, to allow her to visit Muskrat Bay, where she was raised and where Nalcor is building a hydroelectric dam.
But the predominant feature in Andrew Mudge's Meshkanu ("the good path") is the daily, grounding cycle of Innu life on the land. We see Panashue, with her husband and family, dragging toboggans into the wind with a cord around the shoulders, raising a winter tent, making beds from evergreen boughs, setting traps for rabbits, and burning the quills off a porcupine shot from a tree for the day's meal.
"I need to go on the walk to rediscover who I am as a person and who we are as Innu people," Penashue's adult son Jack tells the camera. "This is how we can reaffirm and recapture the Innu-ness in our lives."
The mostly teenaged walkers from Nishiyuu had the same goal, relative to their James Bay Nehiyaw heritage. "My father said to not take my iPod with me, and to listen to what the land was saying," says Jordan Masty, in the 15-minute Journey of Nishiyuu. "I discovered the sound of my snowshoes and toboggan. Those sounds became music to me."
"Every walker out of the 240 walkers [including those who joined along the way] had their own reasons," Stanley George, chief of the original walkers' Whapmagoostui Cree band, says in the same short film. "I would say 90 per cent was about healing and empowerment."
Cree and Innu hunters have been walking the land for game for millennia, but the notion that a long journey could express or gather power is a modern one. It motivated Mahatma Gandhi's Salt March in 1930, Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963, and a series of protest odysseys to Ottawa by Western Canadian farmers that began in 1910.
But those treks had a political goal for which the journey was primarily a means, and were often undertaken with cars or trains. The native walkers, in contrast, make their journey by foot an essential part of the act, a way of reaffirming an ancient relationship with the land itself.
"Nothing stops me because nutshimit [the bush/country] is very important for our culture," Penashue explains in a note on her website about her current walk. "Before I'm gone, I want to see some change, I want to help my people and teach the children. I don't want to see my children lose everything – I know we can't go back to how things were, but I don't want them to lose their Innu identity, culture and life."
Meshkanu: The Long Walk of Elizabeth Penashue is streaming online at http://vimeo.com/57346500. The Journey of Nishiyuu, a short documentary produced by the Grand Council of the Crees, is streaming at http://vimeo.com/75304198. Benjamin Masty's 60-minute documentary The Journey of Nishiyuu will be released in the spring.