Interview with James Coonishish

Interview with James Coonishish

Interviewer: Stan Louttit
Place: Moose Factory, Ontario

Stan Louttit: Could you please give us your name, and tell us if you are related to Charlie and Louise Etapp?

Jason Coonishish: My name is Jason Coonishish from Mistassini, the Cree Nation of Mistassini. Louise is my great-aunt and Charlie is my great-uncle. I became close with them after my grandpa passed away. He [Charlie] came to see me and said: “I have to teach you things”.  From there, I became close to them.


SL: Was that about living in the bush?

JC: It was that but mostly about traditional medicine. For about three or four years now I have been learning about traditional medicine with them.

SL: How did you come across the hunting drum?  Did he teach you about that?

JC: No. My grandfather did. His name was Willie Blacksmith. He carried the drum since he was a little boy, I guess. He used to drum and make me sit by him and listen to his drumming. In the middle of a song, he would stop and tell me: “Don’t listen to me, but to the drum”.

SL: Did he ever describe to you what he was singing about in those songs?

JC: No. He would just go and sing. I would have to figure that out for myself.

SL: Do you play the hunting drum yourself?

JC: I have played it only once so far in my lifetime, and I am just waiting for the next time. As Charlie says, one must have a purpose to beat the drum.

SL: With Charlie’s generation the drum was used a great deal with hunting. What is the situation with your generation, and what are your feelings about that?

JC: It is not used as much as before. Nowadays we have stores. Food is not as scarce so they use the drum rarely now. It is used at special events like a big feast, and at Walking-out ceremonies.

[The Walking-out ceremony takes place when young, male and female children are just learning to walk on their own.  Preparation for the ceremony includes making hunting regalia (white hunting clothes, moccasins, wooden gun, hunting bag) for the males and traditional female regalia (women’s skirt, hat, wooden axe, moccasins)  for the young females.  The tools each sex use symbolizes the roles that they will fulfill as adults: the male is the hunter and the female is the head of the hunting camp.  The Ceremony may include any number of males or females and they are led out of the teepee onto a runway of boughs and circle a woodpile once. The females then enact the cutting and gathering of wood with their wooden axes and the males enact shooting at geese that are propped up on sticks. The parents pull the geese over with a string, and this symbolizes that the boy has killed a goose and has become a successful hunter. The males and females return to the teepee where they offer the killed geese to the Elders waiting for them inside. This symbolizes what they will do with the meat when they are adults; sharing the bounty and giving it to the Elders who have taught them their traditional skills.]


SL: At those ceremonies, who would generally be beating the drum?

JC: Mostly elders. You rarely see a young man.

SL: Do you feel it is coming back at all?

JC: It is still there; it never left.

SL: You spoke about this old man who was going to sing this song that had not been heard for over 50 years. Could you explain why it was not heard?  Could you describe how it came to be sung again and how you observed this women’s dance?

JC:  We had a big community feast, four or five years ago. The feeling was so good. The whole community was there. They had everything, lots and lots of food. My grandpa called me up and he said: “Get the drum”. I went home and picked up the drum, and then went back to where the feast was at the arena. I took the drum to him on the stage. He asked me to sit with him on the stage and he told me to watch. He said: “I have not sung this song in fifty years”.  And as soon as he started drumming, I saw an old lady get up and go around on the floor. She started dancing, and then lots and lots of old ladies went to join her. They made a big circle. Some were imitating bear moves.  Some were other types of animals. It was beautiful, beautiful. When they finished, he said: “Fifty years since we last did this”.  And that was what I witnessed that day, and it was a great honour for me to sit by him and feel everything about the drum, the emotions of happiness.