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First all-Indigenous-curated exhibition hits the Canadian Museum of History

A new exhibit that explores the James Bay Cree’s walking traditions is the first all-Indigenous curated exhibition to be shown at the Canadian Museum of History, in Gatineau, Quebec.

Cree moccasins and traditional footwear on display, maker unknown. The moccasins are on loan from the Eenou Friendship Centre in Chibougamau, Que. Footprints – A Walk Through Generations chronicles the James Bay Cree’s walking traditions. (Jamie Pashagumskum/CBC)

A new exhibit that explores the James Bay Cree’s walking traditions is the first all-Indigenous-curated exhibition to be shown at the Canadian Museum of History, in Gatineau, Que.

The traveling exhibit is called Footprints – A Walk Through Generations. Its permanent home is the national, award-winning Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (ACCI) museum in the northern Cree community of Ouje-Bougoumou, Que.

Footprints showcases Cree cultural history around the evolution of traveling. It explores traditional ceremonies, stories, clothing and tools related to the theme of walking.

Jean-Marc Blais, director general of the Canadian Museum of History, stands at the entrance to the Footprints exhibit. (Jamie Pashagumskum/CBC)

Jean-Marc Blais, director general of the museum, says the exhibition sets a new standard for educating the public about First Nations culture and history, which is significant on a national and global level.

“This is unique, totally unique. I think this will entice other Indigenous communities to come forward and tell their stories, as well,” Blais says.

‘Our grandparents used to walk the land’

Natasia Mukash, a Cree/Abenaki artist from the northernmost Cree community of Whapmagoostui, on the coast of Hudson’s Bay, is one of the head curators of Footprints.

“There’s so much around the tradition of walking and the James Bay Cree,” Mukash says. “The history isn’t even that far back, our grandparents used to walk the land.”

For Mukash, the greatest obstacle in curating the exhibit was condensing the great wealth of traditional knowledge into one place, to represent the vast territory of the Cree people and their widespread communities.

The Cree Nation’s traditional territory — known as Eeyou Istchee — is located between the 49th and 55th parallels, and spans an area of over 350,000 square kilometres, which represents roughly a fifth of the area of Quebec.

Natasia Mukash is a Cree/Abinaki artist from Whapmagoostui, Que., and the curator of the exhibit. (Submitted by Saige Mukash)

Mukash is proud to have been a part of the development of the Footprints exhibit and says it’s important that Indigenous stories are included in the history of Canada.

‘We still practise our culture’

Paula Menarick, a registered nurse from the Cree community of Chisasibi, Que., was working for the museum in Ouje-Bougoumou at the time and helped curate the exhibit. 

For Menarick, the exhibit is an important tool to educate non-Indigenous populations who might not know a lot about Native history and practices.

“It goes from one extreme to the other,” Menarick says. “People think we either still live in teepees or they think our culture is fading and we’re assimilated. They don’t understand that we still practise our culture.”

Menarick says throughout the development of the exhibition, it was important that the content came from traditional Cree teachings and oral history gathered from elders.

“We know the people, we grew up in the culture. We wanted it to come from the people and we tried to be as authentic as we could to the James Bay Cree,” she says.

Snowshoes on display at the Footprints exhibit. Curator Mukash says that working on the exhibit has helped her connect to her past. (Jamie Pashagumskum/CBC)

The Canadian Museum of History has always supported the preservation of Indigenous history, says Blais, through artifact preservation, training programs, and now, supporting the travelling exhibit about walking traditions.

Understanding Canada through Indigenous stories

Hosting the exhibit in the national museum is important to Blais because it is an example of Canada’s recognition of its Indigenous heritage and it is a way for Indigenous people to voice their story.

“We’ve always believed that it is our role and our duty to the Indigenous of this country. How can we understand Canada without having the narrative that is coming from Indigenous communities? This is a great example of us doing that,” Blais says.

Mukash says she hopes the exhibit will inspire other Indigenous nations to come forward and tell their stories. She says it is particularly important for future generations to know their own history.

The process of curating the exhibit, Mukash says, has helped her connect to her past.

“There is a lot of knowledge within me that stems back from my ancestors. For me to voice that was so important. I found my identity through this,” Mukash says. 

Footprints — A Walk Through Generations will be on display at the Canadian Museum of History until November 3.

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