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Attawapiskat: Re-examining a Community Through Photos

April 03, 2017|

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The Attawapiskat river at dusk. The river is a central part of cultural life for the Cree of Attawapiskat, having provided them with food, transportation and recreation for generations. The word Attawapiskat translates to “People of the Parting Rocks,” in reference to a distinct rock formation found several kilometres up river. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

The Attawapiskat river at dusk. The river is a central part of cultural life for the Cree of Attawapiskat, having provided them with food, transportation and recreation for generations. The word Attawapiskat translates to “People of the Parting Rocks,” in reference to a distinct rock formation found several kilometres up river. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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Pow Wow dancers gather outisde the Reg Louttit Arena in Attawapiskat after a practice. For many in the community, a return to traditional practices offers a hope for healing and connection and a way of navigating the challenges their people face. While the Canadian government is seen to be failing First Nations people by many in Attawapiskat, the community continues to approach the complex issues themselves. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Pow Wow dancers gather outisde the Reg Louttit Arena in Attawapiskat after a practice. For many in the community, a return to traditional practices offers a hope for healing and connection and a way of navigating the challenges their people face. While the Canadian government is seen to be failing First Nations people by many in Attawapiskat, the community continues to approach the complex issues themselves. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. The Northern lights, almost overpowering in their physical beauty, fill the night sky over Attawapiskat. Cree legends state that the lights are spirits of the ancestors celebrating life and showing the living that they are all part of creation. Their dancing forms a laneway for the souls as they travel to the next realm. It is said that when Cree are living the right way and conducting ceremonies and dances, the spirits of Cree ancestors celebrate in the heavens. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. The Northern lights, almost overpowering in their physical beauty, fill the night sky over Attawapiskat. Cree legends state that the lights are spirits of the ancestors celebrating life and showing the living that they are all part of creation. Their dancing forms a laneway for the souls as they travel to the next realm. It is said that when Cree are living the right way and conducting ceremonies and dances, the spirits of Cree ancestors celebrate in the heavens. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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The pelt of a freshly skinned female polar bear is washed in the shallows of the Attawapiskat river. The bear was shot only hours earlier, when it charged a local man at a fishing camp on the outskirts of town. While the meat is only eaten in times of dire need, the fat was harvested to be used in traditional medicines. The expertise with which Cree woman Marietta Mattinas skinned and prepared the pelt was impressive, a skill she learned from her elders. Her nephew Xavier Wheesk (with the bear paw tattoo) and her husband Joseph are the ones preparing the pelt in the image, making it a family affair. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

The pelt of a freshly skinned female polar bear is washed in the shallows of the Attawapiskat river. The bear was shot only hours earlier, when it charged a local man at a fishing camp on the outskirts of town. While the meat is only eaten in times of dire need, the fat was harvested to be used in traditional medicines. The expertise with which Cree woman Marietta Mattinas skinned and prepared the pelt was impressive, a skill she learned from her elders. Her nephew Xavier Wheesk (with the bear paw tattoo) and her husband Joseph are the ones preparing the pelt in the image, making it a family affair. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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I was confronted on a regular basis by images of members of the Attawpiskat First Nation in a context that we are not used to seeing in the media. This particular group of young men were at the outdoor playground most days exercising and doing good things for their bodies. It would be irresponsible to overlook the problems that exist in Attawapiskat, but the traditional narrative attached to young First Nations men has typically overlooked positive outcomes and focused only on negativity, which in turn feeds a stereotype that presents low expectations for them. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

I was confronted on a regular basis by images of members of the Attawpiskat First Nation in a context that we are not used to seeing in the media. This particular group of young men were at the outdoor playground most days exercising and doing good things for their bodies. It would be irresponsible to overlook the problems that exist in Attawapiskat, but the traditional narrative attached to young First Nations men has typically overlooked positive outcomes and focused only on negativity, which in turn feeds a stereotype that presents low expectations for them. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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Twenty-seven-year-old Samantha Iahtail (centre, in red) swims with her nieces and nephews on the banks of the Attawpiskat river. Samantha tries to help her sister with the kids when she can and while her life has been filled with challenges of her own, she believes that "the creator doesn’t give you things you can’t handle”. In Attawapiskat many families face great difficulties yet respond with resilience, relying on each other to navigate the struggles associated with being First Nations people. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Twenty-seven-year-old Samantha Iahtail (centre, in red) swims with her nieces and nephews on the banks of the Attawpiskat river. Samantha tries to help her sister with the kids when she can and while her life has been filled with challenges of her own, she believes that "the creator doesn’t give you things you can’t handle”. In Attawapiskat many families face great difficulties yet respond with resilience, relying on each other to navigate the struggles associated with being First Nations people. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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Young people gather at dusk outside the Kattawapiskak Elementary School. The suicide crisis that came to light in 2016 largely affected youth, with the majority of the attempts coming from teenagers. One elder in the community cited a growing disconnect between traditional ways and the younger generation, amplified by the many challenges associated with living in a remote community. “It is important now for young people to understand the colonial policies that have left their communities disconnected,” she said. “Only if they can understand what people went through can they articulate why their lives may be in chaos.” Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Young people gather at dusk outside the Kattawapiskak Elementary School. The suicide crisis that came to light in 2016 largely affected youth, with the majority of the attempts coming from teenagers. One elder in the community cited a growing disconnect between traditional ways and the younger generation, amplified by the many challenges associated with living in a remote community. “It is important now for young people to understand the colonial policies that have left their communities disconnected,” she said. “Only if they can understand what people went through can they articulate why their lives may be in chaos.” Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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A young mother’s arms show the telltale scars left behind by cutting, a form of self-harm. This type of self-injury is often a way to cope with emotional pain, anger and frustration, bringing the individual a momentary sense of calm. A scene such as this illustrates a resiliency that is common in Attawapiskat: a mother’s universal love and tenderness toward her child while simultaneously having to bear the burdens associated with life in a First Nations community. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

A young mother’s arms show the telltale scars left behind by cutting, a form of self-harm. This type of self-injury is often a way to cope with emotional pain, anger and frustration, bringing the individual a momentary sense of calm. A scene such as this illustrates a resiliency that is common in Attawapiskat: a mother’s universal love and tenderness toward her child while simultaneously having to bear the burdens associated with life in a First Nations community. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016. 

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A father and son return at dusk from gathering firewood along the Attawapiskat river in anticipation of the cold winter to come. Temperatures can drop below -40 degrees Celsius in the depths of winter and so preparation is essential. For many families, an opportunity to be out in the wilderness also offers a chance to connect and get away from the stresses associated with town life. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

A father and son return at dusk from gathering firewood along the Attawapiskat river in anticipation of the cold winter to come. Temperatures can drop below -40 degrees Celsius in the depths of winter and so preparation is essential. For many families, an opportunity to be out in the wilderness also offers a chance to connect and get away from the stresses associated with town life. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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Members of the Attawapiskat First Nation community gathered in the St. Mary’s cemetery on a Sunday to visit the graves of lost loved ones. Many family members who had not seen each other in years were in town for a Cree cultural festival and so an impromtu gathering at the cemetery was organized by the local Catholic priest. Like so many other First Nations commuities, the people of Attawapiskat deal with death on a more regular basis than their non-First Nations counterparts. Despite the loss, there was a beautiful sense of connection and strength from the families, a testiment to the resilience of the Cree people. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Members of the Attawapiskat First Nation community gathered in the St. Mary’s cemetery on a Sunday to visit the graves of lost loved ones. Many family members who had not seen each other in years were in town for a Cree cultural festival and so an impromtu gathering at the cemetery was organized by the local Catholic priest. Like so many other First Nations commuities, the people of Attawapiskat deal with death on a more regular basis than their non-First Nations counterparts. Despite the loss, there was a beautiful sense of connection and strength from the families, a testiment to the resilience of the Cree people. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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Upon first meeting ten-year-olds DJ (left) and Alec, DJ asked me: “Are you here to do a story about how bad the kids are?” Such was the opinion of two young people in the community—that a suicide crisis impacting largely their age group was actually the fault of the young people themselves. I was stunned by this. It made me consider the context in which we view First Nations people in Canada and how so much of our possibly good intentions in exposing crisis after crisis in the media may indeed be part of the problem if we are not framing the stories correctly. Over the course of several weeks I spent a lot of time with DJ and many other kids, and I was inspired by their character. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Upon first meeting ten-year-olds DJ (left) and Alec, DJ asked me: “Are you here to do a story about how bad the kids are?” Such was the opinion of two young people in the community—that a suicide crisis impacting largely their age group was actually the fault of the young people themselves. I was stunned by this. It made me consider the context in which we view First Nations people in Canada and how so much of our possibly good intentions in exposing crisis after crisis in the media may indeed be part of the problem if we are not framing the stories correctly. Over the course of several weeks I spent a lot of time with DJ and many other kids, and I was inspired by their character. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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Twenty-five-year-old Martina Koosees with her six-month-old son Korey Koosees and son Dyson Koosees, 4, in the single room dwelling where they live. The pressures of a chronic housing shortage leave families forced to live in very cramped conditions, amplifying many of the stresses the encounter in their lives. As one member of the community put it, “We have so many shortages for housing and social programs in our communities. Families are stressed out. It is a manifestation of an ongoing colonialism.” Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Twenty-five-year-old Martina Koosees with her six-month-old son Korey Koosees and son Dyson Koosees, 4, in the single room dwelling where they live. The pressures of a chronic housing shortage leave families forced to live in very cramped conditions, amplifying many of the stresses the encounter in their lives. As one member of the community put it, “We have so many shortages for housing and social programs in our communities. Families are stressed out. It is a manifestation of an ongoing colonialism.” Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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Lucas Shisheesh (right, 21 years old) and Adrian Hookimaw (19) pick wild berries while hiking from a fishing spot on the banks of the Attawapiskat river. Like many other young people I met in Attawapiskat, Lucas spends a great deal of time on the land after being taught by his father how to navigate the wilderness. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Lucas Shisheesh (right, 21 years old) and Adrian Hookimaw (19) pick wild berries while hiking from a fishing spot on the banks of the Attawapiskat river. Like many other young people I met in Attawapiskat, Lucas spends a great deal of time on the land after being taught by his father how to navigate the wilderness. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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Young people play at a statue of the Virgin Mary near the St. Francois-Xavier Catholic Church on the shores of the Attawapiskat river. The community has a complicated history with the Catholic Church, since many of its members were subjected to horrible abuses while at the Catholic-run St. Anne’s residential school. A conversation with one 59-year-old man who had endured St Anne's for six years remained with me; he told me of repeated sexual and physical abuse at the hands of priests and nuns and, in one particular instance, a nun punched him and broke his nose when he was 11. It was the last time in his life that he was able to cry, he said. To this day he still carries deep shame and wishes he could express it through tears—however, even at the funerals of his parents and his own daughter, he hasn't been able to. At the same time, many in the community still connect to their Catholic faith, a testament to their forgiveness. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Young people play at a statue of the Virgin Mary near the St. Francois-Xavier Catholic Church on the shores of the Attawapiskat river. The community has a complicated history with the Catholic Church, since many of its members were subjected to horrible abuses while at the Catholic-run St. Anne’s residential school. A conversation with one 59-year-old man who had endured St Anne's for six years remained with me; he told me of repeated sexual and physical abuse at the hands of priests and nuns and, in one particular instance, a nun punched him and broke his nose when he was 11. It was the last time in his life that he was able to cry, he said. To this day he still carries deep shame and wishes he could express it through tears—however, even at the funerals of his parents and his own daughter, he hasn't been able to. At the same time, many in the community still connect to their Catholic faith, a testament to their forgiveness. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

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Sam Koosees sits in his bedroom with his three-year-old daughter Arianna. They share a three-bedroom trailer with ten other family members, a common situation in a community with a dire housing shortage. For Sam, a carpenter, life revolves around creating a better situation for his daughter. Despite a challenging past and the pitfalls of living in a remote, under-serviced First Nations community, he has goals and dreams for them both. While spending time with Sam, I became acutley aware of the stereotyped view of young First Nations men I was used to seeing in the media. I met several other caring fathers while I was there and cannot help but wonder how a stereotyped view of First Nations people in general exacerbates the issues they face. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Sam Koosees sits in his bedroom with his three-year-old daughter Arianna. They share a three-bedroom trailer with ten other family members, a common situation in a community with a dire housing shortage. For Sam, a carpenter, life revolves around creating a better situation for his daughter. Despite a challenging past and the pitfalls of living in a remote, under-serviced First Nations community, he has goals and dreams for them both. While spending time with Sam, I became acutley aware of the stereotyped view of young First Nations men I was used to seeing in the media. I met several other caring fathers while I was there and cannot help but wonder how a stereotyped view of First Nations people in general exacerbates the issues they face. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Home to the Swampy Cree First Nations people, the rural Canadian community of Attawapiskat in Ontario reached a tragic tipping point in 2016. Nestled on the winding banks of the Attawapiskat river, the town of approximately 2,000 residents declared a formal state of emergency in response to an overwhelming surge of attempted suicides, momentarily grabbing the attention of the Canadian people.

Photographer David Maurice Smith—the latest photographer to take over Maclean’sInstagram account, from April 1 to April 7—travelled to Attawapiskat with the intention of showing the community in a broader cultural context, one that could help Canadians to see beyond the crisis itself and understand more about the lives of the town’s residents. The serious challenges facing First Nations towns like Attawapiskat have essentially become the narrative, leading to an erosion of empathy from outsiders and a lack of appreciation of the richness and resiliency of these communities. Properly understanding the serious issues facing First Nations people requires a re-contextualizing—a shared focus not only on the struggle, but also on the culture and universal human values of the Attawapiskat Nation.

While addressing the complex challenges that exist, Smith’s project People of the Parting Rocks (the translation of “Attawapiskat” in Cree) also reveals slices of life in Attawapiskat that are largely overlooked: the enduring bonds of family, a connection to the land, the resurrection of traditional practices and the raw natural beauty of the region. “If we continue to stereotype Native communities as lost causes, we perpetuate a divide,” says Smith. “It is damaging to focus on only the most destitute and deplorable conditions for the sake of furthering a narrative that does not tell the whole story and leaves little room for healing.”