Story

Finding Healing Through a Return to Traditions in Attawapiskat

April 28, 2017|

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Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. A family returns by canoe from cutting firewood in preparation for the cold, long winter ahead. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

A family returns by canoe from cutting firewood in Attawapiskat, Ontario, in preparation for the cold, long winter ahead. Attawapiskat is an isolated First Nation community located in northern Ontario, Canada, at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay. In 2016, the community of approximately 2,000 people declared a state of emergency after being overwhelmed with attempted suicides, over 100 attempts in a 10-month period. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat is an isolated First Nation community  located in northern Ontario, Canada, at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay. On April 9, 2016, the community of approximately 2000 people declared a state of emergency after being overwhelmed with attempted suicides, over 100 attempts in a ten month period. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

The pelt of a freshly skinned female polar bear, shot only hours before, is washed in the shallows of the Attawapiskat river. The bear was shot when it snuck up on and charged a local man while he was at a fishing camp on the outskirts of town. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat is an isolated First Nation community  located in northern Ontario, Canada, at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay. On April 9, 2016, the community of approximately 2000 people declared a state of emergency after being overwhelmed with attempted suicides, over 100 attempts in a ten month period. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. Joe Wheesk inspects some freshly picked wormwood bush, a type of sage used for smudging ceremonies. "They told us that our ways were the devils ways" says Wheesk of the teachers he had as a young person at St.Anne's Residential School in Attawapiskat. "We are starting to go back to our own ways." Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. Pow Wow dancers perform during a ceremony in the Reg Louttit Arena in Attawapiskat. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Pow Wow dancers perform during a ceremony in the Reg Louttit Arena in Attawapiskat. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. A family prepares to head out on a hunting trip on the Attawapiskat River. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

A family prepares to head out on a hunting trip on the Attawapiskat River. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. A Northern Pike, caught in a traditional net in the Attawapiskat River. David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

A Northern Pike, caught in a traditional net in the Attawapiskat River. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat is an isolated First Nation community  located in northern Ontario, Canada, at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay. On April 9, 2016, the community of approximately 2000 people declared a state of emergency after being overwhelmed with attempted suicides, over 100 attempts in a ten month period. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Lucas Shisheesh (right, aged 21 years) and Adrian Hookimaw (aged 19 years) pick wild berries while hiking from a fishing spot on the banks of the Attawapiskat river. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. A young girl plays in the shallows of the Attawapiskat river. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

A young girl plays in the shallows of the Attawapiskat river. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat is an isolated First Nation community  located in northern Ontario, Canada, at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay. On April 9, 2016, the community of approximately 2000 people declared a state of emergency after being overwhelmed with attempted suicides, over 100 attempts in a ten month period. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

A young boy practices with his father and a friend shooting an air rifle in anticipation of going out on his first goose hunt in the upcoming spring. The spring goose hunt is one of the most anticipated events in Attawapiskat and represents an important cultural activity. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat is an isolated First Nation community  located in northern Ontario, Canada, at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay. On April 9, 2016, the community of approximately 2000 people declared a state of emergency after being overwhelmed with attempted suicides, over 100 attempts in a ten month period. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Tessa Koostachin warms herself next to an open stove with her daughter Marnie, strapped in a traditional Cree cradleboard in Attawapiskat. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat is an isolated First Nation community  located in northern Ontario, Canada, at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay. On April 9, 2016, the community of approximately 2000 people declared a state of emergency after being overwhelmed with attempted suicides, over 100 attempts in a ten month period. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Young boys pretend to hunt geese using sticks as rifles in anticipation of going out on a goose hunt in the upcoming spring. The spring goose hunt is one of the most anticipated events in Attawapiskat and represents an important cultural activity. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. Youth from Attawapiskat have a campfire on the shores of the Attawapiskat river on the outskirts of town. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Youth from Attawapiskat have a campfire on the shores of the Attawapiskat river on the outskirts of town. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. Lucas Shisheesh (right, aged 21 years) and Adrian Hookimaw (aged 19 years) fish on the shores of the Attawapiskat river. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Lucas Shisheesh (right, aged 21 years) and Adrian Hookimaw (aged 19 years) fish on the shores of the Attawapiskat river. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. Samantha Iahtail (center in red, aged 27 years) swims with her nieces and nephews on the banks of the Attawpiskat river. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

Samantha Lahtail (center in red, aged 27 years) swims with her nieces and nephews on the banks of the Attawpiskat river. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. A freshly skinned female polar bear. The bear was shot when it charged a local man while he was at a fishing camp on the outskirts of town. Image by David Maurice Smith. Canada, 2016.

A freshly skinned female polar bear. The bear was shot when it charged a local man while he was at a fishing camp on the outskirts of town in Attawapiskat. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

Home to the Swampy Cree First Nations people, the community of Attawapiskat, Ontario reached a dark tipping point in 2016. The Canadian town of only 2,000 declared a state of emergency in response to a heartbreaking 100 attempted suicides in a 10-month period. Sadly the events in Attawapiskat are not unique, they are a part of a greater struggle for all First Nations people in Canada resulting in suicide rates almost six times higher than their non-indigenous counterparts. The story begins centuries earlier with foreigners eager to take what was not theirs, starting a chain reaction of persecution and trauma yet to end.

For many in Attawapiskat the road to a healthier future begins with a return to the past through a reconnection with traditional ceremony and the land based activities of hunting, fishing and spending time in nature. While the modern techniques of mental health support and education are important components of their healing plan, a connection with what it means to be Cree resonates with many community members both young and old.

Attawapiskat is surrounded by wilderness and waterways teeming with wild food, plants used in traditional medicines and other natural resources that for generations sustained Cree communities and became a central focus of their cultural stories. Now, in the face of a mental health crisis that threatens their cultural fabric, a return to spirit is seen as a step forward.