Every culture has its origins and while some of that history may be lost, those traditions and practices are what give character to its people.
That’s one reason why Bear Park in Hobbema was busy with folks taking part in craft and cultural activities Sept. 27 and 28. The event was organized by Maskwacis Cultural College. Organizers obtained a $10,000 grant from the Government of Alberta promoting culture in the province.
People had the chance to hone their tipi building skills, play a women’s stick game, learn specific crafts and even build bows. Over the two days, Maskwacis Cree crafts and culture were at the forefront of the all the presentations. Cakahkwanak – the women’s stick game — was created to help pass the time away during the winter months, explained Louise Eyahpaise, who showed young women how to play.
There were designs on four sticks and players were supposed to throw them in the air and attempt to match predetermined patterns. Each time a person threw a specific pattern, players had to provide sticks as payment.
For some it was considered a right of passage for women, said Muriel Lee, who was also showing players tricks of the game. It was not played very much in the mid-1900s but became popular again later on.
“The stick game was revived in Hobbema in the ’60s,” said Lee. “In the ’70s was the first time I played it.”
Players would banter with each other over who had the most sticks and conversation would flow from the weather to whose luck was running out. The game was also a way to gamble with friends.
“You could lose your tipi,” joked Eyahpaise.
In another tipi, women and girls were gathered learning beadwork skills. Patricia Littlechild, executive director of Maskwacis Cultural College, says beadwork is only one part of their craft. “We’re learning about the role of Cree women.”
In a setting such as this men must be respectful of the women’s space and ask permission before entering. A man is just a visitor in a woman’s home, explained elder Effi Janvier. “The woman is the backbone of the family.”
Younger children were able to learn basic beadwork skills in another tipi. Carla Listener, dean of academics, was giving young kids a taste of the craft. “This is what I did when I started out.”
Her hope with culture days is to get “people participating in an event that’s different.”
Building a tipi takes experience and patience and while younger men were setting one up, community member John Crier monitored their progress. He provided tips and insight into the process while explaining how ancestors mastered tipi construction.
“They perfected the art of living outside,” said Crier.
Prior to the gas furnace, the Maskwacis Cree were able to thrive in the elements because they mastered tipi design and were able to have fires inside without being smoked out. “They knew how to make a good tipi.”
He feels the culture days are a way to continue learning about the Cree culture.
Although there were not as many participants as expected, Listener feels those who did attend enjoyed the experience. She feels the Alberta Culture Days is a way to celebrate the diversity of cultures in the province. “It brings our different voices and different perspectives.”
Anyone who wants to become an artist or learn his or her culture should take the time to do so.
“Celebrate who you are,” said Listener.