Mother of Long Ago

My research of Cree history, in search for understanding my great (x4) grandmother, recently brought me to a report published in 1999 – Kayasochi Kikawenow, Our Mother from Long Ago – written by Kevin Brownlee, an Aboriginal Archaeology Intern, and Dr. E Leigh Sims, Curator of Archaeology, both from the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature.

In June of 1993, two residents of South Indian Lake, in northern Manitoba, came upon a burial site on the shore of Nagami Bay. Human remains were exposed from under a rock cairn because of flooding and erosion. Bruce Tait and Bob Moose recognized the site’s importance, and their response opened the door for much to be learned.

The woman was buried in a shallow grave, respectfully laid to rest on her right side, her face to the water, her head to the north, her body in a flexed position. Surrounding her in an oval shape were the many tools she would have used in her life, for butchering and hide tanning, wood and leather working, toolmaking, making clothes and baskets, tools she would need in the afterlife, explain Elders. She was called kayasochi kikawenow, meaning mother of long ago. Cree Elders from the area believed she allowed herself to be found so that she might provide a clearer understanding of Cree heritage for the younger generation, who have suffered from an imposed disconnect from their Indigenous roots. Very little is known of traditional burial practices due to the influence of 200+ years of Christianity, but this site shared valuable information. This is the first intact burial site recovered in the area and was not visible in a 1990 survey of the area. Her remains were respectfully removed and taken to Winnipeg for further study.

The task of excavation wasn’t easy and took two summers to complete, fighting the lake’s water levels, which eventually reclaimed the site in 1995. She was a young mother between the ages of 23 and 30, who had given birth multiple times. Her teeth indicated short periods of “growth arrest in early childhood”. Buried with her were many traditional tools. A heavily used graphite nodule, a rare find, was near her hands, used for drawing. Beads made of glass and stone and plant materials were found near her head – the glass beads were early fur trade items from the Iroquois in southern Ontario, rarely found in Manitoba sites; the pipestone beads were thoroughly examined at Wichita State University and were identical to those from the catlinite quarry in Minnesota; 1,641 pin cheery seeds were recovered, and would have required a “great deal of skill and effort” to transform them into beads. How the beads were positioned indicated they would have adorned a piece of clothing, perhaps a hood. Some tools were wrapped in a birchbark bundle and placed beneath her head. Many of the items uncovered would rarely survive due to the frequency of forest fires and the acidic soil in that area. Great time and care were given to study her many tools, their composite materials and uses. Four complete sets of replicas were painstakingly created to be used for education purposes, the originals to be returned with her for reburial.

The report provides clear details of all that was found and learned. South Indian Lake is the largest lake along the Churchill River’s 1690 kms length, draining 297,850 square kms. The Rock Cree resided in this area and had long established trading patterns and routes before Europeans arrived. This woman’s grave bore the fruits of such trade – red pipestone beads quarried 1600+ kms away. This Cree mother lived 350+ years ago providing much information as to how she lived. She had been buried with “love and care”, buried close to where she would have passed away as was the custom of the day.

In the fall of 1997, Kevin Brownlee travelled with kayasochi kikawenow on her return trip home. She was placed in a small wooden coffin, along with all her belongings. Brownlee helped dig the grave, an honour to do so, he said. On the day of reburial, the lake was as smooth as glass. Brownlee writes of the emotional experience and the sense of gratitude he felt to all she had given him and he in turn could give to others, a solid confirmation of the significant role women played.

A permanent display has been constructed at the Winnipeg Museum, with a complete set of replicas. This woman’s story now forms part of the South Indian Lake’s school curriculum to ensure her life and story are never lost again. Though she died circa 1665, 358 years ago, she is helping to restore Indigenous knowledge to her descendants and others.