You wouldn’t know it was below freezing last Friday if you were standing inside the newly-built Mohawk-Cree teepees, where the warmth of the crackling fire and the smell of freshly cooked moose and goose meat filled the air.
The opening of the two teepees has been years in the making. What started as a single small teepee at a camp in Hudson over two years ago has now become two permanent structures, located on Bobby Patton’s land right here in Kahnawake.
“I’m excited, I’m overwhelmed, I’m exhausted, but I’m feeling accomplished,” said Patton, as a long line-up of attendees waited to get their plates of pie and stew. “The highlight is seeing the little guy there, Elias, smiling, and his mom and grandma. Seeing the life in him, it’s amazing. It’s because of him, you know?”
Elias Brien, 14, lives in Montreal to be closer to the hospital for specialized medical appointments, though he is originally from the Cree Nation of Mistissini.
His mother, Mags Brien has been especially grateful for the new teepees, which allow easy access for Elias’s wheelchair and extra ventilation to help with his asthma.
One of the modern teepees has been named after Elias, standing alongside the Beverley and Josephine Patton teepee, which honours Patton’s mother and grandmother.
“We felt honoured when they told us that they would name it after him,” said Mags. “This meant a lot to us. And it’s going to be less hassle for me too – now that the new teepee is accessible for him, I’ll get to enjoy more time out at the teepee, because I won’t need to go back and forth while cooking.”
Before the current two structures were built, Patton hosted the Mohawk-Cree teepee as a traditional canvas structure on his property, with the help of Phillip and Sharon Matoush. They originally took the project from Hudson to Kahnawake to help provide a sense of home to patients travelling to hospital appointments in Montreal.
“I’m so happy a lot of people came,” said Philip, who originally had the idea for the project when working as a medical transport driver for Cree Patient Services (CPS). “A lot of people wanted it, and now here it is.”
The day started with speeches from one of those involved in organizing the project, Bobby’s father, Robert Patton Sr. He led the group in prayer before welcoming guests inside the teepees.
“We thank all of you who have worked so hard to make this place happen. We especially want to thank our cooks who are all planning a traditional meal for us today,” said Robert. “Creator, we pray that this will be a place of joy, a place of love for another, and a place of friendship and healing.”
After speeches, Mags and Elizabeth Brien were invited to cut the white and purple ribbon, which was strung from one teepee to the other. Once it was cut, the community piled in to feast.
“It’s good to see our two nations coming together, the Crees and the Mohawks working on a project,” said Raymond Blackned, who attended from the Cree Nation of Waskaganish. “You know, this is two nations that are coming together, and the more nations that could come together, the stronger we could all be.”
Both Cree and Mohawk sponsors made the construction of both teepees possible, with funding coming from the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) as well as the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB).
“I’m a believer, and I like to see good ideas come to fruition, and this was one great idea,” said Bertie Wapachee, chairperson of the CBHSSJB. He explained that the board has contributed about $17,000 to the teepees since their original inception back in Hudson.
“It’s been a long time coming. In our oral history, there used to be wars between our nations,” he explained. “But eventually, our elders, like yours, did talk about joining together and living side-by-side. I think that this is the beginning of it.”
Farah Salhi, who also works for the CBHSSJB, said that patients travelling to Montreal for healthcare have been excited to visit the new teepee site.
“They’re excited, everyone’s super happy, from what I’m hearing from the patients,” she said. “Now they’re just like, how are we gonna get here every weekend?!”
For Bobby and the rest of the main organizers, a well-deserved break should be in order. But that same weekend, Bobby, Philip, and Sharon welcomed a busload of teens to the site, sharing another feast with Mohawk, Cree, Innu, and Inuit visitors.
“This is what it’s all been about, bringing our families together,” said Bobby. “It’s always got to be for people to get a piece of home.”