Mother of Long Ago – Fort Frances Times
My research into Cree history in search of my great-grandmother’s (x4) understanding recently brought me to a report published in 1999 – Kayasochi Kikawenow, Our Mother from Long Ago – written by Kevin Brownlee, an Aboriginal archeology intern, and dr E Leigh Sims, Curator of Archaeology, both of the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature.
In June 1993, two residents of South Indian Lake in northern Manitoba came across a burial site on the shore of Nagami Bay. Due to flooding and erosion, human remains were uncovered under a cairn. Bruce Tait and Bob Moose recognized the importance of the site, and their response opened the door for much to be learned.
The woman was buried in a shallow grave, laid to rest respectfully on her right side, facing the water, head north, body in a stooped posture. Around her in an oval shape were the many tools she would have used in her life, for slaughtering and tanning hides, working wood and leather, tool making, making clothes and baskets, tools she would use in the afterlife would need, explain Elders. She was named kayasochi kikawenow, which means mother from a long time ago. Cree elders from the area believed it was found to provide a clearer understanding of Cree heritage to the younger generation, who have suffered from an imposed separation from their indigenous roots. Very little is known about traditional burial practices due to the influence of over 200 years of Christianity, but this site shared valuable information. This is the first intact burial site recovered from the area and was not visible in a 1990 survey of the area. Her remains were respectfully removed and taken to Winnipeg for further examination.
The excavation task was not easy and took two summers to battle against the water level of the lake, which finally reclaimed the site in 1995. She was a young mother between the ages of 23 and 30 who had given birth to several children. Her teeth indicated brief periods of “stunted growth in early childhood.” Buried with her were many traditional tools. Beside her hands was a heavily used nodule of graphite, a rare find used for drawing. Beads of glass and stone, as well as plant material, have been found near her head—the glass beads were early Iroquois fur trade items of southern Ontario, rarely found in Manitoba; 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 obtained, and it would have taken “a great deal of skill and effort” to turn them into pearls. How the beads were positioned suggested that they would have adorned a garment, perhaps a hood. Some tools were wrapped in a bundle of birch bark and placed under her head. Many of the items uncovered would rarely survive due to the frequency of wildfires and the acidic soil in that area. Much time and care has been expended studying their many tools, their composite materials and uses. Four complete sets of replicas were carefully created to be used for educational purposes, with the originals to be returned with her for reburial.
The report gives clear details of everything found and learned. South Indian Lake is the largest lake along the 1690 km length of the Churchill River, draining 297,850 square kilometers. The Rock Cree lived in this area and had established trade patterns and routes long before the Europeans arrived. This woman’s grave bore the fruit of one such trade – red pipestone beads mined more than 1000 miles away. This Cree mother lived over 350 years ago and provided a lot of information about how she lived. She was buried with “love and care,” very close to where she died, as was customary at the time.
In the fall of 1997, Kevin Brownlee was traveling home with Kayasochi Kikawenow on their return trip. She was placed in a small wooden coffin along with all her belongings. Brownlee helped dig the grave, an honor to do so, he said. On the day of the reburial, the lake was as smooth as glass. Brownlee writes of the emotional experience and sense of gratitude he felt for all that she had given him and what he in turn was able to give to others, a solid affirmation of the significant role women played.
A permanent display has been set up in the Winnipeg Museum with a complete set of replicas. This woman’s story is now part of the South Indian Lake curriculum to ensure her life and story is never lost again. Although she died around 1665, ie 358 years ago, she is helping to restore the knowledge of the indigenous people to their descendants and others.