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Erin Altemus gets a lesson in reading local maps from Ojibwe police officer Joe Louttit.

Erin Altemus gets a lesson in reading local maps from Ojibwe police officer Joe Louttit.

Mapping a little-known culture

M.F.A. student records the stories of First Nation communities

By Erin Altemus

From M, Winter 2007

Editor's note: Erin Altemus, M.F.A. '07, canoed the waterways of the boreal forest in Northern Ontario, meeting members of First Nation communities to record their stories as part of her master's degree program in creative writing. A privately funded Judd Fellowship helped make the experience possible. Altemus contributed the following piece to M.

As my canoeing partners and I waited at the airstrip for a plane to take us home, a police truck pulled up beside us. The officer introduced himself as Joseph Louttit, but said to call him Joe.

Even at the end of August, the air had an arctic chill. Soon the town would be white and frozen. But now this Ojibwe community on the banks of the Attawapiskat River was dry and dusty. Despite the boreal forest that surrounded us, the town felt like Texas; dust caked our skin and hair.

Joe unscrolled a hand-drawn map of Northern Ontario. Instead of roads, the map showed burial and hunting grounds. Small crosses marked hundreds of sites in the area, not only where ancestors were buried but also where they used to live. We had passed some of these burial sites canoeing on the river. Joe showed us where Inuit and Ojibwe tribes battled hundreds of years ago, and he told us what Ojibwe names mean, such as Attawapiskat: "the space between the rocks."

"We weren't always in centralized communities," Joe told me, pointing to the places where families lived. "Each family had its territory, but eventually everyone moved to communities; that's where the government provided services. I only know of one woman still living in the bush year-round. She is over 80 years old now."

"Does everyone here still hunt?" I asked.

"Not everyone, but many families do. Buying food is very expensive," he said. Until the lakes and rivers freeze to provide overland transportation routes, supplies have to be flown in. Food is priced according to weight. A gallon of milk costs $15. "My family hunts for one moose, two caribou, 50 ducks or geese, and several hundred fish in a year," Joe said. "That helps to feed some of the community elders, too." After Joe left, our plane arrived. I watched the town disappear from the plane window and imagined what life was like 100 years ago. Families dotted the vast landscape where day-to-day living was the struggle to survive. Now, most families struggle between wanting modern conveniences--television, Internet, pick-up trucks, and snowmobiles--and preserving a connection to the land. "I left and went to school and college in another part of Ontario," Joe told me, "but I always wanted to come back. This is my home."