The Journey of Nishiyuu

In Canada, six James Bay Cree youth embarked on the 1,000-mile Journey of Nishiyuu to reclaim Aboriginal Treaty Rights and fight First Nations poverty.

| March/April 2014

”Since time immemorial, we have called ourselves Nishiyuu (human beings), to distinguish ourselves from our relatives in the Natural Kingdom. The term has a complex and deep meaning, which includes the interconnectedness of all life, as well as the oneness of time within which all life begins and ends.”

On January 16, 2013, six James Bay Cree youth from Whapmagoostui First Nation in Canada left their community on the shore of the Hudson Bay and started a trek to Parliament Hill in Ottawa to protest the violation of Aboriginal Treaty Rights and encourage the unity and acknowledgement of the Cree and other First Nations People. The “Original Seven,” Stanley George, Jr., 17; Travis George, 17; David Kawapit, 18; Johnny Abraham, 19; Raymond Kawapit, 20; Geordie Rupert, 21; and their guide, Isaac Kawapit, 47, hiked and snowshoed close to 1,000 miles. On March 25, 68 days after they set off, they were greeted at their destination by a crowd of thousands, with their group having swelled to 270 walkers.

The Journey of Nishiyuu grew out of the Idle No More campaign, a grassroots movement launched in November 2012 in opposition to Canadian Bill C-45, the government’s omnibus budget bill that includes changes to land management on reservations. The idea for the walk was David Kawapit’s, who wanted to draw attention to some of the challenges faced by First Nations people such as marginalization, poverty, lack of clean drinking water, and inadequate housing. Kawapit sought to share a simple message of unity and pride: one that was maintained and expressed by the Cree, Inuit, Algonquin, Mohawk, and other youth who joined along the way. As stated on the group’s website, “This quest-journey will establish and unite our historical allies and restore our traditional trade routes with the Algonquin, Mohawk, and other First Nations. The time for Unity is now.” It was important for Kawapit to share this message with younger generations of First Nations groups in particular. Upon arriving in Ottawa, a weary Kawapit announced, “The youth have a voice. It’s time for them to be shown the way to lead. Let them lead the way.”

Jordan Masty, 19, joined the group in its earliest stages and was a consistent carrier of a symbol of the journey: the unity stick. The journey followed the traditional trade routes of the Algonquin, Mohawk, and Cree, serving to promote solidarity within and among the tribes. In walking the same paths that were walked by their ancestors, the youth sought to understand the conditions faced by previous First Nations members. According to Chief Stanley Jason George, this was a vital movement at a vital time: “The Seventh Generation took action and clearly indicated that they will no longer abide by the status quo. By taking action, by taking a stand, and walking the talk...the corporations and government now see what we are capable of and that our cultural-ancestral values are very much alive!”

In undertaking the voyage, the group faced burdens both physical and mental. At several stops along the way the walkers were met by family, friends, and welcoming cheers, which helped ease the loneliness. By the time they made it to southern Ottawa the group was nearly 100-large and walking next to highways with police escorts, with passersby honking in encouragement. The ambitious journey was completed in part because of the strength of the bonds within the original group, and with those who joined along the way. Reflecting on his completion of the journey, Kawapit said, “It feels really good, but at the same time I’m really sad that it’s ending. A lot of us shared a lot of good times here, sad times, but we all stuck together.”

As the number of walkers grew, so did public support; the Facebook group dedicated to the Journey of Nishiyuu has over 36,000 members. The public support did not translate to media attention, however, as there were only scattered online news accounts and exposure outside of social media outlets. Despite the general disregard by the mainstream media, or perhaps because of it, the group pushed on through treacherous terrain and temperatures dropping as low as –50 degrees Celsius (–58 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to portray the ongoing strength and pride of First Nations groups. With about one week to go, 22 of the walkers were treated for foot injuries. Three of the ailing walkers were ultimately sent to a hospital in Maniwaki, Quebec for more treatment.