Interviewer: Franziska von Rosen assisted by Stan Louttit
Place: Moose Factory, Ontario
Franziska von Rosen: Could you please tell us your name, the nation you belong to and where you are from?
James Small: My name is James Small Sr., which is James Kapashesit. I come from Waskaganish (Cree community in Quebec), which is about 90 miles from here. The reason my dad came here was that they were cutting wood for the railroad from Cochrane to Moosonee. They were looking for men who would like to work. We came to Moose Factory and stayed here. I was born here in 1934, but the railroad opened in 1932. It took two years to bring it through from Cochrane to Moosonee. As I grew old enough to use snowshoes or paddle the canoe, as there were no motors in those days, we used to go to Hannah Bay, which is on the east side [of James Bay]. There is a river there called Harricanaw River. On the Quebec border my dad had a trap line there. That is where we stayed in the winter. In the spring we would go north of the River (Harricanaw) towards the Bay for what we called the spring hunting – for geese and ducks for our use. Then in June we would come here as soon as the ice cleared out of the Bay. This was before the availability of motors so it was difficult paddling. Sometimes the wind was so strong that even with all of us paddling as hard as we could, the boat would not move.
FvR: What are some of your best memories of that time?
JS: I don’t know. The most prominent is when the school came and the officials took us to say goodbye to my mother and dad. My brother and I cried, and then our parents paddled away. The teacher would grab our hands and bring us up to the school. I have never forgotten that part. It was so sad. We would only see our mother and dad next summer. That was in September, and I never saw my parents until around the 10th of June. That was how it was for the children to get schooling.
FvR: How old were you when you began residential schooling?
JS: That would be in 1944, the Roman Catholic school. I stayed two years there. Then I went to Bishop Horden Residential School in 1946, 1947, and 1948. That was when I turned 16 in July. When September came, I could not go in as I was already 16. That was five years in all. Sometimes I think about the kids away from their parents. In those years that I spent on the coast, I only saw my mother for two months, and my dad and my sisters. So that is another thing that pops up in my mind once in a while.
FvR: It sounds as though you were certainly robbed of some important childhood years with your family. Do you have memories of the time before you started residential school?
JS: There was a lot of what we now call ‘bullying’ going on. That was why they would not let me go into residential school until I was ten years old. Another thing that I can remember is that my parents cared more for me than to go to school. Being in school at that time, I do not hear much about it now, but at that time it was all men’s work, women’s work. If you were lucky you would get two hours of studies – spelling, math, and reading. That’s all I can remember that they taught us. Not like today. I look back and my wife and I have raised two kids. We always encouraged them to do well in school, not to bully other kids. Both of them are well-disciplined, the way we brought them up. They both got good educations. The boy went to York University for five years and Brenda went to Algoma University to finish and she worked for a while, for six years, I think, and then she went back to school. Then she got a degree in law. Then last June an opening became available to look after all of the northern colleges. She got that position. All of those colleges you pass in Barrie, North Bay, and Sudbury, she is the one that looks after them.
FvR: You must be very proud.
JS: I will put it this way: I did not have it. We kept telling the kids, if you do not go to school, you are nothing. Nobody will look up to you. Once they know that you have a mind to work with, and respect other people, you will do OK in life. That is exactly what they are doing today.
FvR: Can we go back to your life before school?
JS: In my life before school, you are taught how to carry water, you are taught how to cut wood at home, taught how to get brush for the bedding, taught how to set traps. Sometimes they start you off with the squirrel traps or mink, the small stuff. Then after I got out of school at 16, I started learning the basic things like my dad and brother were doing. I had to skin my own animals that I killed. Dad would only watch us and correct us. He told us you have to prepare your own skins. It was just like being in a class. It was very much the same, but taught a different way. That is what I remember before I went to school and after I went to school. When I go now, I do not need to have anybody tell me how to do it. My Dad used to say all the time in Cree: “Do it this way. Do it this way.” If we answered, “I can’t” in Cree, he would say there is no such word. “You have to try what I am trying to teach you.”
There are only a few people left now that I know that are still using those old techniques. That is another thing that should be taught. There should be a school in the wilderness, take the kids for a month or three weeks. Transportation is very easy today. We only had a dog team to take us wherever we wanted to go. They do a little bit here in the spring when they go out for a day. In a day you cannot cover much and you probably forget that soon.
FvR: At what point did you start becoming interested in music and dance?
JS: It began by watching, listening to the guy playing, the women and men dancing. Then I thought that is the way I am going to dance. I was not dancing then yet. I just watched and listened to the guy who played violin. It’s hard if you do not aim for the music the way the guy plays. Some go around in the circles and do not listen and pay attention to the music. The music that the guy plays on the guitar is for your feet. The crowd will notice that you are following the music. Clarence Louttit [a well-known local fiddler] used to tell me, I know exactly how you are going to dance because you are following my music. And sometimes he said, you beat me, your changes, your steps. They change around there when they play. That is what he meant. Perhaps I was a little too fast for him!
FvR: Can you tell me when and where was the first time you heard a dance?
JS: We had a house in the ‘50s when I was around 17 or 18 where my dad used to hold dances on Friday or Saturday night. I had two sisters and I guess they convinced my parents to have these dances. And I have seen some in different houses. There was no hall to go to for dancing then. Sometimes a tent frame would be set up and music would be heard there too. So this is how I started to learn. I learned more as I became older. But a lot of the people I knew thought that you had to drink before you could dance. That is not true. You mess up your dance if you do that. I can go to the dances without a drink and dance. That is the way people would like to see you. When they see a guy coming in the door and can see he is a bit off, they say: “He is going to be crazy.” Sure enough, he was crazy on his feet. He could not follow the music. The most important thing, I think, is the way you move your feet. People watch that and the way you move to the music together. It seems as one and the same if you follow the music. Your feet do the drumming for you.
FvR: That is a lovely way of putting it. Were any members of your family musicians?
JS: My dad played the violin but not much at dances, usually only at home. I watched him dance also. He was pretty good. I kind of follow him, I guess.
FvR: For what purpose were the dances, for fun, for entertainment, for competition?
JS: Just recently they had dances for different age categories, 60, 50, 40 and down. They just started to use that for a prize. I and another guy were step-dancing to the music. I was in the 60 category and he was in 40 so he won his and I won mine. Before that, there was no competition of anything. It was more about having fun in the community and get to know people better. That is what I can remember and they talked about it the next day. I was raised with no booze at that time as native people were not allowed to drink. In 1957 they introduced liquor for the native people with a liquor store. Before that, if you were caught drinking, you would be in trouble.
FvR: Do you know anything about the film "The Fiddlers of James Bay"?
JS: I saw that film on TV. Ray Spencer is from Chisasibi and Robert Mcleod was from here. And in that film you might see Eleanor, Roy Mcleod's wife. Roy just passed away. That was his dad who went over to Scotland. They took him (Robert) on a boat and you see him playing with an orchestra. They tried to follow the orchestra and they couldn’t even though they were good fiddlers because that was the first time they ever tried that. You see, native people are self-taught musicians. They pick it up themselves. They do not use the book to learn how to play the tunes. Some of them now, I think, do use the book. But in this community, all the ones that I know, they all play by ear, learn it themselves. They are elders like Clarence [Louttit]; he’s my age. He was born in 1934 and he used to go up and down each coast to play for events in the communities.
FvR: Was the fiddle and its music the main form of entertainment in these communities?
JS: Well, as long as they could deliver, like Robert Mcleod and Ray Spencer. Originally it was either English or French background. They were both Métis. And they were good players of the violin. A few others are still around. They are getting older and they do not seem to do too much of it now. Maybe they have some arthritis, I don’t know. When I get arthritis in my feet, I will have to stop.
FvR: Is step-dancing continuing with the younger generation?
JS: There was a group formed in this community, but I have not heard anything of what they are doing right now. There was a woman who would teach them to square dance.
FvR: What kind of step-dancing do you like to do? What songs do you like to dance to?
JS: There is a tune called "Eighth of January". The violin player does not change as much or as often as on other tunes. There is "Chicken Reel", "Turkey in the Straw", "The Old Man and the Old Woman [Arkansas Traveler]". I don’t know what the old woman was doing! There are a few others – the older type of songs that I cannot remember, but those were all good tunes. The tunes were used for square dances. When you finish one turn, you do another one. Then there is a different kind of tune for that one. I used to call sets.
FvR: How did you learn?
JS: By listening to other callers call the sets. I’m starting to get deaf as I have been listening too much!!
FvR: You also told me that the drum that is commonly used today you had never experienced before in your life. Can you tell me about that?
JS: Actually, I saw it first on TV. I was not out much in other communities. I spent ten years in Sault Ste. Marie with the kids when they were going to school. I did not see any of that then. It was in 1960 when I went there. In the last 20 to 30 years this form started to pick up. My mother-in-law used to say that she drummed when her husband was playing the violin so there must have been some kind of dances in her time. So she was learning from other people that she saw drumming. That was the use of a drum instead of a guitar. I never saw that when I was growing up.
FvR: Did you ever speak to your parents to find out if they had the drum in their time?
JS: I never did ask them. My mother-in-law was 94 years old when she died. She had a lot of years, so she could remember.
FvR: What do you think of the powwow?
JS: To me, if anyone wants to try something, let him go to it. I do not criticize it to other people. That is how you handle yourself in life. Like my dad said, there is no word as ‘can’t’, so you have to go ahead and do it. Try to learn it and do your best.
FvR: How do you feel when you are dancing?
JS: When the music starts, you think first before you jump in to dance. You think: “I wonder if I can follow that music.” That is how I used to dance. If I can drum my feet with the violin player as he is playing, I jump in. I do not think about anything else but the music, when the violin changes, and everything. Listen first before he finishes and then he plays it again. Then you know the steps you will be taking with your feet and the noise you want – it is just like drumming. Or spoons. Have you seen someone with spoons? You have to do pretty well the same thing with your feet. That is what you are doing with your feet when you dance.
Stan Louttit: You talked about how you saw your parents fiddling when you had a dance in your house or in the tent frame. What time would they have done that?
JS: The one in the tent frame was in the ‘50s, in the evening. There wasn’t much to do for young people. There were very simple things we did when we were young to keep out of trouble. If you were going to break somebody’s canoe or stuff like stealing goods out of canoe, with activities going on that would not happen. When you try to help a person, you have to respect his stuff.
The dances in the house were done in the early ‘50s too. Just make a dance and people will hear the noise in that house and they would know to dance there. It was not a drunken dance as there was nothing to drink. Today it is quite a change. I do not want to run down the community but things are not as rosy as we think they are. We just have to live with it like everything else.
SL: In the tent frame, were they square dancing or just step-dancing?
JS: They did both square dancing and step-dancing. There are different kinds of dances like the Otter Dance. In that you slide your feet down. The women would do the same thing. Then there is the Kissing Dance. They use a kerchief and go like this with the kerchief. You put the kerchief on the lady’s neck and you kiss her. Then you get so many out of the group, then she does it to the men. For that, you have a whole circle of people doing that in the Kissing Dance.
SL: I have heard that is the last dance of the night. Is that correct?
SL: How many rounds would they go through if they began in the early evening?
JS: They have three stages. The first stage would be a simple one for six people, men and women. And they change about halfway and that is called the breakdown. You go to the centre and step-dance and the women step-dance towards you. When the three parts are completed, another bunch of men or women will start another one. So you do not see the same people dancing all the time. If there is a big space, you may have two or three groups dancing the same as the first one danced. You think about your own group and pay attention. The other groups have their own thinking to do. The people will know which group is the best with men and women dancers. That is how they judge their dancing.
SL: Would they take a break anytime or as it was going on?
JS: They might take fifteen minutes and then start again.
SL: What do you do in those fifteen minutes?
JS: You might go outside because it is hot in there where you are dancing. And it gives a break to the fiddler and the guitar player. But I always wish they would keep it up more as it is hardly done, except twisting.
SL: Nowadays they only do it for about an hour?
SL: In your time it would have been 7 p.m. to how late?
JS: Sometimes it started at nine and it finished at four or five in the morning. Just keep dancing and no booze. That is what you call dancing. You don’t get silly although perhaps it is silly to dance that long!
SL: Were there some Cree names for those dances?
JS: They all have names. “Waap shuu daow” means Rabbit Dance. There is “uutspaahguun”; that’s a Pipe Dance. “In chuuk hiigan” is the Otter Dance. It is like you are floating on top of the floor. That is the way you dance. You hardly make any noise. It is just sort of sliding back and forth, not drumming with the violin player and with tap dancing shoes. You must make yourself look light.
SL: What about “sigabonhiigan”? Am I saying that right? It was one that you spin your partners around. It was like the spinning of the goose over the fire. That is what James Cheechoo said.
JS: I can’t say that I have ever danced that one. Maybe he knows more. He is older than me so I am sure he picked up more than I did. There are only three or four dance names I know in Cree. They do not use them very much anymore. They use more of the simple square dances. They should be doing some tonight or tomorrow. I do not know if any dancers came down.
SL: Yes, a lot of dancers came. I talked to some of the fiddlers around and they said that you were one of the best dancers around. It was about two years ago they had the celebration for the late Sinclair Cheechoo, and then somebody asked you to dance. Can you explain who Sinclair was? I remember seeing you dance and you moved from one group to another. Can you describe that?
JS: Sinclair’s style is different. He used to play a lot at the house for entertainment. He is related to my sister-in-law. When I first danced in front of him, he asked me where I first learned to dance. I said, I just listened to your music. He said: “If a person takes time and listens to the music, he will do OK because it is the people you are dancing for. People watch and listen and I can tell you are good.” When I danced at the gathering there, I would think about persons playing. I stopped at Margaret’s [Clarence Louttit’s wife], and she told me that Mary, Jimmy Davey’s wife, just passed away not too long ago. I stopped at his wife's (late Sinclair Cheechoo’s wife), and his wife just waved at me. That brings the memories of them playing the tune and they all enjoy it. So I was dancing on behalf of them.
Not too long after that, Jimmy passed away and he gave me his shoes. Jimmy Davey was the best dancer I have ever seen on this island. I learned from him how to step-dance. Last summer he called me over to his house. He was sitting at the kitchen table and all of the kids were away now. He said: “I told my wife that I am going to give my shoes to Jimmy (James) because when I am gone my shoes will keep dancing.” I must try to do my part with those shoes during the last part of the evening there with the violin. I would like to explain that, but they do not let you talk. They get you up there and that is it. But I miss all of these people that played the violin.
We were talking earlier about the fiddlers that went to Scotland. I must get a tape from Eleanor (Mcleod) of those fiddlers. Those fiddlers were so surprised to be taken over there from Moose Factory. The music, the Scottish and the Irish, started from here so it is a part of the history of Moose Factory with those people from the other side of the world. Most of the tunes that the fiddlers have were brought over from England, Scotland, and Ireland. That is what we started to dance with.
FvR: But you made these tunes your own here.
JS: Yes. They have their own way of playing them. Some make their own tunes. Clarence [Louttit] started out to make his own tunes, but in order to get it right they will have to listen to the Scottish and the Irish music, if that is the kind of music they wanted to play.
FvR: Originally I asked you for your name and affiliation.
JS: As I said I was born here in Moose Factory in 1934. I am a member of Waskaganish Band. My dad never changed to Moose Band (Moose Cree First Nation). He remained the way he was and we did the same thing. I have seen a lot of young people growing up, and the elders are gone that used to tell me a lot of stories about the community. How difficult it was to live and with no assistance from anybody. I am glad that I have got this far, 72 years. I listened carefully to my mother who used to say, when you are not in this house, it is up to you to meet your own needs. I think I have done that part too with my children, so I am a very fortunate person to come this far. I am really with the angels!
I am glad to do this interview. I hope you make good use of it.
FvR and SL: Thank you very much. Meegwetch (thank you).
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