Part I
Pukatawagan Early Days

The Puk Hollywood Sign
Compiled by Bill Hillman
Students in the BUNTEP Pukatawagan Communications Class
Talks with Pukatawagan Residents and Elders
The Ralph Caribou Photo Collection
Castel's English-Cree Dictionary and Memoirs of the Elders ~ Castel and Westfall
The Mathias Colomb Band: The Early Years ~ Pukatawagan Curriculum Committee 1984
MISSINIPPI-ETHINIWAK compiled by Marie Adele Bighetty 1986
            The Hillman Media Library

Oh Great Spirit! The Creator and giver of all life.
Hear me, I am weak. I need our understanding, to carry on with life each day.
I admire your fading pink blue sunset.
Protect my children, as I sleep under your heavenly Kingdom of the stars and the moon.
Oh Great Spirit! I hear your voice, when you speak through the thunder.
Please hear my wish. I need your help more than ever.
I give you my spirit. Make my soul as colourful as the fading summer, and my spirit as bright as the autumn leaves. 
So, when I go to sleep forever.
I will make you proud, to enter your heavenly Kingdom.
Oh Great Spirit! I respect you and I love you.
Unknown Author


Pukatawagan, Manitoba is situated about 250 miles north of The Pas and is accessible overland by the Lynn Lake branch of the CNR, which has a station about eight kilometres to the east. After freeze-up, a winter road is plowed across lake surfaces and over land portages. The Pukatawagan Airport, 5 km east of the settlement, is a public-use airport with runway lights and is used by a number of airlines including Beaver Air and Calm Air. The population of the community is approximately 2000 and it services another 2000 in the surrounding area. The land is not suitable for agriculture but many of the people fish and trap year round. In modern times, however, this appears to be a precarious source of livelihood due to dwindling wildlife resources, rising costs of fuel and necessities, the steadily-increasing population on the reserve, and the current unpopularity of furs in the world market.

As the growing native population comes to grips with the great changes presented by the 21st century and struggle to find ways of becoming self-sustaining, many have to rely rely upon sporadic make-work projects, government short-term projects, treaty money or social assistance for their livelihood. Exciting changes are in the wind however, as waves of progressive native people are achieving the skills and higher education necessary to enable them to take control of the destiny of the First Nations,


Pukatawagan is a Cree word meaning "fishing plac" or "fishing with a net." The Pukatawagan community is stretched out along the Missinippi ("Big Water") River or Churchill River system which has tributaries originating in the Rockies and which flows all the way to Hudson Bay. The culture of the Missinippi-Ethiniwak or "big river people" has always been based upon this river. They were active, and often vicious, defenders of the Churchill River. River trips were an important part of their way-of-life for centuries and they protected these waters from the coming of other tribes.

The Missinippi people had well-organized governments that had sets of unwritten fundamental principles which were adopted to run their villages. Elected leaders appointed an Elders Council for advice. The Elders were the heart of the community and were respected by the people. The Elders and the leaders in turn appointed various people to oversee law and order in areas of crime prevention, childcare, marriage counseling, supervision of the young, education, hunting and fishing laws, wildlife conservation, story telling, tribal wars, scouting and the everyday functions of the community.

The Elders taught the young about love and respect for all life forms on earth and belief in the creator of all living things: Kise-Manito. Legends were told to young children as a way of inculcating respect for wildlife conservation and harmony with nature.

The tribal leaders appointed judges to implement law and order. All trials were held in public and the accused were publicly reprimanded. There was no capital punishment but serious offenders were banished from the community for life. Everyone in the community had a say in daily affairs. Local gossip was used as a deterrent and a village crier would make the rounds, loudly announcing everyday news and events.

The Missinippi people believed that the river was put there by Kisimanito for the people to use. The river was symbolic of pride and stability because it was abundant in both wild life and migratory birds. The Missinipi people would give up their lives rather than lose their mighty river. Their basic religion was to hold onto their river forever.

The Missinippi ideology was flexible and evolved to meet changes in the Missinippi way of life. Morality was not given high priority because morality can become quite flexible when it comes down to a matter of survival. If outside families were caught inside their river area it was the custom to kill the whole family. If they were to kill only the mother and father, there was a good chance that the children would later come back for revenge. They lived by the code of the survival of the fittest -- the strongest survived. The Chipweyen from the North and the Swampy Cree from the South considered the Missinippi tribe to be heartless killers and had managed to stay away from the big river. In return, the Missinippi people had never attempted to move into the Kisiskatchewan (Saskatchewan) River area.

Offerings regularly were placed in the river at sunrise to appease Kisimanito: tobacco, berries, choice portions of food, the first kills of new hunters, and even sick or handicapped babies. Dead wise men were placed sitting down by large river bank trees so that they could watch the mighty river. During severe winters, or times of hardship and famine, some communities ended up killing each other for food. It was the custom for older people to become food, if it were a matter of survival. At times, a woman might kill her husband to feed the young ones. Sometimes the woman would become insane for the crime she felt she had committed and end up killing her young ones in order to remain alive. Legend has it that such women became ravaging supernatural-like Whitigos who preyed on and terrorized other families.

The Missinippi religion, unlike that of many Southern tribes, allowed women to join in tribal ceremonies during their menstruation periods. One of many examples of the high esteem in which they held their women. While men did most of the hunting and trapping, women served as food gatherers, midwives, collectors of herbs and roots to heal the sick, child bearers, educators, and caregivers to the young, the infirmed and the dying. They often served as spiritual leaders as well, and even prepared the bodies of the deceased for the wake ceremonies.

In the old days members of the tribe were migratory and followed the movement of fish and animals. In the spring they set up camp closest to the river mouths where fish lay eggs.  They would also gather at rapids where fish were channeled into natural fish traps where they could be netted or scooped up. Women would dry the fish and pound them into flakes known as Kinosiwithiwahikanak which were often eaten with wild berries and grease. Wild game included waterfowl such as ducks, geese, and swans, large game such as moose, and fish such as sturgeon and pickerel. Beaver, muskrat, rabbit, lynx, wolves and bear were trapped for clothing, blankets and food. One method of trapping involved the cutting of two large logs and arranging them in such a way that they would crush the animals as they moved the bait. In the summer they blockaded all the underwater running-way routes of the beavers and then cut open the beaver house. They would then kill the whole household.

Many of the old ways died, however, when the white man arrived on the river. The people were gathered on reserves, much their land was taken from them, their tribal laws, customs and religion were replaced, and they were pressured into signing land treaties.

The Hudson Bay Company arrived in the area as early as 1794. The first fur trading posts on the river system were established at Granville Lake, Pelican Narrows, and High Rock Lake. The early traders and explorers included HBC's George Charles and William Linklater as well as the Northwest Company's David Thompson and Francois Morin.

James Caribou and dog team
Before the late 1800s most of the Cree people along the Missinippi River did not have last names. Shortly after birth a child was given a name by an older member of the family. When last names came into fashion they were derived in various ways: some were actual Cree names, some were English translations of Cree names, others were from Scottish or French trappers who married Cree women, and some were chosen just because they were family names that people liked. Since the Catholic priests in the area were mostly French, many people were baptized with French first names. Common Pukatawagan names include: Bighetty, Bear, Caribou, Bird, Cook, Castel, Cursiteur, Colomb, Daniels, Daylight, Dorion, Dumas, Francois, Hart, Hunter, Kinokapo, and Linklater.

The Pukatawagan people originally were part of the James Roberts Band of Montreal Lake, Saskatchewan. Later, the band members formed the Peter Ballantyne Band at Pelican Narrows of Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan. In 1876 and 1889, Woods, Crees, Stonies, and other Indians inhabiting the 121,000 square miles from Saskatchewan to the Rockies in the West, signed Treaty #6. The Pukatawagan people were included in this treaty.

Until the new reserves were set up, Cree all along the Missinippi had to travel to Opawikoschikanihk (Pelican Narrows, SK) which means "fearing the narrows." At one time hostile tribes would wait for canoes at the narrows and would attack them with arrows.  The area now known as Pukatawagan was not much more than a gathering site or meeting place at that time. In order to collect their treaty money, many of the Missinippi-Ethiniwak who lived all along the Churchill River from the prairies to Hudson Bay had to make the long river trek to Pelican Narrows where Soneyawikimow (Indian Agent) would dole out their allotted five dollars. Finally, in 1910, the Mathias Colomb Indian Band was established at Prayer Indian Reserve and later in the 1920s they claimed reserve land at the present Pukatawagan site and at other points up and down steam along the Churchill River. Their land claims in many of these areas, however, are still in dispute.

Following the recognition of the reserve at Pukatawagan, the band commenced building log houses on the site and Hudson Bay and other fur traders moved in to do business. Native trappers sold furs for money to buy canoes, guns, tents, food, twine, gunshot, clothing, knives, lard, tea, and other necessities. Later on, during World War II, when the Hudson Bay Company left the area, even priests became involved in the fur trade. Father Emile Desormeaux travelled all over the north by dog team and canoe, acting as a fur buyer while he preached the word of the Lord - often in Cree. He was a man of many other trades as well: judge, dentist, doctor, policeman, school principal - and he, as have a long line of priests, assisted Chiefs and Councils in working toward community progress.


Standing from left to right are: Councillor Joe Castel,
Councillor Thomas Colomb, Chief Soloman Colomb and Constable Alphonse Dumas.



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Puk Map courtesy Karen Dumas