In a rare interview, former Chief of Montana Cree Nation Carl Rabbit shares his thoughts on the importance of maintaining Cree Culture and the honour in being a Male oskâpêwis – which translate into English as an Elder’s helper, helper at ceremonies.
Elder Melvin Rabbit of Montana Cree Nation also further discussed what it means to be a male oskâpêwis.
In this interview, proper Cree protocol was presented to both Carl Rabbit and Elder Melvin Rabbit.
Carl Rabbit, was born and raised in Maskwacis; at 60 years of age, he is a distinguished leader, patriarch, father, and grandfather. He served 18 years as a Cree leader in Montana First Nation and one term as Chief,
Carl Rabbit said, “I am proud to be from Maskwacis.”
Carl Rabbit and Melvin Rabbit come from a long line of traditional Cree male leaders – with a legacy of Community Values, Cree Culture, Cree language and Cree family values.
Carl Rabbit is concerned that young men are slow to come to ceremonies.
“I encourage young men to return to ceremonies – this is your ceremony and your birthright. At ceremonies Elders will remind you of your ways and to continue our way of life. This is part of your education in being Cree and Spirituality.”
It’s a delicate balance – maintaining Cree Culture and the reality of living in Western society.
Carl Rabbit, is a humble Indigenous leader who rarely gives interviews but there is a need for a revitalization of healthy male role(s) for Cree men in Maskwacis. These roles are filled with honour, respect, healthy boundaries, being humble, having a healthy self-worth and positive pride – a valuable piece within Cree Society. An oskâpêwis is not about toxic masculinity but serving the Creator and Cree people.
Carl Rabbit said, “The role(s) of Cree men have always existed for them in Maskwacis…We are rich in language, culture, traditions and ceremonies.”
Melvin’s mother is Mariah Rabbit, married to Cree Indigenous leader Joe Rabbit. Carl Rabbit’s mother Mary Rabbit married Cree Indigenous leader Diamond Currie. Neither of their mothers attended residential schools and the family has managed to keep the old Cree dialect alive, as well as the teachings of Cree ceremonies including the roles and responsibilities of Cree men, women and children. Two Spirit identities have always been included, accepted and loved within the Rabbit family.
Due to the impacts of Canada’s assimilation policies such as residential schools and Canada’s sixties scoop, many of the Cree roles for men, women, elders and two spirits have been impacted.
Each role is currently surviving racism, discrimination, poverty, influences of gangs, capitalism, substance abuse, cultural genocide and colonial tactics that undermine Cree self-worth. It’s time for Cree people to embrace the gift of being Cree.
It should be noted that there are also many other roles for Cree men such as Cree warrior societies and Cree singers and drummers but for this article we talked about being a Cree male oskâpêwis within Cree ceremonies and feasts.
“It’s a role for Cree men. One that has honour and pride,” said Carl Rabbit.
“We Cree people have many ceremonies and each ceremony requires oskâpêwis. That’s how important oskâpêwis are in our Culture.”
“Once an oskâpêwis, always a oskâpêwis for life,” said Rabbit.
He explained, “that we have to start the conversation from the very beginning, as First Peoples, and through our Creator, Kisemanito, meaning compassionate Creator. He gave us a way of life, teachings, values and wisdom.”
Kisemanito (also spelled Kihci Manito and other ways) means “Great Spirit” in the Cree language, and is the Cree name for the Creator (God.) Kisemanito is a divine spirit with no human form or attributes (including gender) and is never personified in Cree folklore.
“When you think about it – it seems so simple… to live our journey here on earth, our Creator gave us roles and responsibilities within the Nations,” said Carl Rabbit.
“The term I have heard used is that it is a birthright – I believe that to be true. Once you are born into this world you have an abundance of Cree life waiting for you – A Nehiyawak way of life.”
“I can only speak to my knowledge of a Cree way of life. To narrow it down, the Cree way, I can only speak from a Maskwacis perspective on a Cree way of life,” said Carl Rabbit.
“In Maskwacis we are rich in tradition and ceremony. Today within the four Nations of Maskwacis including mameo, ceremonies are still being done today. There are lots of ceremonies being conducted. That’s what I mean by rich in Culture. It’s during these Cree ceremonies – that’s where the oskâpêwis role comes in and it’s an honour to be one.”
“It’s our Mothers’ responsibility to connect us to Cree Culture – they take us to ceremony,” continued Carl Rabbit.
“Our Cree mothers connect us almost immediately – they take us to Culture. I can never thank my late mother enough (Late Mary Rabbit). She always connected me to my Culture.”
“It’s our mothers that keep us connected to Culture. They play an important role raising Cree men in a Cree way of life,” said Carl Rabbit.
“I was born during a ceremony on the Montana First Nation. My late mother was attending a Winter Ceremony that was being conducted by my late uncle and during that Winter Ceremony [she] gave birth to me. That’s how my mother connected me. When I was in her womb, she was attending Cree ceremonies – right there she was already connecting me to Cree ceremonies,” said Carl Rabbit.
“I was born into this world during a ceremony and my mother continued taking me to Cree ceremonies throughout my childhood – keeping me connected to ceremonies and Culture. I was in a moss bag and hearing the drums and singing around me.”
“As a young Cree boy, I started observing these ceremonies. I was going to different ceremonies with my mother. My mom kept me connected with Cree Ceremonies – I was always close to the Cree pipe, near Elders, near the Drums, Songs and Ceremonies,” said Carl Rabbit.
He attended ceremonies with his mother for many years, watching the respected Elders pray and observing Cree culture in action and movement. He saw young proud Cree boys and men helping and leading the ceremonies. Years of watching and observing at ceremonies,” said Carl Rabbit.
“I was about 11 or 12 years old; I was approached by an Elder. I was given the honour of being an oskâpêwis but it was an honour. I was so proud. – I can’t explain it but it’s just a feeling of pride.
“It was a moment in my life as a young Cree boy.”
He said it’s an honour when a respected Elder or head iskpre asks you to participate and help in ceremony.
“Our Elders were wise and they saw the good in people,” said Rabbit. “They could see the good in a Cree man and see his potential in being an iskpew.
He noted that some iskpew get the honour later on in life; they get the opportunity. Tobacco is presented to them to help out. The Creator gifts them later on in life.
“When they get that first tobacco presented to them, that is a great honour that the young men should take dear to them.”
“Our ceremonies are always open and welcoming. Our Culture is open to anyone who wants to assist in the ceremony.”
Rabbit said that he has “witnessed men, who later in life redeemed themselves through Cree Culture. I saw the look on these men’s faces when they were given the honour of being a male iskepw. An Elder saw potential in them. That look of pride in their faces – they are a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Carl Rabbit said, “A Cree man can be in his 40’s and start being an oskâpêwis.”
He said, ‘It makes me feel sad that there is this notion that Cree Culture is exclusive and only for a certain group. That’s just not the case. Male, Female or Two Spirit – it’s open to anyone who wants to assist in the ceremony.”
“You get that tobacco – what an honour.”
Rabbit has seen men who got the introduction and inauguration into being a Cree iskpew. “These men’s faces filled with pride. – they keep coming back and want to help and connect to their Cree roots,” said Carl Rabbit.
“Oskâpêwis has turned young men into really proud men – they have a sense of purpose – that is the reward. You work your way up, Through your journey of life, you become an Elder, you start here as an oskâpêwis collecting wood, being a fire keeper, then you might start distributing food at a feast, these roles are vital and one day an Elder will see that a man is ready to be a pipe carrier,” said Carl Rabbit.
“You serve the Creator, you help the Elders and you help the community – that’s the Cree way of life.”
He said in the old days the young men would go out and hunt and keep the community safe. Now in modern days these young men help in ceremonies and in many other ways – oskâpêwis wear many hats in the community.
Carl Rabbit said that he heard the term, first responders, being used to describe the role of these young men. They help out in the community. They are needed.
But going back to ceremonies, Carl Rabbit explained, “When you attend these ceremonies, an Elder gets up and speaks, often he will say to other oskâpêwis: You don’t work for me as an oskâpêwis, you are working for the Creator.”
“That is a powerful connection to your Culture.”
Carl Rabbit chose to end this interview by sharing a quote from the prominent former Montana Cree Nation Chief Leo Cattleman, who served Montana Cree for over 40 years and passed away as Chief of his Nation. At his passing, he was Canada’s longest serving Chief.
“We had a few one-on-one sessions in our lifetime as leaders,” said Carl Rabbit. During one of these sessions, “Chief Cattleman said: If we never quit, things will be good for us. Everything will go well. Let us never quit.”
In an interview with Elder Melvin Rabbit, he shared some insights about being a Cree man at Ceremonies. “I started when I was young. I would be an oskâpêwis off and on throughout my life,” said Melvin Rabbit.
“It’s a lifelong journey. There are different ceremonies like the Cree Sundances, feasts and tea dances. It’s a journey through your life. When your work is done here, you played your important role. You did good on earth.
“These Cree boys serve food, help at ceremonies, develop their role and over the years they become a pipeman – which means you get to sit in front with the Elders but you’re still a isphew. You work for the main oskâpêwis who is doing Creator’s work.”
“When you become an isphew – the spirit protects you but when you step back you’re always working on being a oskâpêwis,” continued Melvin Rabbit. “The oskâpêwis spirit is protecting you throughout your life.
“Sundance oskâpêwis is the most powerful role for a Cree man. They are working for the Creator at the Sundances. This is very sacred and this is one that they carry for life.”
There are many oskâpêwis roles for Cree men, added Melvin Rabbit. “You start from a little boy, teenager, and into your adult life – you don’t take shortcuts. You learn from the Elders and head isphew – if you are willing to learn.”
“It’s up to the parents to bring children to feasts and participate in Cree feasts and ceremonies. These young boys get excited to work and help out in ceremonies but it’s up to the parents.”
Nowadays, there are not too many Elders around.
“If we ever let that pipe and sweetgrass go, I’m afraid we can lose our Culture,” concluded Melvin Rabbit.
“I encourage parents to bring your families out to feast and learn your Culture. Be proud to be Cree.”
Both Carl Rabbit and Elder Melvin Rabbit continue to pass on their family’s wisdom and knowledge of Cree traditions, Culture, Cree values and teachings. Teachings that survived through the generations and have survived Canada’s cultural genocide.
They both encourage young men to come out and work for their positive role in Cree society.