Tansi, Jerusalem!

Members of Canada’s Norway House Cree Nation journey to Israel.

Members of the Norway House Cree Nation plant trees in the Jewish state (photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN)
Members of the Norway House Cree Nation plant trees in the Jewish state
(photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN)
While “hello” is heard in many languages in Jerusalem on a daily basis, last week one could also hear the Cree word for hello – tansi – in Israel’s capital.
A group of 25 members of the Norway House Cree Nation from Manitoba, Canada were on a “small entrepreneurship” themed mission to Israel, and spent 10 days touring the Holy Land from February 22 to March 2.
Most of the group had never visited the Jewish State before and had minimal knowledge of the country.
Led by Aboriginal Chief Ron Evans and staffed by Shelley Faintuch, the community relations director of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, the First Nations group traveled across Israel, taking in religious sites as well as learning about Israeli technology and meeting with entrepreneur leaders.
The group visited a fish farm in the north, met with representatives from a 3D printer developer company, and viewed developments in the country’s water technology and medicinal agriculture. Their packed schedule included visits to Bethlehem, Caesarea, Kiryat Shmona, the Galilee region, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Masada and the Dead Sea.
While visiting Jerusalem, the delegation learned about the genocide of the European Jewry at Yad Vashem, where they found parallels to their own people’s difficult history.
In Jerusalem caught up with the First Nations members as they took part in a unique Kol HaOt art program centered on processing Yad Vashem, after having visited Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.
“The First Nations and Jewish people have so much in common,” said Elaine Paupanekis, one of the group’s first-time visitors to Israel. “The Jewish people didn’t give up hope, like the House of Cree. They rose up as a people again despite all the tragedy and loss.”
One of the largest First Nation communities in the Canadian province of Manitoba, the Norway House Cree Nation has around 6,000 members, who are mostly based at Norway House, located about 450 kilometers north of Winnipeg at the point where Lake Winnipeg and the Nelson River meet. The Cree people are part of the First Nations communities in Canada who were devastated by the diseases and sicknesses introduced by European settlers beginning in the 17th century. Norway House is named for the Norwegian laborers who built the Norway House post, one of the original Hudson’s Bay trading posts, which played an important economic role in the early 1800s during the fur-trade era of Canada.
Chief Evans, who was born and raised in the community of Norway House and is the former grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, told In Jerusalem that this was his sixth visit to Israel.
“Every visit to Israel is different, but each is impactful and moves the spirit,” he said. “We have felt completely safe throughout the entire trip.”
An ordained priest with the Anglican Church of Canada and a proud grandfather, Evans was raised on Bible stories. During his first visit to Israel in 2010, the chief had wanted “to experience a connection with what we believe.”
Inspired by that visit, Evans decided that other members of his community should take part in pilgrimages to Israel and has since then brought three groups, including a group of First Nation youth in 2012.
This visit was coordinated by the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada.
“We aimed to provide a variety of experiences for the people of Norway House based on requests that the chief had made and some of the things we felt would be interesting, like the fish farm,” said Faintuch, who also added that the Norway House Cree Nation raised the funds for the trip.
“We hope that this visit to Israel will strengthen the Norway House Cree Nation’s affinity and identification with the Jewish and Israeli narrative, in which the Holocaust plays such a central role,” said Faintuch, who is a daughter of Holocaust survivors.
“As the first people of Israel, there is an ancient connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.
That bond to the land is something we have in common with the Cree Nation,” added Faintuch.
“As Jews, we understand persecution and stereotyping and there is a natural affinity there,” she added. “But we don’t only share the negative, we also share the positive. Here in Israel, when you need something to get done, it gets done or it gets invented. We move forward.”
“Experiencing Israel through the eyes of the First Nations and gaining an appreciation for their faith culture has been very special for me,” said Faintuch, who also serves as the associate director of local partner services of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
“There is a special connection between the Jewish community in Winnipeg and Canada’s First Nations,” she pointed out.
“Working with Norway House on these trips to Israel is the biggest gift I could have – it’s an honor to work with Chief Evans.”
During the Kol HaOt art workshop, Norway House Cree Nation members shared their responses to the Yad Vashem visit.
“Going to Yad Vashem made me realize how much history the Jewish people had that was lost, as well as the amount of dedication needed to keep that history alive,” said Paupanekis.
“It is so important to know where you come from and to educate the next generation for the future,” she added.
“It’s remarkable to see how resilient Israel has become,” added Edward Albert Jr., who also has a Cree name, Essenne Mikisew (Stone Eagle). Albert, 28, works as a sports and recreation consultant for the Aboriginal people in Manitoba, and said he was moved by the tour of Israel.
“The visit has been very inspiring and I hope to bring my experience and that inspiration of resiliency back to my people in Canada,” he said.
“While we live on reservations, it was amazing to see how the Jewish people have been able to establish their own country.”
Kol HaOt is an organization that provides interactive, hands-on art workshops that are specifically designed for visitors to Israel of all ages and levels of knowledge related to Israel and Judaism. The workshop that the Norway House Cree Nation participated in is crafted to give participants the opportunity to discuss their emotions and reactions following the visit to Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl. At the conclusion of the workshop, the First Nations group created a mural in the shape of the Land of Israel together.
Commenting on the Kol HaOt workshop, Chief Evans stated that the art gave his group a chance to meaningful explore their feelings.
“By expressing themselves through art, our young leaders on this mission had an opportunity to explore their conscious and unconscious feelings about displacement and rebirth, in a deep and meaningful way,” he said.
“We always have to be mindful of evil and what happens around us.”
For others, the visit to Yad Vashem and the trip to Israel was overall an overwhelming experience.
“It’s hard to put in words what this trip has been like,” said Nick Saunders, a young lawyer from Norway House.
“Growing up in a very religious community and hearing the Bible stories, I could never imagine what Israel looks like in reality. Just getting to see the landscapes and the people and learning about the ancient past along with the modern history, has been a beautiful experience. It puts the past in perspective.”
There were some aspects of the country that surprised Saunders.
“Coming from Canada, the Sea of Galilee is a lot tinier than I expected.”
To conclude the visit in Jerusalem, the group planted pistachio trees at Gazelle Valley, leaving behind their own set of roots in the Land of Israel.
“The First Nations and the Jewish people share so much common ground,” remarked delegation participant Wayne Anderson.
“It’s such an awesome experience to be in the Holy Land and I hope this won’t be my last visit to Israel.”