‘Happy place’: Cree couple lives long-held dream to build, live in traditional dome dwelling

For Emily Hester, learning to build a Mitutisânâchinikimikw, or traditional Cree dome dwelling, was about reclaiming her culture. It also ended up bringing back into focus many happy family memories made before she was taken away to residential school at the age of seven. 

The 57-year-old Waskaganish resident, and her husband Hugo Hester, 58, spent time this spring fulfilling a long-held dream of learning to build a Mitutisânâchinikimikw.

The couple cleared the land at the family trapline, a three-hour skidoo ride north of Waskaganish, and collected the needed materials. Then they built the structure with the help of family and local Elders Alex and Margaret Katapatuk — who, Emily added, they were grateful for.

A traditional Mitutisânâchinikimikw is made of bent balsam trees tied together to make a dome. The floor is covered with balsam boughs. In the past, the frame was tied together with tree roots and then covered with birch bark and animal skins, said Hester. And in the middle was a fire pit for cooking. 

Inside the dwelling, Emily and Hugo used nylon rope to tie the frame together and covered it with canvas. They also installed a small wood stove. 

Building and staying in the Mitutisânâchinikimikw for several weeks brought back happy memories for Emily Hester, 57, and her husband Hugo, 58. (Submitted by Emily Hester)

 “Alex said it had been a long time since he last made one, yet he was able to give us proper instructions on how to do it,” Emily said. “He told us how to put the balsam fir trees into the ground and how to bend them toward each other and tie them together.”

Then, Emily and Hugo lived in it for several weeks between mid-April and mid-May and had precious flashbacks of a time before residential school. 

I remembered the happy times.– Emily Hester, Waskaganish resident

“I remembered the happy times of large families living together in such a dwelling and being happy together,” said Emily in Cree.

Both Emily and Hugo said their childhood memories suddenly came back to them — a time when they slept on bough flooring as young children, before they were taken to Bishop Horden Hall residential school in Moose Factory, Ont., some 50 years ago.

Hugo Hester, right, and Emily Hester, left, built the dwelling at the family trapline, a three-hour skidoo ride north of Waskaganish. They cleared the land and collected the young balsam trees and balsam boughs and built the structure with the help of family and local Elders Alex and Margaret Katapatuk. (Submitted by Emily Hester)

“I don’t recall any conflicts with family members even when we lived in large households together, as such in this dome dwelling,” she said.

Calling it her “happy place,” Emily said she became very aware of her surroundings while inside the dwelling. She could hear the birds chirping outside, the wind sometimes blowing, also geese honking as they flew by. 

“It helps many to be in a place like that. You can listen to the Creator, with all that is out there,” said Emily. 

The couple stayed in the dome dwelling for several weeks between mid-April and mid-May. (Submitted by Emily Hester)

Happy to revive the tradition 

Emily said she and Hugo were so happy to be able to put this together for their children and grandchildren, so they  could witness this Cree tradition being reclaimed.  

She added that large families lived together with one stove in a large dwelling “so that they can be comforted together, without the added labour of making another dwelling separately.”

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