By Leigh Nunan, Community Journalism Trainer
Before I’ve even set foot in Ogoki Post, I am met with a friendly barrage of questions.
“Are you a nurse?” “A teacher?” “Social worker?” “Resource management?” “Mining?”
I am returning for a second tenure as a community journalism trainer with JHR’s Indigenous Reporters Program. Eight months ago I was a brand new trainer arriving in the nearby community of Eabametoong First Nation. I was new to the job and new to living and working in the north – just getting my bearings in more way than one.
Here in Ogoki, home to about 300 members of Marten Falls First Nation, a small group is gathered on the tarmac, lobbing guesses up at me as I climb down from the airplane. Their playfulness immediately puts me at ease, although it seems to be more of a fun game than an actual interest in my business here. “Yeah, I’m a teacher,” I concede, “but not with the school.”
It turns out they have come to meet the plane in hopes of enlisting the pilot for a rescue mission. A community member, Tommy, had landed his small aircraft on a lake some distance away, and his landing gear went right through the softening April ice – he’s stranded.
My contact in the community is caught up in the rescue mission too, back at the band office. She isn’t here to pick me up. But a new ride is arranged for me in no time. I don’t get half a second to worry that I might be stranded too.
It turns out that Allen, my ride into town, is the nephew of my good friend Charlotte, the woman I boarded with back in Eabametoong. And just like that, before I even make it to the front door, I am less a stranger here than I was through months of my first posting.
Within days, I find myself invited to dinner, a beading circle, a walk in the bush. Within weeks I have plucked my first goose and have established myself as the underdog in every cribbage game.
A teacher, who has been here some time already, asked me how I managed to get invited for a goose dinner so quickly, a coveted and apparently elusive invitation for staff from outside the community.
There are two parts to the answer. The first is that it’s about relationships: the relationships and the reputation I built in Eabametoong carried with me to Ogoki. The second part is that it’s about culture, about staying mindful of the fact that as a newcomer to the community you can’t just go about business as you would elsewhere. You have to pay attention to the way things are done here.
I was invited for dinner because I went visiting. Visiting is a part of the culture. It’s how people socialize. You get up, leave your house and go to someone else’s. If they are home then chances are excellent that you’ll be invited in for a cup of tea. And if someone else should happen to bring by a quartet of geese while you’re drinking your tea, you’re likely to be conscripted into plucking them and your afternoon tea becomes a goose dinner.
While there’s a lot that is familiar now about coming back to this job, and back to the region, I am very much still new here. Much of my work this first month has involved learning to navigate here, getting to know the community and what I can do for them.
There’s so much I’ve yet to learn. Just today I was told, very gently, that I tend to make too much eye contact. It’s a simple thing, but it could make the difference as to whether someone interested in my program decides they’re comfortable actually working with me.
People joke with me that in a community of only a few hundred I must know everyone already, but the truth is that no one is going to come from outside and truly understand a place and it’s people, which brings me back to the core of what I’m doing here. I never feel like I’m on steady ground, writing about a place I am so new to. But I can feel sure in the work I am doing here with JHR, to help the people of this place to tell their own stories, with the richness and depth of understanding that can only come from being of the place and living in the culture.
It is such an honour to be back, doing this work again and being welcomed into a new community. I can’t wait to see what the next months will bring, to get to know the people of Ogoki and to hear the stories they will tell.
As for Tommy and his airplane, the rescue effort was very successful and both are safely out of the ice. It would make for a great story. Through training community members on journalism skills, I hope you’ll get to hear it and other stories like it soon.