At the suggestion of her inquisitive teen, filmmaker and educator Janine Windolph ventures from Saskatchewan to Quebec with her two children and younger sister, tracing their familial origins to the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi. For the young adults, Corwyn and Dawlari, meeting their distant relatives and great-auntie Irene for the first time is a momentous occasion.
Illuminating heavy and heartening historical ties, against the scenic backdrop of Waswanipi’s natural beauty, their Elders offer newfound interdependence and hands-on learning, transforming this humble visit into a sensory-filled expression of reclamation and resilience. As the family embraces time-honoured ways of seeing the land, chooses to hear and sit with stories of the past, and gathers to prepare and share a meal together, their individual perspectives mesh to forge a path of deep and necessary truth telling.
Our Maternal Home lovingly establishes a heart-centred form of resistance to confront and heal from the impacts of cultural disconnection, making space for what comes next. In her latest offering Windolph once again cultivates sacred connections, just as she did in her 2019 short documentary, Stories Are in Our Bones, when she took Corwyn and Dawlari fishing with their kokum (grandmother) in northern Treaty 6 territory. These films speak to each other as story bundles, building upon a foundation of Traditional Teachings and rediscovery. Windolph’s works invite a holistic understanding of lineage and Ancestral knowledge, blended between worlds and across generations, like medicine bound by the sinew of kinship.
Can you tell us about your background and where you come from?
Janine: I was born and raised in La Ronge, Saskatchewan, in the Treaty 6 area. I grew up there until I was about 11, and that’s where my father’s Woodland Cree side resides. So I feel very connected to that territory. I also have a home in Treaty 4 Territory in Regina, Saskatchewan, where my children were born and raised. For three years now we’ve also been working in Banff, Alberta, as the Director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Treaty 7. I’m a member of Waswanipi Cree Nation, where my maternal family resides in Northern Quebec. I think some would say I’m lost [laughs] but I feel like I’m always just finding the way and always coming full circle. I always go back home—to all my homes.
Collectively, your films form what you have referred to as story bundles. For those who don’t know, what do you mean by this?
Janine: When you think of traditional Eurocentric narratives, there’s the idea of this three-act structure. But as an Indigenous person, what I learned growing up is that we have our medicine bag and in it, it’s these different stories that we can pick and choose to share, and it’s always ongoing. We’re always creating story bundles; we’re always gifted story bundles. The idea is that rather than there being one arc of truth and one linear journey, each story bundle encompasses many different perspectives and angles. I always say it’s like looking at the stars, and somehow you recognize a constellation, and that’s this bigger story, but you can appreciate each little star on its own. The more you watch these story bundles we have created with these three films, the more of a holistic and fulsome understanding you gain. My family has many story bundles, some of which we are sharing through films, and as you watch each one it’s like peeling an onion, and you start to get deeper. Once the work has been shown publicly, the conversations with the public that the film fosters, this also adds to the shape of the bundles. It has an impact on audiences, community and family.
Your newest film, Our Maternal Home (2023), was made in collaboration with your teenaged children, Corwyn and Dawlari. How did the project start?
Janine: As a director, I take an idea or concept, so for example, in Our Maternal Home, Dawlari’s desire to go home and meet my family was at his request. So, I proceeded thoughtfully in my production schedule. And instead of a traditional script and shot list, we worked with family and community members in Waswanipi to curate a series of activities. Then we all went on the journey of experiencing those activities together. At the beginning of the film, we witness my children meeting their Great Auntie Irene for the first time, who is like another kokum to them, and she then acts as our guide, bringing us through these activities. In this way she is also contributing to the content and the experience of the film.
Dawlari, Our Maternal Home was inspired by your desire to travel from Saskatchewan to visit your family in Waswanipi Cree Nation in Northern Quebec and explore your maternal roots. Why was this important for you?
Dawlari: I think it was important to make the journey, because I know my relatives in La Ronge and in Regina. And after cleaning many graves with my mom and offering tobacco across Saskatchewan, I realized that my family spent lots of time honouring relatives who are now deceased, and I felt they were no longer able to communicate to us. It was also very eye-opening to see where our Ancestors once walked, scavenged and hunted, but we really wanted teachings from living relatives, and to celebrate life.
Why is the more collaborative form of filmmaking important to you and what does employing this method look like for you as a director?
Janine: My children have always been actively involved in my films on screen, and with Our Maternal Home they were also very active behind the scenes, helping to guide how the story unfolded. My first film, Life Givers, came from my desire to honour my daughter. My second film, Stories Are in Our Bones, was born from Corwyn’s desire to learn how to fish with their kokum, which brought us to La Ronge to fish with my mother, Marian Otter. And now, our new film, Our Maternal Home, was sparked by Dawlari expressing his wish to connect with our maternal family of Waswanipi Cree Nation in Quebec.
As far as working collaboratively with family and community members, even if I’m the director, all the subjects and the community and family behind the scenes shaped the outcome of each film, because of the deep way they all participated and contributed to the film. Everyone had active roles.
Corwyn, your mother’s 2019 film, Stories Are in Our Bones, focused on you and Dawlari learning to fish with your kokum Marian up in La Ronge, and it was your desire to learn how to fish that led to the film being made. Why was it so important for you to learn how to fish, and what does it mean to you to have been taught this skill by your kokum?
Corwyn: I thought fishing looked fun and relaxing when watching family in La Ronge. And I thought providing fresh food for others is a pretty cool skill to have. And my kokum always said she would teach me. I was glad that we could bond over fishing.
You were also both very involved behind the camera in the pre-production, production and post-production of the films. Can you speak about what type of work you did behind the scenes and what it was like to work so closely with your family on a project like this?
Dawlari: On the latest film, I generally tried to do small tasks, like helping pick berries on screen, helping my Auntie Annie and my mother cook for the feast. Also learning how to cook ducks and beaver over an open fire with them. I also helped wind down production at the end of the day, with debriefing crew. For post-production, it was really just fun seeing the whole thing come together. Although in editing, it was kind of rough having to make big cuts of scenes. But I think it worked out pretty well. Working with my family is pretty normal to me, so I felt good about the whole project from beginning to end.
Corwyn, in Stories Are in Our Bones, you visit La Ronge for the first time to fish with your kokum Marian, and then in Our Maternal Home, you are visiting Waswanipi for the first time and meeting your family there. How were the two experiences different for you?
Corwyn: While visiting La Ronge, it was fun because I was younger, and it was significant to me, getting to see the place where my mom grew up. At that time, I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that I was on camera. When visiting Waswanipi, it was cool getting to meet Auntie Irene, knowing how much she supported and cared about us before we met.
What was the significance of ending your film with the feast? In fact, all your films involve feasting. Why is that important?
Janine: The idea of feasting is an act of reciprocity. With Our Maternal Home, at the end of our filming we knew we would feast with the Elders. And so, we hosted a community feast. In the film you see us on the journey of gathering these ingredients on the land and learning how to prepare and cook them. At the end of the film, what you don’t see is us, the crew, putting their camera down, and being part of the community. We all feasted; we all sat with community. And what was also not captured was that the community gifted our crew, and so they acknowledged us, as a ‘thank you for coming and taking the care and time for this film.’ They felt like we filmed in a good way that was not extractive or intrusive. It was about how can we collaboratively tell a story.
Can you speak to the unique decision to film the spirit plate being made, and explain what this plate is for, to those who might not know?
Janine: So, I don’t say what the spirit plate is in the film, but visually, you realize that it’s a spirit plate when my Auntie Irene puts the tobacco on the plate and then I offer it to the fire. So, while we feast with community, we also acknowledge the Ancestors that are in the Territory. Sometimes it’s important to be able to share some teachings and to show them. Also, there are things we chose not to share in the film out of respect for protocol, like a prayer song. In this context, I wanted to include this offering, to allow for a little bit of teaching for our younger generations.
Dawlari, at the end of Our Maternal Home your mother states that it is now yours and Corwyn’s responsibility to embody the teachings and stories that have been shared with you in Waswanipi. And she challenges you to keep those connections going forward. What does it feel like to carry that?
Dawlari: That is a big question. I am still learning how to carry that responsibility, and it will take some time to do so. I will begin the journey step-by-step. And in the future, I will plan to make more time to visit Waswanipi and keep learning from my family there.
Corwyn, you and Dawlari both grew up in the city, and both Our Maternal Home and Stories Are in Our Bones focus on your processes of reconnection to community in La Ronge and Waswanipi.
Do you have any advice to urban Indigenous youth who are wanting to reconnect or are just starting their reconnection journey and might be struggling or feeling afraid or nervous?
Corwyn: I don’t have any real advice around reconnecting to family, other than maybe to keep in mind that connecting the first time is tough to do in a film. Also, I do hope others enjoy the film and feel inspired to do some reconnecting of their own.
Dawlari, what does ‘home’ mean to you?
Dawlari: ‘Home’ means to me: somewhere you can be unapologetically yourself, and a place to rest your head whenever times are rough.
Written and Directed by
Director of Photography
1st Assistant Cinematographer
Devon Neeposh Ottereyes
Additional support by
Devon Neeposh Ottereyes
Electric Mule Pictures Inc.
Sound Design & Mix
Studio Operations Manager
Katja De Bock
Special thanks to
Devon Neeposh Ottereyes
Cree First Nation of Waswanipi
Waswanipi Cultural Village
This production was filmed in the traditional territories of the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi.
Produced by the National Film Board of Canada