As Pi Kennedy examined the exhibit dedicated to his life as a trapper on the land, he was immediately drawn to one image hanging at the back of the display room.
“This one’s my favourite,” Kennedy said, pointing to a wintertime photograph of himself driving his team of four large huskies, wearing typical seasonal gear and a red plaid hat. “I like it because of my beard. It’s white! And I like that hat.”
The exhibition shown at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre held its grand opening on Apr. 30, with its guest star in attendance along with an array of community members.
Born Alexander Phillip Kennedy, Pi is one of Fort Smith’s oldest living Métis trappers. Now 88, he first started going on the land with his father in the 1930s as an eight year-old boy. His many stories have been turned into children’s books printed both in English and a host of regional indigenous languages.
Seeing his life commemorated, complete with photos and tales from the land and artifacts from his excursions, and knowing that might help others carry on his traditions makes him happy.
“This is great,” Kennedy said, ready to check out the other pictures. He used his cane to scuffle over to a shot of him playing with one of his dogs – strong, boxy animals that helped him win countless freight races.
“Pi’s sense of humour is evident in the names he gives his dogs,” the plaque reads. “He has one called George Bush and another called Tony Blair – ‘I’m trying to make a leader out of him,’ says Pi. He once had two mean dogs he called Gaddafi and Khomeini.”
This is not the first time Pi’s exhibit has been featured at the museum. It was originally put on display in 2007 after it was pieced together by Libby Gunn and photographer Stuart Barr. When an artist decided to push back their own exhibit by several months this year, curator Rachel Dell decided it would be the perfect opportunity for locals to revisit the life of Pi.
“The exhibit was here so long ago, some people might not know about him,” Dell said.
The 2007 project was only one of several initiatives dedicated to documenting Kennedy’s life. In the 1980s, the Dene Nation featured him in a film about traditional trapping and hunting as a push against Greenpeace’s movement to halt such activities. A few years later, a National Geographic photographer spent several days on the land with Kennedy, snapping 26 cannisters worth of film as the trapper set his lines, went ice fishing and rode across the land with his dogs.
Leading a traditional life
Kennedy got his nickname “Pi” from his father, who died in a tragic accident when Kennedy was a teenager.
“He gave me a couple of nickels to get us some vanilla ice cream. It was his favourite,” Kennedy said. “I came back and he was gone.”
After the death of his father, Kennedy spent most of his time trapping with his uncle René Mercredi. Together they would take to the land for weeks at a time, setting traps and getting into shenanigans on the land; there were a couple of times when Kennedy almost didn’t make it back alive.
“Uncle René was my favourite person,” Kennedy said. “He was a good natured man.”
Kennedy’s trapline extends 150,000 hectares north of Fort Smith, stretching past Augustine Lake. He has two cabins on the line; one at Jackfish Lake – where the community has its annual fishing derby – and one at Oulton Lake, about a two-week dogsled ride out of town, even with his once-impressive team of 12 canines. Now too old to trap, the line has been taken over by his cousin Richard Mercredi.
“I don’t really miss the trapping,” he said. “I do miss fishing. I love eating trout.”
Staying young at heart
He might not take long excursions into the bush anymore, but Kennedy does still take care of himself. After suffering a stroke several years ago, he had to spend time in Stanton Hospital and the Northern Lights special care home relearning to walk.
“He hated being there,” said George Kurszewski, Kennedy’s cousin. “He’d been independent all his life and then he was stuck in there. He was determined to get out, so he built his strength until he did.”
Now Kennedy lives at home with his four large huskies, Jasper, Jack, Roy and Joker. Every night, he feeds them hamburger pieces, admittedly spoiling them.
Between spending time with his beloved pooches and living for baseball season (his favourite team is the Boston Red Sox), Kennedy strives to stay young at heart.
“I’d like to relearn to dance the Red River Jig,” he said. “I’ll keep working my legs. Maybe I’ll be able to do it by the end of the summer.”
The Pi Kennedy exhibit will be showing until May 22.