by Trudy Sable and Julia Sable
The Innu lived in bands of related families, surviving from hunting and fishing, and the medicines that came from plants and animals. Caribou were the most important animal to the Innu. They depended on them for food, tools, clothing and shelter made out of caribou skins and sewn with caribou sinew, and even medicines. They also developed a rich tradition of storytelling, dancing, singing and drumming. These were crucial to their survival in the often harsh Labrador tundra. In fact, you cannot separate the ancient Innu culture from their ancestral lands and waterways because everything they did was done in relationship to this landscape.
In the early 1600s Jesuit and Recollect missionaries (later the Oblates) introduced Christianity to the Innu of Western Quebec. The religion spread north and east along with the fur trade, as the colonial government extended its control. Contact with foreign cultures altered the social structure of the different bands with the introduction of new technologies, such as iron needles, guns, cloth, axes, and knives, and diseases that destroyed whole communities . Fur trading posts became a centre of activity for some bands, and families became associated with particular hunting territories, some of which still exist today. (Armitage http://www.er.uqam.ca/nobel/religio/no6/armit.pdf, Tanner http://www.heritage.nf.ca/aboriginal/innu.html)
The Innu of Labrador remain unique from other First Peoples in Canada because they lived on their ancestral lands until the 1960s, when they were settled into two communities, Sheshashiu and Utshimassits (now moved to another community named Natuashish) by an act of the government of Newfoundland.
Unlike other First Nations and Inuit peoples, they were not formally recognized or given status as First Nations until 2002. This was because when Newfoundland and Labrador became part of Canada in 1949, the government did not recognize the Innu and their rights to their lands. Today, many development projects such as mining, hydroelectric dams, highway construction through Nitassinin, and forestry threaten Innu territories and Innu rights to maintain them.
Many elders or tshishennuat who were interviewed for this web site remember growing up on the land, camping besides the lakes and canoeing along the many rivers that acted as their highways throughout Nitassinan. Since settlement, the dances and rituals they described for hunting, particularly caribou, are performed less and less. Christian missionaries did not approve of many of the Innu ways of celebrating and honoring life, so in the communities many events became merged with Christian holidays. Today, many of the grandchildren and great grand children of the tshishennuat grow up going to non-Innu schools, and no longer dancing to the sounds, songs, and rhythms of their ancestral lands.
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