Churchill River - Home Page
The battered Innu culture strives to recover
Early photographs show healthy, self-sufficient people
extracting a living from a harsh, but delicate land.
Known to the French and English fur traders as the Montagnais-Naskapi
Indians, the First Nation of Labrador prefers its own
name, Innu Nation.
While the Atlantic coast of Labrador was dominated by
Inuit hunters, the nomadic Innu occupied the interior
and the shores of the St. Lawrence River. They hunted
and traded as far north as the Inuit settlements on Ungava
Bay, eastward as far as Chicoutimi and south to present-day
Sept-Iles. The Innu call their land Nitassinan, which
mean 'Our Land.'
Their land was rocky and impossible to farm, but the
animals of the scrubby boreal forest did provide enough
food and fur to survive. The Mishtashipu (Churchill)
river system provided salmon and other fish to nourish
the Innu. Above all, the Innu followed herds of caribou,
their most important source of food and hides.
At first, European explorers shunned the harsh, apparently
barren land. Jacques Cartier dismissed Labrador as 'the
land God gave Cain,' referring to the Old Testament Biblical
figure condemned to a life of misery for killing his
But the colonists soon discovered that the land of
the Innu was in fact rich in resources. The European
fur trade encouraged the Innu to kill too many animals
for their pelts and hides. As a result, hunting became
very difficult, and Innu families starved. These people
became dependent on the charity of churches and governments
for their survival.
The Hudson's Bay Company seized the richest salmon pools,
keeping the Innu away under threat of death. Later, fishing
privileges were seized by rich sportfishers who used
the law to keep the Innu from the riverbanks they had
used for thousands of years.
The paper industry cleared vast swaths of forest, reducing
the animal habitat. Iron mines in western Labrador brought
a railway and thousands of non-Native residents to the
heart of the Innu homeland in the interior of the plateau.
Most devastating of all, for the Innu's traditional use
of the land, was the construction of a massive power
development at Churchill Falls. The project permanently
flooded much of their hunting and fishing territory and
disrupted ecosystems along the river.
The resource exploitation, combined with the inevitable
introduction of European diseases, almost wiped out Innu
culture. Today, only 1,400 Innu remain, a fraction of
the estimated population before European colonization
in the 1600s.
Anthropologist Peter Armitage, who was employed by the
Innu Nation to study and document their history and land
use, says the Innu may have been related to the extinct
Beothuk First Nation of Newfoundland. European gunfire
and disease completely slaughtered the last known Beothuk.
The last Beothuk person died of tuberculosis in 1829.
The Innu of Labrador were encouraged to abandon their
traditional life on the land and collect in government-built
villages. But, by their own description, the change created
another cultural disaster:
Unfortunately, life in government-built villages turned
out to be a major trauma and cultural shock to the Innu.
Treated like children by missionaries and government
bureaucrats, subject to humiliating racism by their non-aboriginal
neighbours, and punished by Newfoundland hunting regulations,
the Innu fell into a quagmire of rock-bottom self-esteem,
alcohol abuse, family violence, and other forms of cultural
collapse, according to Armitage.
The Innu were never adequately compensated for the loss
of their land and resources. Today, they are struggling
to regain physical and cultural health and to obtain
a fair and just share of the resource wealth of their
land. Their leaders are determined to combine the values
and skills of their traditional life with the best of
While Innu hunters spend months in bush camps hunting
and fishing, their political organization maintains a
worthwhile site on the World Wide Web. Innu leaders work
with non-Native anthropologists like Armitage and other
professionals to protect their interests and secure a
share in the wealth from future resource exploitation.
They are hoping to share in a substantial financial
compensation from developers of a rich nickel mine on
the north coast of Labrador, at Voisey's Bay where their
traditional hunting territory overlaps that of the Inuit.
The Innu are determined to regain their self-sufficiency.
They want financial compensation for their land so that
they can develop their own businesses based on the resources
of their land. Their leaders believe Innu businesses
and jobs can be created from tourism and outfitting for
hunting and fishing expeditions.
The big issues for Innu leaders today are their negotiation
of a land claim, the negative effects of the boom in
mining and prospecting, low-level military flights over
their caribou hunting lands, and large-scale tree cutting
that is being proposed by paper producers.
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