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Churchill River - Home Page

The battered Innu culture strives to recover

More on the Churchill River:
Churchill River:
The price of power

Cold comfort:
How the tiny ptarmigan survives winter

Low-level fright:
Fighter planes buzz the caribou herds

Life in Happy Valley-Goose Bay

Home Page:
The battered Innu culture strives to recover

The Lonely Season:
Traditional bush life in Labrador

Mega Water:
Churchill Falls generating station

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 brother Abel.

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 modern technologies.

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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