Introduction to the Innu
The Innu and their territory
According to Innu oral tradition, the world is an island created by wolverine and mink after a great flood. The archaeological record shows that the Innu and their ancestors have occupied a large portion of Labrador and eastern Quebec for two thousand or more years. The Innu refer to this territory as "Nitassinan."
At the time of contact with Europeans, the Innu had already established an extensive trading and kinship network throughout the Quebec-Labrador peninsula. Ramah chert (a strong quartz material from Ramah Bay in Labrador), pottery and other products were exchanged throughout the territory. Archaeological evidence shows that Ramah chert was traded as far as northeastern United States.
Before settlement in the 1950s, the Innu were organized in small family-based hunting groups that moved from one part of the territory to another on a seasonal basis. In the summer months, they would gather at larger lakes or coastal locations where wildlife resources were plentiful and windy relief from pesky flies could be obtained.
The caribou herds of the peninsula supplied the Innu with clothing, tent covers, babiche for their snowshoes, tools, as well as meat. The caribou also nourished the Innu spiritually. To this day, the caribou master remains the most important of all the beings in the traditional Innu religion .
The oldest Tshishennuat (Elders) remember the days when caribou were speared from canoes as they crossed the Mushuau-shipu (George River). They recall living in shaputuans (multi-family dwellings) that were heated by open fires, hunting partridge with bow and arrow, and wearing caribou-hide clothing.
Innu maps of their territory made for land claims negotiations show innumerable travel routes, camp sites, burials, birth locations, harvest areas for caribou and other wildlife, locations of mythological significance, caribou migration routes, as well as Innu names for many of the lakes and rivers in the territory. These names and maps demonstrate that Labrador and eastern Quebec was not an untouched, unexplored "wilderness" but a cultural landscape that the Innu have lived in for numerous generations.
To the Innu, the land is their history, their culture, and their future. The land is a storehouse of wildlife and natural resources that has sustained them for generations, and which, they hope, will continue to provide for them in future years. Nowadays, this history of life on the land is the source of Innu identity and continues to play an active role in Innu poetry, film, music, crafts and many other forms of creative expression.
The Innu today
Numbering more than 17,000, the Innu - formerly known as Montagnais or Naskapi Indians - inhabit Nitassinan (Labrador and eastern Quebec). They are based in 12 different communities: Natuashish (formerly Utshimassit or Davis Inlet), Sheshatshu, Pakut-shipu, Unaman-shipu, Nutashkuan, Ekuantshu, Uashau-Mani-Utenam, Pessamiu, Essipiu, Mashteuiatsh, Matimekush, and Kauauatshikamatsh. The vast majority of Innu continue to speak their own language called Innu-aimun .
The Innu people have undergone great changes over the last 50 years, as they have become increasingly integrated into the global economy. Formal education and employment are priorities for the younger generations while the Tshishennuat (Elders) stress the importance of maintaining ties to the land and Innu traditions.
Some Innu communities have suffered from serious social problems, and spending time on the land is seen as one way that people can find solutions to these problems. Regaining control over their territory through the negotiation of land claims is important to most Innu people. Sharing in the benefits of resource developments in their territory is also a priority. Certainly, significant challenges have to be met, but the Innu have encountered many difficulties in the past, and have proven to be a very resilient people.