"My body is here but my spirit is always there": The Innu Language of the Forest
Community of Ekuanitshit, 2007
"My body is here but my spirit is always there." These are the words of Mathieu Mestokosho, in his accounts of his life as a hunter. They clearly express the intimate connection between Innu hunters and their hunting grounds.
The Innu are descendents of a nomadic people who travelled in all directions, from east to west, from north to south, in search of caribou. The Innu of Québec's North Shore, known as Mamit innuat, have always hunted caribou. When they kill an animal, nothing is wasted. It is important to use every part of the animal and to hang the bones in a tree as a sign of respect. As the Elder and great Innu hunter Mathieu Mestokosho says, "The fruit of the hunt is precious. Wasting it is a serious thing." Hunters communicate with the Master of the caribou, Papakassik, in their dreams, or through the songs of the drummer and sometimes when they are in the shaking tent.
The Innu also hunt fur-bearing animals like marten, mink, otter and wolf, exchanging their pelts for supplies like flour, sugar, lard, bullets and hides when they arrive at North West River. This town in Labrador is a gathering place for the Innu where fur trading is carried out. They arrive there in December after five months of travelling in canoes, over portages and on snowshoes. They are glad to see other Innu in North West River and to spend the rest of the winter there with them. In March they start their long journey down to the St. Lawrence River. When the ice breaks up in spring, they take their canoes from where they left them in fall and paddle downstream to the coast (Uinipekut). The Innu now meet once again, sharing the fruit of the hunt at a great gathering, a communal feast.
Still today, the Innu shape their world according to their traditional values of respect, helping each other and sharing. Our people are also caught between two worlds because the youth must be guided in learning the language of the forest, a language they can learn by taking part in traditional activities such as hunting.