The Innu 1989-1996
Since at least the time of Christ, and until the middle of the last century, people calling themselves the Innu subsisted as nomadic hunters and gatherers throughout the northern extent of a region officially known as the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula. For the Innu, this place was and remains Nitassinan, meaning "Our Homeland".
Perhaps because of their geographical remoteness, the land-and-caribou-oriented Innu succeeded—as did their genetically and culturally distinct sea-and-seal-oriented neighbours, the Inuit—in escaping or deferring many of the negative impacts of Euro-colonization that had afflicted indigenous peoples elsewhere in the Americas for centuries, until the 1950s. Thereafter the Innu began succumbing to an accelerating barrage of onslaughts:
• a sense of powerless due to the invasion on land by Canadian, US and European military bases and in the air by a NATO fighter-jet training program,
• additional encroachment and ecological damage to their hunting grounds by domestic and multi-national forestry, mining and hydro-electric interests,
• social, cultural and spiritual erosion caused by government-run residential schools, alcohol distribution, and commercial television,
• the criminalization of most of their essential cultural practices such as subsistence wood harvesting and caribou hunting,
• and with the damnation of their traditional cosmology by the Catholic Church, life became hell on earth.
Forced into unnaturally permanent, multi-clan communities, and moreover deprived of proper housing and amenities or control over their lives, the Innu, cycled deeper into anomie and social pathology.
Fuelled as I was by an uncertain guilt stemming from my settler roots and the memory of my childhood best friend, a Chippewa boy killed in a grisly accident, I became sensitized to the Innu struggle and would research and document it and their nascent, if halting, resurgence for much of a decade, from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.
In the earliest years, the situation was dire. “Genocide”, a term alleged by some government, military and right-wing media to be a hyperbolic propaganda creation of left-wing agitators, was a real and present fear in the hearts of some Innu leaders who implored me personally to relay their stories, honestly and unflinchingly. So brutal was life that four of those leaders who were roughly my age or younger would die prematurely.
Notwithstanding that support in the community it would be a gross distortion to suggest that this middle-class white guy from the city and his camera were well accepted. My presence was at best tenuous. Many Innu never trusted me, some openly resented me and threats came often especially when the booze flowed. Meanwhile on the ground life was often pure wretchedness. Whole families of children burned in house fires, gas sniffing and youth suicide were epidemic, and men and women died young for stupid reasons. Death and despair seemed to be everywhere then.
For some, however, moments of hope began perforating the grinding brutality of daily existence as a few of the remaining country-raised elders began enabling younger Innu to reconnect to the land. Nevertheless, even families trying to make a recovery in the country often felt terrorized and chased off by low-flying NATO fighter jets. In some camps, Wildlife officers whisked the hunters—the camp food providers—away to jail, confiscating as evidence not only the fresh caribou meat that was to have replenished the camp food supply for the elders, women and children who were left behind, but also the equipment they would need to fend for themselves.
Back in the city, indigenous artists attacked my whiteness and politically correct arts council juries dismissed my work as "appropriation of voice". Yet nearly no one else was telling these stories and meanwhile people—friends and close acquaintances—kept dying.
Nevertheless, hardly immune to the implicit power imbalance of my privileged outsider position, and conflicted over both my ability and the propriety of the role I'd been entrusted with to wholly and fairly represent such a complex story, I tried supporting one Innu friend, a promising photographer, with equipment, supplies and coaching so he might pursue his on documentation of his community’s affairs. And I did likewise with another young Innu man who had a strong sense of artistic flare and story telling. Both struggled, their efforts often undermined by some upwelling of their own demons, or those of other close family, and I never did see any of their photographs.
One early spring evening in 1996, after a feast of fresh trout, partridge stew and bannock prepared by Innu elder Elizabeth “Tshaukuesh” Penashue and consumed in the fragrance of her balsam-bough-floored tent, I departed the Penashue clan camp on the shore of Lake Minaipi, where I had just spent two laughter-filled weeks, little realizing that in that moment my fieldwork had ended.
Within a year the then newly forming Aboriginal People’s Television Network would leap-frog indigenous story telling beyond the editorial gate-keepers of a non-Aboriginal, urban and consumer-driven media oligarchy, and directly into the living rooms of a broader public. If as a casualty of this my funding dried up, I am consoled that finally indigenous peoples in remote communities throughout the land suddenly had the means of telling their own stories, of sharing and validating unique identities and similar histories, and propagating successful pathways to self-governance and indigenous-made recovery strategies from the deep wounds of colonization.
A decade or so later, with the ubiquity of digital and social media, the Innu have become as empowered to get their story out as has any group with access to the World Wide Web. On a whim recently, I went looking for the little baby in my photo of the abandoned children on a bed in an empty white room. In a very few clicks, I found not only her Facebook profile picture in which she is cuddling her own little baby in bed, but a wealth of online albums of family, friends and community snapshots. Meanwhile the Innu elder and activist, Tshaukuesh, who prepared my last supper, has proudly maintained a blog on the wherein she introduces herself:
"I am an Innu woman living in Sheshatshui, Labrador. For many years I have committed my life to protecting the environment for my children and grandchildren. For over 13 years I have led a canoe trip and spring snowshoe walk for my people. Even when it’s hard, I go. Nothing stops me because “nutshimit” (the bush/country) is very important for our culture. Before I’m gone I want to see some change, I want to help my people and teach the children..."
If the seeds of such self-representation were present during the years I documented the Innu, the means of their germination had not yet revealed themselves. There were stories that needed to be told in those days, by anyone who could tell them. This work is just one human being’s best effort to represent that dark age when those living it couldn't.