I Dreamed the Animals: A Hunter's Journal
I was born at Emish [Voisey’s Bay] close to the salt water in Labrador. I was just a little boy when we moved to Upatik [Okpatik Island area]. I spent most of my life with my parents in Upatik, and I still go back to there. Sometimes I visit my father’s campsite, but it’s hard to see it because it’s all covered with grass and moss.
Once, in the summer, we didn’t have anything to eat. One night my father started to sing his traditional song. I didn’t know why he sang it in the night. The next morning it was a very nice day, and the lake where we camped was calm. We hadn’t paddled very far when we saw a caribou, and there we stopped. Since I was just a young boy, I began to wonder why those things happen. We didn’t have anything yesterday, now there was caribou. Then I began to think, “Maybe that is why my father was singing last night.”
I didn’t ask why we got caribou that day, and he didn’t tell me. I guess he did this just to show how much he cared, not only for a small child, but also for every one of us. He sang that song to get his caribou the next day, to support and feed us. As long as there was caribou around, my father could sing his hunting song and get his caribou the next day. Even if there were no caribou around, he could still do things to get porcupine, partridge, and fish. A person does not have to be a shaman to do those things. If he is really sorry to see his children hungry and suffering, he has power to do something to find wild animals.
We always expected that my father would get something for us to eat. Sometimes we had only bread to eat while we were waiting. If my father didn’t show up by evening, my mother told us that he must have seen something. Late in the night, if he still did not show up, my mother knew that he had something for us.
People got hungry because they didn’t respect the animals. The spirits would know when they are not respected by the Innu. It was very, very sad when those things happened. Therefore, a person who hunted for his family had to be careful how he handled the animals. For example, if you didn’t handle the fish in the proper way, the fish spirit would not give you any more fish. It’s like you drove the fish away. With every animal it depends on how you handled the meat or fish. The fish and the porcupine spirits are the two who most want to be respected. In Innu-aimun [Innu language] we would say, nakatuenimushu, meaning, “They want to protect themselves.” If you don’t respect a fish or a porcupine, they won’t give anything in return.
I have a song for the fish spirit, Missinak. I used to sing it when I lived at Sango Bay. After I sang that song, I went hunting and it gave me good luck. I usually got two or three otters, and I believe that the song is very special. As far as I can remember I’ve killed almost 70 otters in my life as a hunter.
We were at Kapapisht [Big Bay] when I first killed a black bear. There was a big crowd of Innu at the bay. All the meat was shared in one tent, and everybody was invited to eat. I was happy too, and I thought, “Is this what I am always going to be?” The bears I killed were always in my mind because I was very happy and really proud of myself. I’m sure other young men felt the same way when they first killed an animal. After that, my father never gave me any more advice. I was on my own. Today, I never go hunting anymore; my past is gone. I had only one otter last spring in my net at Upatik.
Sometimes a person could kill a caribou in one shot, even if it was at a long range. If it was not a gift from the caribou spirit, you would never kill the animal, no matter how good you were with the gun. You would miss the animal you shot no matter how many times you fired. The animal would still get away. If it escaped that meant that you had no gift from the animal spirit. That doesn’t mean that the animal itself wanted to get away or wanted to live. It meant that the animal spirit who is in charge of that animal didn’t want you to kill it for some reason. If you killed an animal, that meant that it was a gift from the animal spirit. People used to look at the bullets that killed the caribou and they said that if the caribou spirit didn’t catch the bullet, that meant no gift from the caribou spirit, and if the caribou spirit caught the bullet, that meant that Innu would receive a gift from the caribou spirit. It means that they would kill some caribou. The same holds true for other animals, like partridge, porcupine, seal, and otter. Innu elders said that every animal can see the bullet when it comes towards him.
Makushan (an Innu feast) is our way of life, and it comes from wild animals. I always saw my father preparing a little Makushan with any bones that come from the caribou, and especially with the caribou neck. Once we were in the country, in the area called Kanakashkuaikanishit. He killed a caribou and he brought the caribou neck to our camp. We were very hungry, and this was the first time that he had killed a caribou after we had been starving for many nights. My mother probably knew why my father suddenly had the luck of killing a caribou. I was just a young boy and I didn’t yet go with my father when he was hunting. My mother boiled the caribou’s neck, the only thing that my father brought back. He didn’t bring the rest of the meat even though he had killed the caribou very close to the camp. After my mother had cooked the caribou neck and she had taken it out from the stove, my mother gave the cooked caribou neck to my father. The rest of the children and I were really hungry by just looking at the caribou’s neck. My father placed a cloth on the floor where he was going to eat the food. After he had tasted the meat, he cut a piece of it and threw it into the open fire, only the meat, and didn’t say anything. The other boys and I didn’t know why he was doing that. Before my father had killed the caribou we were very hungry. We only ate berries, and we caught a bit of fish to eat. But after having done Makushan with the caribou neck and the burning offering, he always killed the caribou when he went out hunting. Sometimes he killed three or four caribou. The fall began, and we never starved again. Maybe my father had something in him for killing the caribou. Maybe my father had used something important, like his dream, or did whatever the powerful hunter did.
Children do not respect Maskushan anymore, especially when it is held in the school gym. I watched the children eating: some just took the plate and spoon and helped themselves. They just walked around in the gym, eating and laughing. It is better to have Makushan in tents than in a big building. In the past, Makushan was held in a large tent. Sometimes, with a big tent, two stoves were needed. Everyone sat in a circle inside the tent, and children sat together with their parents. No children were allowed to fool around, like going in and out of the tent, during the Makushan. The mothers would say to their children “Don’t move around, and don’t drop it on the floor.” Once we had Makushan at the school, and the priest didn’t try to stop the children from running around, maybe because the priest himself didn’t quite understand that makushan is a very special ritual.
Another important ceremony in the country is the “shaking tent.” You heard the spirits talk during the ceremony, and you had to believe it. I have seen how the shaking tent is made. It had to be inside another larger tent, and it had four poles, one in each corner.
Sometimes poles from a juniper tree were used. In addition to its four corner poles, it had a small pole called uauiapitshikan, which was bent into a circle and placed on the top of the shaking tent. The name uauiapitshineu means “to make something into a circle.” Female caribou skins were needed: four of them sewn together, with a fifth on the top. In the country, most of the tents were set up facing the sunrise.
Once you finished the shaking tent, you invited the shaman to come, and when he came to the entrance he didn’t go inside right away, but went around it before he entered. As soon as he got inside, the shaking tent started to move by itself. Then Mishtapeu, which means “Big Man,” or “Large Man,” and is a spirit, came into the shaking tent and spoke to the shaman.
An ordinary person could not talk to the animals in the shaking tent, only a shaman could do that. A shaman could see Mishtapeu and other beings, like animals, entering the tent. You could hear Mishtapeu patting the shaman on his back. Mishtapeu called the shaman “my grandson.” After a while, people were listening to the animal spirit. Every animal’s spirit who talked could be understood because they talked through Mishtapeu as an interpreter, who spoke in Innu-aimun. If you had seen a shaking tent you would be surprised by what you heard. You would hear all kinds of animal spirits singing and talking to the shaman. You would also hear someone singing with the drum. That’s what the animal spirits sound like. In shaking tents you should see the hands of Mishtapeu touching the caribou skin that covers the shaking tent. Mishtapeu would point to where he saw the caribou. If you could see his finger pointed to the lower part of shaking tent, this meant that Mishtapeu saw caribou not very far from the camp. If his finger pointed to the upper part, then he saw caribou a long way from camp.
People did many different things to find out if there would be a successful hunt in the near future. For example, they scraped all the meat off the black bear kneecap, called mashkutshitikan. Then they put it in a hat stove [a tall wood stove with a decorative “hat” on the top] and said, “See if it shoots something. If it shoots, good luck might come to us.” If it moves, or “shoots,” as we also call it, it means we will get something. If the bear kneecap doesn’t move, it means we will get nothing.
A fish jaw was also used when people hoped for luck. Only the jaw of a lake trout was used. One person threw the fish jaw into the air and said, “Are you going to give us some food?” If the jaw landed teeth down, it meant no luck. At the second throw, we said to the jaw, “Will there be any caribou for us?” If it faced down, it meant no caribou. If it still faced down on the third throw, that meant we wouldn’t get anything that day. People always found a way to find out if there was going to be a successful hunt.
Myths are important to hunting, too. Some of them really help Innu to find the animals they are looking for. People sometimes use the myth about the boy who married a caribou woman to find caribou. One person would tell that story, and the next day they would find caribou. The same with porcupine. If there is no porcupine in the country, some people would say, “Tell the myth about porcupine. Maybe we will find porcupine.” After people told myths about the porcupine, they would sometimes kill one of the animals the next day.
When I was just a boy I used to ask my father to tell me myths, and I learned a lot of them from him. Like today, young people hear the stories from us. Hunting, trapping, anything that we do today has come from our ancestors. The myths were around a long time before our great-great grandparents were born. We didn’t make up our own stories; the myths have been there for a long time. I don’t know from how far back. In very old myths we are told how the animals used to live. The stories tell us that the animals were like human beings, and they ate meat and fish. It is also said in the myths that the animals lived in tents and used fire for heating. In the myth, the animals survived by fire.
When people were starving they used their dreams to find food to eat. They would ask themselves, “What am I going to do to find something to eat?” and then maybe the person who was starving thought about the caribou spirit, Katipenimitak, or the spirit already knew what the person was thinking about. Sometimes the person found a little food to eat. The hunter may have all kinds of dreams. I dreamed the animals and then I went out hunting.
Women can dream, too. Any woman who had experience in making things for her husband, like if she’s good at lacing snowshoes, would have the same kind of dreams as the men do. She could dream about anything, like caribou or porcupine. I know white people have dreams too. Innu don’t dream every night, only once in a while. But the shamans dreamt a lot. They dreamt about everything. But a person didn’t have to be a shaman to use his dreams.
A small child shouldn’t tell anyone about his or her dreams. People used to say that if a small child kept telling you the same dream he had, that might bring bad luck to him. I saw it before, when a child wanted to tell anyone about this dream, his mother would always stop him. Another story I heard from the elders was that if a child kept crying, for no reason, and if you couldn’t make him stop crying, then something was going to happen to him or to his relatives.
Sometimes a person might dream about his gun. For example, once I dreamt that my gun was very dangerous. It was a brand new gun. I had killed over 20 caribou with that gun and never missed once. When we moved to Kapikuanipanut-natuashu. I dreamt about my gun. Before I had the dream I thought my gun was the best gun I had ever had. When I dreamt about my gun, I dreamt I was hunting, and I saw some caribou, and when I tried to shoot them, I noticed that the barrel of my gun had a hole in it, and the bullet wouldn’t go through. I thought it might bring us bad luck. Once I heard some elders saying, “If you dream about something belonging to you, even if it’s something new, don’t hold on to it, but give it to someone else. It doesn’t matter if it’s new, just give it to someone. If you give it away, nothing is going to happen to you, but if you keep it, you might die, or an accident might happen.” When I remembered what the elders had said to me, I had to give my gun away.
Today I’m still alive, but I was suffering for one and a half years in Seshatshiu, and I was sent to St. Anthony’s hospital. If I hadn’t given the gun away, I would probably have died. I was sick, but I survived. I was lucky I gave that gun away. The dream about my gun was related to my sickness. Maybe all my dreams gave me strength and helped me to recover. The dreams are very helpful to the Innu people.
Life was hard in the country, especially when we ran out of food and people couldn’t find any caribou. Sometimes Innu could find fresh tracks of caribou, and as they continued to follow the tracks some of them disappeared. You would see where the others went, and soon you noticed that you followed only one or two caribou. When this happened, hunger was on the way. Some people said that the caribou must have lifted to the air.
If a person killed 10 or 20 caribou he had to make sure that he skinned them all. If you just opened the stomach and took the guts out, the caribou would freeze, and it would take a few days inside in the tent before you could skin the caribou. So it was better to skin the caribou before it froze. One caribou skin could be used as a mattress and another as a blanket. But people had to be very careful how they used the caribou skin as a blanket. They said that if two caribou skins froze together when you slept, you would never be able to get up, so people who used the caribou skins as a mattress and a blanket had to know how to use them properly. The person who used caribou skins as a mattress didn’t have to keep the fire going all night. He slept through the night, and when he got up he made the fire, and took off his socks to dry them. He had to make sure that his moccasins were not wet. If his socks and moccasins were wet he couldn’t tell if his feet were frostbitten; if the laces were too tightly tied on the snow shoes a person would get cold feet. The laces had to be slackened a bit to feel very comfortable when you wore snowshoes. I felt very comfortable when I walked with snowshoes on. I felt a lot faster with snowshoes on. I loved to walk in the woods or across the marshes when I walked. I would look at the frames of my snowshoes. Every step I made looked great. But today when I walk I feel like I’m tripping all the time. Maybe I’m getting old. I heard an elder by the name of Shaniss say to one of his sons, “Don’t ever wish to get old. To be old is to suffer, especially when you can’t walk. If you are old and can’t walk, the best treatment is a steam tent.”
In the past, parents and children used to go to the country together. The children used to know all the travel routes. Now, the young people don’t know any travel routes because they travel by air. If young people today were flown into the bush, and if they tried to get back to Utshimassit [New Davis Inlet] by foot, they wouldn’t know the way, and they might get lost.
If a young person carried a canoe over his head, on a portage, he might find it heavy and hard to carry, and when he came to the next pond, he might just drop it into the water. Besides that, he might find it hard to sit in the canoe, because the shoes worn today are hard, not comfortable. He could only walk a short distance, and get tired easily because no one taught him how the canoe should be portaged. Now young people use outboard motors to hunt in the summer, and in the winter they use Ski-doos. In the next generation, the young people won’t know anything about the traditional ways of life.
Young adults don’t know anything about the caribou spirit. Many children go to school but teachers only teach them white people’s curriculum, which is good for their future in a way. But they don’t teach them anything about the Innu way of life.
The young children don’t understand or read Innu writing or how to name certain things in the Innu language. They only know a few words of written Innu-aimun. When my two young grandsons were between the ages of six and twelve, I asked them to name certain things and say them in Innu-ainum, or to read Innu writing. They didn’t understand or know how to say them in Innu-aimun. They really had problems with the names of animals and some parts of their anatomy.
When I ask my two older grandsons, Thomas and Jean-Baptiste, they understand certain questions well, and they know almost all the names of the body parts of the caribou. The also read Innu-aimun well, and they know both languages. The children shouldn’t try to live as white people do. In the school there is no Innu history, only the white man’s way is taught in the school.
Today, the past is all gone. We have new ways of traveling, like with Ski-doos and boats. The past is gone for the children today. A long time ago, the children knew their culture, like paddling the canoe. They knew the old ways. Today, the people spend their time in Utshimassit. In the past, the children went to the country with their parents in canoes. The young women knew how to make tents from canvas. Today, girls don’t know how to make tents, and they don’t learn how to clean porcupines. Maybe some day they will skin a porcupine and take out the meat only, without putting it in the fire first. They will live just like the white man. The people in the past sang with the drum. The hunter was very strong and powerful. Today there are no young men and women who can sing, and I don’t see any young men or women going to sleep and having dreams. The children are lost; they don’t know anything about our culture.
When Tshishennish Pasteen and I were traveling across the bays by boat he always said to me, “I am very lonely and sad looking at the old places where I used to live with my parents.” I felt the same way when I traveled by boat. I felt very sad and lonesome when I looked at the mountains at Sango Bay. We used to live at Sango Bay. We were very happy to do the things that we always did, like hunting and fetching wood. We remembered the happiest and best years of our lives and such places. We remembered the times we paddled in our canoes, and when we landed after having paddled from the interior.
Everyone was always happy and we felt free. When one person stopped for tea, no one passed by: they all stopped together for tea. If there was any fish, people had to cook it in one big cooking pot, and the fish was shared with all the people. People used to joke with each other. When there were many families, two separate fires had to be made outside for tea. I can very well remember that place called Kanutamuanut-natuashu. We used to camp close to the pond. I can almost picture it in my mind, the trail from the river to the top of the hill. I remember all the shapes of the hills, the winding trail, brooks and ponds. When I think about those hills and ponds, it’s like I see them today. I can never forget those places. I want to see the old camps where we used to camp years ago. I know the mountains well, and I know their shape. When I spend time at my house, lying in bed, I always remember the trails up in the mountains. I always remember the old places where I have walked.
This article is adapted from I Dreamed the Animals: Kaniuekutat, the Life of an Innu Hunter, by Georg Henriksen. The book was published in 2009 by Berghahn Books (www.berghahnbooks.com).
Kaniuekutat was 73 when he told these stories to his grandson Thomas, hoping to help the boy understand the traditional Innu way of life.