Rights Talk, Respect Talk


A Walk to Protect the Earth

The snow was compact and my toboggan slid across it more easily than I'd expected. I pulled a plastic sled mounted on an unwaxed snowboard, and more than 120 pounds in gear and supplies enclosed by a tarp and secured with a thin nylon cord. The Innu walk participants pulled wooden or aluminum toboggans that held belongings twice as heavy as mine and tightly roped down, covered with anything from recycled canvas strips to clear plastic. It occurred to me later that the Innu were planning to live in the nutssimat (country), while I was prepared only to camp. We were dressed uniformly in hand-made caribou moccasins and snowshoes prepared by a number of elders. We had made it to the trail outside Happy Valley, and our 150-mile walk to Minipi was about to begin.

For the next month, Tshakuesh Elizabeth Penashue, an elder from the Innu settlement of Sheshatshiu, Labrador, led between nine and 14 Innu, a local physician, and me on the walk through the Mealy Mountains, along melting streams such as the Traverspine (Wabashibis or "Rabbit Brook") and rivers like the Kenamu, and across frozen lakes and marshes. Elizabeth had done the walk three times already with other family, friends, and community members and was acquainted with the terrain. The meshkanu (path) was something we created in endless hours of snowshoeing and toboggan hauling, a snowmobile at the lead on rougher days.


We pulled our belongings in battered toboggans along a meshkanu of varying grades. The walk required participation from everyone. Our tasks -- from packing our belongings to hauling a toboggan up a hill -- were impossible to complete without help. Relatives and community members who spent little time together in Sheshatshiu assisted each other, laughing, smoking, and gossiping about mutual friends. On the trail, people worked together, sharing thermoses filled with sweet "Innu tea" and planning extended stays in the nutssimat.(1) In Sheshatshiu, my fellow walkers told me, people are bored -- for some there is nothing to do except sniff gasoline, drink, or play bingo.

Due to the high rate of alcohol and solvent abuse among the Innu, at least some of which is the result of physical and/or sexual abuse from outside the community, substance abuse programs are in high demand. According to Robin McGrath, several treatment centers have provided programs for the Innu, but geographical distance, language and cultural barriers, and the patient's separation from family limit their effectiveness. Many Innu see the high relapse rates as a result of individual isolation and the lack of community support for such programs. Community members like Elizabeth and her son Tshak advocate alternative approaches to contemporary, federally funded treatment methods. Elizabeth's walk, based in the Innu traditions within Nitassinan (Labrador), is an example of such alternatives. Her philosophy is simple: "return to the old ways," respect each other and the land, and individual self-worth and community strength will follow.

Walking the meshkanu was not only about reaching the final destination of Minipi Lake but about honoring the process and celebrating the progress; where we had come from -- not only topographically but also physically, mentally, and socially -- and what the trip would have in store for us. Elizabeth hoped the path would teach us the principles of community membership and pride in individual accomplishment. For many of us, the walk was our first opportunity to start a fire on snow, clean a beaver, or assist in assembling a tent. With each newly acquired or recently remembered skill, we became better participants in the walk and more valuable community members. It occurred to me that our success in learning to cooperate in the nutssimat suggested a real possibility of community transformation or renewal in Sheshatshiu.

Mapping Respect

This was only Elizabeth's fourth walk to Minipi Lake. It wasn't a trip through her family's traditional hunting grounds, but it was a trail that marked more recent memories -- sit-ins on the nearby bombing range and walks to protest the ecological damage caused by NATO's relentless activities in Nitassinan. Elizabeth's activities at Minipi began in 1987 when she and a group from Sheshatshiu traveled by commercial plane and then on foot to the nearby bombing range (approximately 30 km south of Minipi Lake). The Innu saw huge craters (20 feet long and 5 feet deep) made by bombs weighing more than 450 kilograms. (Wadden, 1996) She and the others set up a tent on the bombing range and radioed a warning to the base, halting NATO's activities. Fourteen years later, our footsteps demonstrated Innu persistence and resilience in the face of internal and external pressures.

The stories Elizabeth told us were primarily of events on previous walks. Along the way, we marked our camps so that she could find them in years to come. Every marked camp we came across had a story; a place where Elizabeth and her sister Rose were snowed in for days, a place where she and her grandson Gaboget cleaned a porcupine, a place where an akeneshau (white man) had to turn back from exhaustion. The land is inseparable from the stories the Innu tell of it; it is a living oral tradition richly embedded in the place it marks and is marked by. The land maps community of the past and present.

Just as memory mapped place, movable property provided a living history of previous times. Stoves had stories and tent walls told tales. They sported writing and drawings, pictures of Jesus and family members, and art projects. The tent was mapped with generations of meaning -- from those who originally created it to those who put holes in its walls. With each piece of property's move from our toboggans to the tents, Elizabeth talked about the tasks her mother and father performed in the evenings when she was a child. According to her, "they were always working" and "never rested." Life wasn't easy. After setting up camp, her mother laid the boughs for the floor, prepared tea, and cooked wild game from an earlier hunt while her father entered the dense trees to hunt for the camp's next meal. The past was a time when people understood what it meant to share and take equal responsibility in daily tasks.

Living in the Nutssimat

Respect is the key principle in Innu religious ideology (Armitage, 1992), and has both pragmatic and spiritual aspects. Respect involves maintaining good relations with the natural and spirit worlds and with elements such as nipi (water) and, in the case of the walk, snowshoes.

During our second week on the meshkanu morale was low. The weather had been bad for a few days, supplies were short, and several participants had returned home. We'd been snowed in for two days when Elizabeth suggested we move on. It was no longer snowing and the trail seemed compact. After discussing the matter with the Innu walkers, she told me that no one else would walk but that we should prepare to go anyway. While we were burning our garbage, Tony Penashue said he would join us. Elizabeth insisted that we hurry and leave the others behind. Even though she was leaving them without a C.B. radio, adequate supplies of sugar and flour, or an axe, the other walkers refused to join us on our way out of camp. We walked five miles and established a new camp, close enough for the others to catch up the next day. At 7:30 the following morning they did just that. Elizabeth's decision achieved consensus while respecting individual rights. A compromise was reached between moving and resting, and despite the five miles between our camps, the group was still intact.

Just as an Innu respects his elders and other community members, he respects the plants and animals. Elizabeth emphasized on the walk, for example, that a porcupine should be cleaned as soon as it is killed. Nothing was wasted -- every consumable was consumed, the bones burned. According to Elizabeth and some of the walkers, if a kill is not cared for appropriately, no other porcupine would come; the bush gives back only to the extent that it is respected.

A few weeks into our walk, Elizabeth was concerned about the way many of the walkers were treating their kill. On a rest day, with an obvious shortage of meat, the men left camp to hunt. Elizabeth's cousin Tony and several others returned hours later with a porcupine that he hadn't cleaned as prescribed by Innu tradition. For two days -- during which we were experiencing an unexpected storm -- several walkers went out to search for game but returned with nothing. During our third day at the same campsite, Elizabeth convinced Tony to clean the porcupine. The next day we shared a fresh kill.

To foster a relationship with the land, a relationship of reciprocity within the community -- a strong family structure -- needs to be in place. In learning how to set snares, net fish, and hunt porcupine, knowledge is passed on. It is the action and not the instruction that conveys learning and reaffirms kinship. Perhaps Tony's lack of attention to his porcupine was reflective of the social ills of life in Sheshatshiu. During Elizabeth's youth, game would never have been left uncared for. Can a community in crisis respect the natural world?

Renewing the "Old Ways"

Cultural revival for the Innu does not entail a simple rejection of all non-indigenous influences, but requires a re-learning of the old ways so that traditional culture can guide ongoing activities. Elizabeth wants to preserve the integrity of her nation's traditions, but understands that the community needs to be held accountable for the seriousness of its current plight. She is conscious of the ongoing social ills of Sheshatshiu, and sees a healthy community as one rooted in the past. If the primary goals of the Innu economy were once to sustain the earth and to ensure the health and well-being of all people, any derogation of that principle -- even the mistreatment of a kill -- upsets the ideal of respect. Relearning the old ways and applying them to contemporary ills is crucial to the survival of Innu individuals and communities.

Many young Innu are ignorant of Innu culture and the Innu tradition of respect. If respect isn't fostered inter-generationally, community cohesion suffers and so does the Innu understanding of justice. This is not to say that the "old ways" cannot be relearned, but without the family institution it is almost impossible to pass such knowledge on. While a "traditional skills" program exists in Sheshatshiu to train young Innu men and women in what their parents and grandparents would have learned, such skills are not easily retained without a solid family/community structure. Philip Rich, one of the participants on the walk, explained to me that he had enjoyed the traditional skills program but could not remember how to hunt and clean wild game, sew a tent, or prepare a fire. Others, like Shinipest Penashue, who apprenticed under his father and spent a significant amount of time in the nutssimat with his family, were clearly more adept. Those who had learned skills from their parents were confident that they could share their skills with their own families.

Community and Settlement

Elizabeth does not consider Sheshatshiu a community. She sees it instead as a place at the mercy of the Canadian government, its inhabitants subdued by bimonthly unemployment insurance checks. During the community consultation process (see also CSQ 24:3), Elizabeth said:

As far as I remember, even when we had some interference from the governments, the Innu were free and their way of life was very strong. We didn't have the school. We didn't have any houses. There was a hospital, but the Innu people used it very little. Most times it was the elderly women who delivered the babies. But our dependence got worse and worse, year after year. I remember when my mother was first given a house. Other Innu people experienced this also. My parents were very happy, but they didn't understand what the government was trying to do. They thought they wouldn't have a leaky roof, and they would have easy access to water. The governments took us on down the wrong path, and we didn't know it. We didn't have any Innu who spoke English to translate for the elderly people. Over the years we had many houses. And the government gave us a clinic, so we would lose our traditional medicines and be dependent on the white man's medicine. When my parents went into the country, my mother never worried about looking after her house or her telephone or her other belongings, because we lived in a tent. We only had a canoe to worry about. My brothers and sisters and I really enjoyed it in the country. We never said, `Let's go back,' when we were in the country. We never wanted to go back to go to bingo or dancing because we enjoyed living in the country. (Fouillard, 1998).

On the walk, Elizabeth told her grandchildren and other young participants that the government wants to keep her in her house -- to keep her quiet and prevent her from speaking out. She told them to resist the government, to avoid Sheshatshiu and alcohol.

Elizabeth's conceptions of community are only operative in the bush. Her sense of belonging -- her place -- is attached to the nutssimat. Sheshatshiu is separate from the country, a place where respect is not maintained and the core values of society -- the environment and community -- are neglected.


To argue on behalf of indigenous rights entails having an understanding of how local groups conceive of rights. For the Innu and other indigenous groups, "respect talk" is synonymous with "rights talk." Rights are ensured through a motif of balance and reciprocity. Respect is crucial for justice because it delineates a responsibility to others and to the land. Innu ideals focus on the imperative of respectful balanced coexistence among all humans and animals, together with the earth. Respect is understood as a process of maintaining the crucial balance and demonstrating the dignity of every individual within his or her community. The interests and wants of human beings -- as individuals and as communities -- do not take priority in determining what is just. Justice is premised on what is in keeping with the old ways.

Elizabeth's activities demonstrate that for many aboriginal communities, healing will be based on the reestablishment of traditional values. Abuses by the federal government are violations of respect for Innu land and community. Likewise, abuses by Innu within the community and on the land are violations of respect for one another and for the animals. Respect talk, passed on through the generations by observation and participation in the nutssimat, ensures reciprocity and justice.

References & further reading

Alfred, T. (1999). Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto. New York: Oxford University Press.

Armitage, P. (1992). Religious Ideology Among the Innu of Eastern Québec and Labrador. Religiologiques 6, pp 64-110.

Daes, E.I.A. (2000, June 30). The Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Indigenous Peoples and their Relationship to the Land. Final Working Paper perpared by the Special Rapporteur. Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, SubCommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, fifty-second session. E/CN.4/Sub.2.2000/25.

Fouillard, C. (1998, July 1). Innu Nation Community Consultation on Land Rights Negotiations: Money Doesn't Lass The Land is Forever.

McGrath, R. (no publication date) Innu Spirituality. A Background Report for the Environmental Impact Assessment of the Voisey's Bay Mine and Mill Project. St. John's: Community and Resource Services Ltd. www.innu.ca/tanner1.html.

Venne, S.H. (1999). The Meaning of Sovereignty. Indigenous Woman II: VI.

Wadden, M. (1996). Nistassinan: The Innu Struggle to Reclaim their Homeland. Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre.

(1). The Outpost Program, where families receive aid to go live in camps in the bush for as much as three months, is part of the Innu healing process. It is sponsored by Project Outpost -- a federally funded program.

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