For thousands of years the Innu (or Montagnais) were a nomadic people travelling in small bands as hunter gatherers throughout the lands of Labrador and northeastern Quebec known as Nitassinan (our land). They lived on moose, bear and seal meat but nothing was more central to their existencel than caribou that supplied the necessities of life. Every part of the caribou was essential from food to the making of warm clothing from their hides, covering the tents that provided shelter, to the antlers that were used for making vessels and tools. Traditionally, after the hunt, communities would celebrate with Makushan, a feast built around caribou fat and bone marrow. They drummed and sang ancestral songs led by shamans who performed rituals and hunters prayed to the animal spirits. Gifts of caribou were shared as a status symbol.
In the warmer months, the Innu travelled by canoe, fishing for salmon, eels and lake fish. On land, they supplemented their diets with roots, berries and maple sap.
In the early 19th century the trading posts arrived bringing with them dramatic changes to the Innu way of life. Death and suffering from disease such as smallpox, tuberculosis and Spanish flu devastated their communities. Missionaries embarked on an aggressive campaign to convert the Innu to Christian religions that subverted their culture from self reliance to dependency. European laws and regulations were enforced that excluded the Innu from their lands and waterways.
Led by the Europeans, the fur trade became paramount to the way of life drawing the Innu into dependency on European trade goods. In order to survive, nomadic ways following caribou herds were sacrificed for a livelihood from trapping and stationed around trading posts dominated by the Hudsons Bay Company. The late 19th and 20th centuries were marked by increasing competion from white and settler fur trappers particularly in Central Labrador. The collapse of fur prices in the 1930s and the demise of the caribou herds exacerbated the suffering of the Innu.
Over the ensuing years, the aboriginal people were forcibly anchored into communities but were not involved in treaty negotiations or recognized as having title to their lands. The Innu of Labrador were one of the last aboriginal groups in Canada to settle into permanent villages in the early 1960s. They became status Indians under the Indian Act in 2002 and Sheshatshiu became a reserve in 2006.
The Innu continued to face external challenges to their lands and rights when in the 1970s, a huge area of productive Innu land was flooded by the Smallwood reservoir also known as Upper Churchill Falls. Then in the 1980s NATO military exercises over Innu territory had an adverse affect on caribou migration driving them further north and out of reach. A culmination of this recent history has contributed to the erosion of the Innu land base, promoting cultural collapse, and creating associated social issues.
The Innu have managed to retain their traditional relationships with the land and its animals. They have been actively negotiating for recognition of their aboriginal rights to their traditional territory and struggling to heal the ravages of years of village life.