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Walking With Giant

Joanna Eede // Photography by Dominick Tyler

The group had been walking for two weeks across the hinterlands of Quebec. The dark patches of frostbitten skin on their cheekbones told the tale of bitter winds and freezing temperatures.

The aircraft’s thermometer registered -20˚C as we circled over Lac Laporte in eastern Quebec. To the far north, miles of low snowy hills and frozen waterways stretched to the Arctic border. A team of 40 Innu walkers from Quebec and Labrador were waiting on an area of hard-packed snow they had chosen for our safe landing. A husky scampered around crates of provisions; a dead wolf was slumped in a toboggan, blood at his mouth, long grey tail touching the ice.

The group had been walking for two weeks across the hinterlands of Quebec. The dark patches of frostbitten skin on their cheekbones told the tale of bitter winds and freezing temperatures. The cold was too much for some: a couple of walkers went home in the plane in which we had arrived; others – diabetics – received supplies of insulin from the pilot, to replace the batches that had frozen on the journey. Photographer Dominick Tyler and I were joining them to walk west for two weeks during the time I was working for Survival International.

The walkers gave us snowshoes and bowls of caribou heart soup, and we followed them as they headed towards the high barren country of Border Beacon in subarctic Labrador. A man called Storm gave me some dried caribou tongue – neueikan in the Innu language – a handful of wine gums and some advice. ‘Don’t eat the ice if you’re thirsty,’ he said. ‘And keep an eye out for rabid foxes.’

***

Several years ago, a young Innu man called Michel Andrew, also known as ‘Giant’, had a dream in which his grandfather urged him to help his people. ‘Get up and walk,’ the old man said. So with a toboggan, an axe, a bucksaw and a tent, Giant left the Innu Nation community of Natuashish on Labrador’s Atlantic coast and walked across the frozen waters of Lake Melville, into the Innu’s traditional homeland they call Nitassinan – ‘our land’.

For more than 7,500 years the Innu were semi-nomadic. During the long Labrador winters, when snow and ice covered the rocky barrens and snaking rivers, they followed the caribou on foot across the vast interior, pulling their possessions behind them on birch komatik (toboggan).

Innu health walk 2012. Quebec and Labrador

walking-with-innu

In the summer, when the snows melted and rivers thawed, they travelled by canoe to the coast. They were an active, strong people, sustained by a nutritious diet of meat, berries and fish. Over the course of millennia they had honed a culture in harmony with the natural world, and their knowledge, language, history and sense of belonging were entirely entwined with the lands they loved. Nitassinan was their lifeblood, and they were its guardians.

But during the 1950s and 1960s, the Canadian government and Catholic Church pressurised the Innu into settling in fixed communities. They quickly had to adapt to a purposeless, immobile life disconnected from the natural world and fuelled by a Western diet laden with sugar and carbohydrates. As hunting was strictly regulated, they became alienated from the activity that fulfilled them. Separated from the touchstones of their lives, entire communities succumbed to confusion and self-loathing.

As a people, they fell apart. Today, Innu communities are largely sedentary and suffer from extreme social and physical problems: alcoholism, suicide, glue-sniffing, violence, child abuse, high levels of suicide and epidemics of diabetes. Approximately 15% of Giant’s community in Natuashish is thought to be diabetic. An Elder told me, ‘What the kids eat today is making them sick. The land gives us food and medicine.’

Over the course of three years, Giant walked almost 4,000km, gathering people as he went, raising awareness of his people’s troubles.

***

We snowshoed with the Innu across a vast winter landscape of boreal forests, frozen lakes and rivers. We walked through ravines where the black ice sounded precariously hollow and through silent forests of black spruce. Every morning just after dawn, the Elders – a group of older men who had grown up in the backwoods of nutshimit and knew the country intimately – drove ahead of us on skidoos, breaking trail to ensure that the snow was hard-packed enough to walk on, and to find us a sheltered place to camp.

We walked along the Elders’ trails until late each afternoon, covering approximately 20km a day. Some days were brilliant and blue, when the winter landscape shone bright white, snow crystals glittered underfoot and the northern winter light glinted off curling waves of river ice. Other days were spent walking through mist, the sun casting a milky haze over a monochrome landscape. Visibility was then poor and the Elders would leave small trees along the trails as markers.

We snowshoed with the Innu across a vast winter landscape of boreal forests, frozen lakes and rivers. We walked through ravines where the black ice sounded precariously hollow and through silent forests of black spruce.

walking-with-innu2

Innu health walk 2012. Quebec and Labrador

On those muffled, still days I could hear a fellow walker cough a mile away, but there were scant other signs of life: a lone wolf loping along the forest edge, or the dancing tracks of a rabbit and fox disappearing into a stand of juniper trees. For hours all I heard was the rhythmic squeak of shoe on snow, the whisper of wind in my ears or the occasional soft sound of snow sliding from spruce needles. At times it felt as if we were travelling through a sleeping land; I had never known such space or such deep silence.

But at times, walking was also conducive to talking. I discovered that many young Innu had painful histories: ‘hurt’ was a word I heard all too often. I was told about Justin from Natuashish who had recently committed suicide – his friends were walking in his memory – and Tatiana, who though not yet 15 had spent 10 months in treatment for glue sniffing. ‘It can take your soul and control you,’ she said. ‘That’s why I’m walking with Giant, to quit it.’ The devastating effects of the sedentary life imposed on them were evident.

With a queasy stomach I watched an Elder blow up the dead porcupine’s rectum to expand its stomach, so the quills could be removed more easily over a fire. ‘The country is our food. We hunt and trap. That’s what the Innu do,’ he told me.

Before twilight, when the sky turned from pale blue to azure to indigo, we stopped for the night. Occasionally we stayed in basic hunting cabins; more often we hunkered down in traditional Innu tents. It took the Elders around two hours to construct a tent in a wooded area protected from the winds and blizzards. A number of small spruce trees were felled, and the branches shaved off with an axe. A conical frame was made from trunks and covered with canvas, and a layer of spruce boughs arranged in an overlapping pattern on the floor space to insulate sleepers against the cold. A sheet-metal stove was set up in the centre of the tent, which was stoked at intervals throughout the night.

Everything took place in the warm, communal cocoon of an Innu tent: smoking, cooking, eating, singing, cursory washing with baby wipes, melting snow for water, and sleeping, fully clothed and cheek by jowl. Candles burned precariously on juniper logs; gloves and moose-hide moccasins were hung up to dry over the stove. The Innu plied us with questions (‘Have you met the Queen?’) and every day was marked by small kindnesses. ‘Have you eaten? Are you warm?’ were constant refrains. ‘Don’t be alone,’ one Innu man said to me after a long day on the ice. ‘I’ll talk to you. I’ve got stories to tell.’

Western food – bottles of cherry Kool Aid or Pepsi and huge bags of crisps – had been brought in by helicopter, but we also ate ‘country foods’ on which the Innu had survived for millennia. These included bannock (traditional bread), caribou, rabbit, partridge, fresh trout that had been caught by drilling a hole through Lac Galant’s thick ice, and porcupine that had been knocked out of a tree with a stick. With a queasy stomach I watched an Elder blow up the dead porcupine’s rectum to expand its stomach, so the quills could be removed more easily over a fire. ‘The country is our food. We hunt and trap. That’s what the Innu do,’ he told me.

On another afternoon I walked into the woods with Giant to set snares for rabbits. The first stars were low in the sky over snowy hills stained rose-white from the lowering sun; the air was sharp and invigorating. ‘My grandmother told me that on a starry night rabbits run around, and stand still when it snows,’ Giant said. For generations, Innu knowledge was passed down orally. Many of the team’s Elders still had an intimate knowledge of the land and a love for it that went beyond words. ‘It’s in the blood, it’s in the heart,’ one said. To the Innu, man is not separate from nature, and to think or act otherwise is not only arrogant, but ill advised.

Innu health walk 2012. Quebec and Labrador

From the Elders we learned that pine trees dropping their needles indicate the onset of winter, that mist low over trees means a cold night to come and that you must only gesticulate towards sacred mountains with your lips (a snowstorm could be invoked by pointing a finger). I learned about Tshakapesh, the man in the moon; and Kanipinikassikueu, the Innu boy who married a female caribou and ran away to live with her herd.

Caribou are sacred to Innu and central to its culture. Once, they provided much of what they needed to survive in nutshimit – food, clothing, shelter, tools, and weapons. One night, we heard that caribou had been killed further upriver. The Elders brought them back to camp by skidoo, and I watched them being dissected by torchlight. The butchered parts were bundled into a hide and buried in a snow hole overnight. In the morning the campsite resembled an abattoir, with great slabs of red meat suspended from larch branches, hooves sticking out of a blue plastic crate, a hide hanging from a tree with clods of dried blood matted in the fur.

The Innu believe wasting any part of an animal is disrespectful to Kanipinikassikueu, the ‘Master’ spirit of the caribou, so the leg bones were preserved and the marrow mixed with fat in order to prepare the mukuashan, the sacred meal. Walking back to the tent I noticed an arc of lights low in the clear night sky. As I watched, the shimmering band fragmented into patches of glowing lime green that swirled and swayed: Innu ancestors playing the drums, or aurora borealis.

It grew colder and colder. One night the temperature dropped to -40˚, where the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales converge, and the petrol in the skidoos froze. After two weeks we left the big rivers and lowlands behind and walked up onto the treeless tundra at Border Beacon, from where I flew home. Walking through the vast energising land of Nitassinan had engendered a renewed sense of identity and pride in Innu culture. The teenagers had learned how to use an axe, set up a tent, and disembowel a caribou. They discovered that their ancestors were extraordinary, resilient people who had walked across this wilderness for centuries. ‘My ancestors used to walk this way,’ one Elder told me. ‘I can feel them here.’

Joanna Eede is a writer, storyteller and creative strategist. She has a passion for telling emotive stories about the wonders of the natural world and believes in the power of weaving words and images together to instil wonder and change mindsets.
Website: www.joannaeede.com

Dominick Tyler grew up in rural Cornwall and moved to London to study philosophy at UCL. His photography career started in student media and quickly led to freelance work for national newspapers. Since then he has built up a wide list of editorial, commercial and NGO clients, shooting location portraits and reportage as well as more produced commissions. In his personal work, Dominick frequently explores the relationships between people and their environment and often focussing on the experiences of indigenous communities around the world.
Website: www.dominicktyler.com
Twitter: @thelandreader
Instagram: @dominick.tyler

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