Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Life in the country

When I think about Innu life before the government came here, I remember it was a good life—the children were happy, we were all strong and happy. Innu people always used tents. There were no houses or schools. We did have a hospital in Northwest River and a small school in Sheshatshui very close to the church, but we didn’t use them very much because the people were always going to the bush. Sometimes the people came into the community for one month. When I think about it, it hurts because I miss it so much.

We would walk many miles in the country, but people never complained about how far they had to go. No one ever said, “How far is it? Are we there yet? When are we going to go back to Sheshatshui?” The people were happy to go hunting. The men would bring lots of wood and put it just outside the tent. The women would saw it as they needed it while the men were away hunting. The people didn’t need to plan all day for the men to make the trip; they would just talk together for a little bit and then everyone knew what they needed to do.

Innu people’s minds were clear. In the summer the tents were all on the beach at Sheshatshui. Around September, as soon as they knew it was going to be cold, they would move the tents to the woods because it would be too cold along the beach with the wind. They knew everything about living in the country and they were happy there. They ate fresh food and exercised every day. In the summer the men carried the canoes and the women carried the babies and other bags on their backs. I remember my mom having a big bag on her back and on top of that her baby. Now people don’t know what to do in the bush with a small baby. They are always concerned, “What are we going to do with the baby?” My mom always had a baby with her and when it would cry she would stop and breastfeed the baby. She would eat plenty of good healthy food so she would stay strong and well and have enough milk. She never used formula. I would help her with the baby, the bag or the tea pot. I would carry some of her stuff. The young children were always happy to help their parents. The boys would help dad and the girls would help their mom. My father would carry the canoe and as soon we got to water he would put the canoe in with all the stuff and both parents would row, while the baby and the small children rode in the middle and up front. We would row until we came to land again. Then we would portage and walk. While walking I would always think about animals and look for them, hoping to see beaver babies.

Children had everything they wanted to play with in the country. They never asked for toys. They would play with what they found; they’d make their toys. My brother, George, and I were playing outside, pretending to do what our father would do—bring a caribou back and put the meat up on a scaffold. My brother went out and found a squirrel and we pretended it was a caribou. We cut the squirrel just like my dad cut the caribou. We called the skin “caribou skin.” We cut off the meat and made a little scaffold to put the meat on and covered it with boughs to protect it from animals, like the whisky jack. My mom came out and asked what we’re doing. We told her we were preparing a caribou, just like dad did. This is how we played as young children.

The people were never worried or concerned about staying close to the hospital in Northwest River when they went out in the bush. If the baby was sick, my mom would just go into the woods and find Innu medicine. Nobody said, “There’s no hospital in the country, I can’t go too far.” They didn’t need a doctor; they just needed an old lady to help them. I remember all kinds of medicines my mother would make and use. Sometimes the men asked, “What kind of medicine do you need?” After the women would explain, the men would go looking for it. Sometimes the women would go too and then the women would cook and prepare it. There was one small ball we would cut open and squeeze out the sticky liquid. We put the liquid on a paper and placed it where there was pain. If there was a cough, we would put it on the chest. For small babies we only left it on a short time (just until we could smell it on their breath), for older people we could leave it on longer. My mom knew many medicines.

Animals have medicine too, like the beaver and otter. Innu people never used their medicine and then complained about the pain. When they used Innu medicine they would say, “The medicine is so good and so strong, I don’t feel the pain anymore.” You can’t say, “Nothing changed.” You have to support the medicine and say how much it helped you like, “I feel so much better, thank you.” It’s not like that with white medicine.

Caribou skin was used to make moccasins, snowshoes, and mattresses inside the tent. A long time ago they used the caribou skin to make the tent and they even used it for clothing, before there was money and other clothes. The men would kill the caribou and the women would prepare the hides and sew them together for the tent. They would eat all the meat. The caribou has everything in it. It can feed the people. It can dress the people. Even though we don’t make dresses anymore and we use canvas tents, the caribou is still so important.

We always have to respect the animals in the bush. We eat the meat, we use the medicine to help us, and we use the skins for many purposes. If we eat beaver or otter we have to put the bones in the water, because they are water animals. For the caribou, which lives in the woods, we hide the bones in the trees. We would make a small scaffold, one for the meat and one for the bones.

Innu people never used to consider asking the government for money. They would try to find their own food. Sometimes they would charge a little to the Hudson Bay Store if the manager would agree and they would pay him back after they got back from the country. Innu people never bought chips and sweet stuff. We bought flour, sugar, baking powder, tea, oats, rice, or macaroni. Then we went into the bush and my dad would go hunting the next morning. He would take the small tent and stove. He would set 4 or 5 traps and check them every couple days, bringing any animals home for my mom to clean. We would eat the meat from the animals, but sell the firs. When we knew we had enough firs—beaver, otter, mink, marten—the men would take them to Sheshatshui to pay back the manager and buy more food. The trip took 10-15 days. The women and children would stay behind in the tent.

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