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Language and Culture (13-17)

Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation wants its youth to know the ways of their ancestors. So they took 20 kids 223 kilometres away from home to connect to their roots

May 28, 2023

​Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation wants its youth to know the ways of their ancestors. So they took 20 kids 223 kilometres away from home to connect to their roots

A sign at Gabriel Lake shows its location relating to other places in Labrador. Heidi Atter/CBC

CBC News: In the Country – Six kids sit on spruce boughs inside a white canvas tent, held up by wooden stakes. The fire in the wood stove by the tent door keeps the cool April air out.  “It’s breathtaking,” Ray Sillitt said, sitting on one of the sleeping bags. “This is one of the spots where our people used to live. 

“The Nutshimit to me is just very beautiful.”

Twenty preteens have been sleeping here, at Gabriel Lake in central Labrador, for the past 10 nights, spread between five of these tents. Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation runs the camp, 223 kilometres away from the First Nation reserve and well into Labrador’s wild interior. 

The kids sleep on layers of spruce boughs, a rug, a small mattress and heavy sleeping bags. Temperatures dip below zero at night and climb to 14C during the day.  Camp coordinators want these kids to experience what it was once like living on the land.  “They’re helping us learn more about our culture and they’re helping us know these things our ancestors did,” Ray said. 

The smoke from the tent stoves drifts up towards the stars, along with giggles and whispers, well into the early hours of the night. As night turns to day, the tents are quiet, but the camp coordinators’ cabin is bustling with activity.  Anniette Sillitt and Yvette Michel are awake early, cooking eggs and sausages. “It feels like you’re cleansing your mind,” Michel said. “Like you’re building your energy.”

A woman sits on a skidoo with two young children.
A young boy smiles while holding a fish
A young boy and girl lean over a cut open fish.
A fish is shown sliced open on a piece of cardboard on a picnic table.

For Michel and the other camp helpers, this outing is personal: a means of reconnecting with Innu children, of teaching them traditions that have existed for centuries. “The kids, they got to know me since we’ve been here,” Michel said. “They call me ‘Googum’, grandmother.” 

Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation held a pilot program in August to see how an overnight culture camp could work. The camp was successful, leading to the April trip. Michel cooks while keeping an eye on her two-year-old daughter and her four-year-old niece. She grew up spending mornings like these around No Name Lake in central Labrador with her family. Her father wanted his children to live, at least sometimes, the way Innu always have.

A woman sits by a hot plate looking back while a wood stove is behind her and clothing is hanging above it.
Anniette Sillitt cooks breakfast for the culture camp at Gabriel Lake. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

When he died 16 years ago, the family didn’t go out to the country as much. Until Anniette Sillitt decided that had to change in 2009.  “I realized that I have to go back. I can’t lose my culture,” Sillitt said. Sillitt returned to the country each year since. It was a different task to take 20 kids with them, but after only a few days, it feels like spending time with family, she said. 

A woman tickles her young child while the child giggles.
Yvette Michel plays with her two-year-old while food cooks at the Gabriel Lake culture camp. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

“Every night before bedtime, the kids, they say ‘Goodnight. I love you Auntie, Grandma,’” Sillitt said. “That feeling when the kid that you just met 10 days ago, they say they love you every night before bedtime, just melts my heart.” The current 20 kids filled up the camp in short order. The ad went up on social media with Sillitt’s phone number. It didn’t stop ringing. Now 60 kids are on a waitlist, she says. When everyone is fed, Michel’s focus quickly turns to teaching. 

A woman and girls each have their own bowls while they learn to make bread.
Yvette Michel teaches a group of kids how to make Innu bread at the Gabriel Lake culture camp. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

“Yvette’s cooking show,” Nykeesha Malleck calls it, as four girls surround Michel at a small table in the cabin.  They learn how to make Innu bread, a mixture of flour, baking powder, salt and water.  “I don’t use a measuring cup. I just [make] it by memory, by just watching my mom,” Michel said.  “By instinct, you know.”

A person holds up dough with a blue glove.
The kids at Gabriel Lake were able to make Innu bread, Innu pogeys and Innu donuts while at the culture camp. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Before long, 12-year-old Florrah Rich is helping the other girls learn. Florrah said her grandmother taught her when she was only nine, and she likes showing others.  “That’s how you pass on [traditions],” Michel said.  “If you wanna teach kids how to learn stuff, how to cook and how to make Innu bread, you gotta teach the first one. And then after that they get to be the teachers and they continue teaching the next person that wants to learn.” After their stomachs are full, it’s time to head outside along a shovelled path, two feet of snow at either side of them. 

A girl holds a wooden tool as she works to cut meat off of a caribou skin.
Florrah Rich works to cut off pieces of meat left on the caribou skin so it can be used in crafting. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

At the edge of the camp, a metre-wide circle has been shovelled out around a thick wooden stake.  Draped over the rounded top is a large caribou skin. Lyla Andrew works away, cutting the fat off the skin. “When they killed the animals, they cut the skin off, but it still leaves a lot of layers,” Andrew said: connective tissue, bits of meat.  “So you got to clean all that off in order to use the skin.”

A wooden tool with a metal edge scrapes meat off caribou skin.
Remaining bits of meat are cut off the caribou skin by pulling at it while using a wooden and metal tool. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Andrew quickly hands the tools to Rich and pulls the skin tight.  Rich uses a wooden tool with a sharp metal edge attached to scrape off the bits of meat that fall to the ground. Andrew shows Florrah how to pull the skin tight before handing full control to Florrah and 13-year-old Brooklyn Rich.  “It’s very calming,” Brooklyn said of being out in the country, working on the caribou skin. 

Innu hunters donated six caribou skins to the camp so the kids could learn how to work with them, Andrew said.  “This is our tradition of caribou,” Michel says.  “For us, caribou is like a signature of being Innu. We use everything, even the bones, everything that goes with it.”

A caribou skin hangs from a wooden stake onto the snow.
The caribou skin is draped over a large stake. The meat is removed from one side before the hair can be removed from the other. There are specific tools for each task. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

For millennia, Innu were nomadic hunters and gatherers throughout ‘Nistassinan,’ the Innu homeland that included modern-day Labrador and eastern Quebec.  In the early 19th century, trading posts were established in Labrador, bringing changes to their way of life. Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation history notes that the change from nomadic hunting to a livelihood from trapping resulted in Innu being reliant on European trade goods. 

Fur prices went down in the 1930s, and caribou herds populations dwindled. As a result, Innu were forcibly anchored into communities. The Innu of Labrador were one of the last groups to settle into permanent villages in the early 1960s. 

Four tents are shown on the snow.
Before being settled into communities, Innu in Labrador lived nomadic lives along the coast and following caribou in the interior, living out of Innu tents. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Around that time, government officials removed children from their families, placing them in other homes and residential schools. Innu children from Sheshatshiu were taken to the Mount Cashel Orphanage, where vulnerable children were abused for decades.  An inquiry into the treatment, experiences and outcomes of Innu in the child protection system is currently ongoing in Sheshatshiu and Natuashish. The inquiry will lay out recommendations for change and reparation, and many Innu hope it will lead to them controlling their own social services. 

Today, deep in the endless Labrador taiga, the kids at Gabriel Lake can still feel the echoes of colonization. “Being Indigenous is really hard,” Florrah says, pulling the caribou skin tight. “You get treated differently and we lose our language.”

A girl cuts meat off caribou skin with a wooden tool and metal edge.
Florrah Rich works to cut meat off caribou skin at the Gabriel Lake culture camp. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

People in communities outside of Sheshatshiu give the girls dirty looks when they go to buy groceries or clothes, Brooklyn said.  “A lot of people are disrespectful to us. They say that we’re, like, different from them,” Florrah says. “They say that our culture is like, weird or something.” “Sometimes we get pointed at and laughed at,” Brooklyn adds. “Or they call us creatures.”

“Yeah, Indigenous creatures,” Florrah says.  “And people online are the worst,” Brooklyn says. “When I told some people online that I’m native, they called me a campfire dancer. Pocahontas.”

A girl holds a wooden and metal tool.
Brooklyn Rich works to remove meat from caribou skin. Rich said being out on the land feels free. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Innu Nation took over the schools in Natuashish and Sheshatshiu through the Mamu Tshishkutamashutau Innu Education School Board in 2009, but Brooklyn and Florrah say it is still difficult learning their language in the classroom.  “Most of us lost our language because of school,” Brooklyn said.  “We have an Innu classroom, but they don’t teach us…. It teaches us words. We have to like, figure out what they mean.”

Elder Elizabeth Penashue would come and talk to the class, make donuts, and take them to Rabbit Island, but Brooklyn and Florrah say more Innu-aimun in school would help them grow up immersed in their language and culture. 

a wooden and metal tool pulls at caribou skin
Knowing how to treat caribou skin so it can be used for crafting is one of the skills passed down at the Gabriel Lake culture camp. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

“Very soon, if we have kids, they might not know our language at all, ‘cause most of the kids in our school lost their language,” Florrah said. 

The renewed push to save Innu-aimun from extinction, she adds, is hindered by racism: by a deeply rooted fear of being othered, excluded and mocked. “That makes me feel like our culture and our language is like, just gonna change us even more,” Florrah says.

The judgement-free place to learn at the camp makes a difference for Brooklyn, though. “If we make a mistake in our language, they just teach us how to say it,” Brooklyn explains. “Makes me feel … a bit closer to our culture, and it makes me feel free.”

A girl stands on a boulder.
Brooklyn Rich stands on a boulder she climbed at Gabriel Lake. (Heidi Atter/CBC)
A pile of fur is shown at the bottom of the caribou skin
Florrah Rich uses a sharpened leg bone to remove the hair off the caribou skin. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

There’s been a difference in the kids during the 10 days, Michel says — and her own mental health — by being out on the land.  “Your health is improving, you’re moving, and I think it’s the same thing with these kids,” she says.  “It’s like regenerating your cells, like naturally breathing the air and having to make activities.”

Sheshatshiu culture camp takes 20 youth to Gabriel Lake to experience being in Nutshimit
See the culture camp held by Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation and listen to learn what being on the land means to camp participants.

Click on the following link to access the above video:

After the girls scrape the meat from the caribou skin, they soak the hide overnight. Later, they’ll remove the hair with a sharpened caribou leg bone.  The kids have also been taught how to gut a fish, how to make bush pizza, how to clean partridge and how to make Innu donuts. 

A girl stands over caribou skin holding a bone.
Lyla Andrews watches as Florrah Rich uses a sharpened leg bone to remove caribou fur from its skin over a wooden stake. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

But they still talk back and forth in English, something Michel hopes to see change in the future.  While many of the kids understand Innu-aimun, none of them speak it fluently, and Michel hopes with enough immersion, they could start even incorporating Innu-aimun words when they talk.  The final night ends peacefully. The kids fall asleep among their pillows, a faint streak of green – the northern lights – dancing above them. 

A tent is lit up under faint green northern lights.
The faint northern lights shone above the Innu tents at the Gabriel Lake culture camp in April. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

As dawn breaks and frost covers the cabin windows, it’s time for the 223-kilometre trek back to Sheshatshiu. The kids are preparing for a 15-minute helicopter ride, then a two-hour drive.  “I got a big canvas to remind us that we’re all here,” Michel says.  “So everybody’s writing their names on the canvas, marking their hands on it.”

Michel says she and Sillitt want to hold other camps soon, with new kids from the waitlist, until all children in Sheshatshiu get the chance to experience being on the land. 

A hand print written in permanent marker says 'Terry Penashue, I'm going to miss it here.'
A tent and black bear are drawn on canvas.
A girl smiles at the camera with mountains behind her
A young girl smiles at the camera.
A helicopter lifts off into the sky with people watching in front of it.

The kids and coordinators helicoptered out of the camp on the final day.  “I’ve been feeling really happy ever since I’ve been here,” Florrah says, sitting in her tent, running her hand along the spruce boughs below her “I hope in the future to keep going to [the] country and learning my culture even more, in my language.”

“I was kind of depressed at home, but my mental health increased,” Brooklyn says. “I just hope I could do this all over again, but like, longer…. I hope I come back here in the future, with Yvette, my Googum.” 

A group of people stand on snow in front of trees and smile at the camera.
Twenty kids and a handful of workers spent 10 days on the land in April, 2023 in hopes to teach Innu youth how their ancestors once lived. (Heidi Atter/CBC)
Atlantic Voice: In The Country 26:10

Click on the following link to access the above audio:

About the Author

Heidi AtterHeidi Atter is a journalist working in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. She has worked as a reporter, videojournalist, mobile journalist, web writer, associate producer, show director, Current Affairs host and radio technician. Email