Nfld. & Labrador

Labrador Innu heartened by discovery of rare 'caribou coat'

A coat fashioned by Labrador Innu from caribou skin was found in a freezer in North West River, delighting those in the community.

Coat dates to 1913; only a few likenesses remain in existence

This caribou coat dating to 1913 was discovered in a freezer in North West River, Labrador. (Labrador Heritage Society Museum)

One of only a few Labrador Innu caribou coats in existence was discovered Monday in a freezer at the Labrador Heritage Society in North West River.

Painted with designs meant to please the caribou spirit — a sacred animal in Innu culture and a primary source of food, shelter and clothing — the coat, which dates to 1913, would have been worn by a hunter or shaman.

A symbol of connection between humans and animals, caribou coats were believed to bestow the powers of the animal upon those who wore them.

Speaking to CBC Radio's Labrador Morning, Jodie Ashini, cultural and heritage guardian for Innu Nation, called Monday's discovery a "great, great find." 

Jodie Ashini calls the discovery of a caribou coat 'a great, great find.' (Submitted)

"It means so much to us as a culture to be able to have one more thing that's been away from our community for so long," she said.

Caribou coats were regularly fabricated prior to Innu contact with Europeans, she said, before the Roman Catholic Church forbade the practice.

How the coat managed to go unnoticed for so long is a mystery to Ashini. But she suspects it was misplaced when items were moved from a now-closed museum in Goose Bay. 

We can really learn the language — we can really learn everything — with these coats.- Jodie Ashini

The finding brings the total of caribou coats in Innu possession to three.

Only a handful of others exist, Ashini said. While those sold to private collectors will be impossible to recover, those at The Rooms, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., must be returned to Labrador under the forthcoming Labrador Innu land claim. 

Ashini is looking forward to that day.

"It would be lovely to be able to have our own research done on these coats," she said. Paint, patterns and animal fats employed in fabrication, she said, can all teach about traditional Innu methods and ways of being.

"We can really learn the language — we can really learn everything — with these coats," she said.

In a media release issued by Innu Nation, Grand Chief Etienne Rich called the caribou coat a "priceless artifact." Its discovery, he said, is "important to Innu Nation and to all Canadians." 

The coat "could have been worn by my grandparents," Rich said. 

Ashini underlined the importance of artifacts such as the caribou coat in understanding one's heritage.

Considering the current conversations surrounding reconciliation, Monday's discovery in North West River came at "the perfect time," she said.

"There's personal connections in these collections," she said. "It's amazing to watch these people reconnect with their grandparents that have passed on. It's a great way to continue that connection to our culture. It's beautiful." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show