Innu elder's book, I Keep the Land Alive, a keepsake for future generations
Elizabeth Penashue's long-awaited story was a lifetime in the making and a decade in the writing
Entering a packed house Thursday at the Lawrence O'Brien Arts Centre, Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue received warm applause for her book, Nitinikiau Innusi: I Keep The Land Alive.
Penashue launched the book, which she's been working on for years, during this week's Labrador Research Forum happening in Happy Valley-Goose Bay,
"I'm very happy. I'm proud. A lot people were asking me, 'Elizabeth, when are you going to finish your book?' and I said, 'Almost, almost,'" she said happily during an interview with CBC's Labrador Morning.
The book began as her diary, written in Innu-aimun, with entries from 1987 to 2016, offering a detailed account of her day-to-day life, as well as reflections on Innu land, politics, culture and history.
Penashue, a cultural and environmental activist and a recipient of a National Aboriginal Achievement Award, says the book is full of stories that will surprise readers.
The book documents her involvement in protesting NATO's low-level flights and bomb testing on Innu land in the 1980s and 1990s, and she remembers going to jail over it with nine other women, feeling tired from the heat of the summer inside a cell.
"It's so hard, very very hard. Sometime we cry when we talk about our children and grandchildren," she said, adding that it was important to her to protect Innu land, the people and the environment.
It's quite exciting. A lot of love in that book.- Rena Penashue
Another story Elizabeth tells is meeting Queen Elizabeth during her visit to North West River to officially open the Labrador Interpretation Centre in 1997.
"It was summer. We put a nice tent on the beach, and made it nice inside," Penashue recalls.
"I was so happy. I was very proud when she came in my tent. She came right inside and went around shaking hands of the young children and then shaking the hands of the old people," she said.
Penashue says the book also tells stories about her canoeing down the Churchill River each summer, as well as her walks into the Mealy Mountains, and she remembers the happy times she had with her parents in the country.
"Everybody was happy in nutshimit ["on the land"]. Eat fresh food every day. Meat, fish — all kinds of animals — porcupine, beaver, partridge, rabbit, all kinds," she said. "Now it's a big change."
And she remembers her childhood games, too.
"When I was younger, I was playing on the ice. I used a stick, I make my own stick, and my brothers make their own sticks — just like a hockey stick, and then I played on the ice," she said, recalling that they always made their own toys.
Peter Penashue — one of Elizabeth's children — says the book is a great accomplishment for his mother, who's been working on it for about a decade with editor Elizabeth Yeoman.
"She finally has it done to tell her story in her words, and I think it's a great achievement for her because it's something that obviously will be read 100, 200 years from now," he said.
Yeoman met Elizabeth Penashue when she interviewed her for a CBC Ideas program about walking, and later joined her for a walk into the Mealy Mountains.
The book is full of vibrant images, including photos of Penashue's late husband, Francis, who accompanied her in the country.
I'm very happy. I'm proud.- Elizabeth Penashue
Rena Penashue, Elizabeth's daughter-in-law, said the book will be a keepsake for future generations — and is sure the photos are "close to everyone's heart" in the family.
"It'll be a tough read at first, but I think once you dig in I think it'll be a page-turner. I'm excited that my kids are going to be able to read it, I'm excited that my grandchildren will be able to read it, and those who are unborn in our family so for future generations," she said.
Rena Penashue said her mother-in-law has taught many people about the land, and top of all the history and stories, she said, there's "a lot of love in that book."
Passing down knowledge
Elizabeth Penashue said she wants to pass the knowledge she's learned about living in the country down to her children and grandchildren.
She's taught people about Innu culture and knowledge during canoe trips and walks in the Mealys over the last 20 years, and she remembers her own mother setting rabbit snares, as well as cooking partridge and porcupine, while her brothers helped their father gather wood, and check traps for beaver, marten and mink.
Penashue says she learned by helping out.
"The people long time ago in the country, just like a teacher, like my mom, just like a teacher, and my dad, like a teacher. No, I don't have no problem when I go in the bush, in the country. When I walk, when I go canoe trip, I know everything I'm going to do in the country," she said.
I Keep the Land Alive is published by the University of Manitoba Press. The Innu-aimun version is forthcoming.