Nfld. & Labrador

Rare caribou coat returned to Innu Nation after being found in freezer across a river

The historic coat wasn't far from the Innu peoples who originally made it. Now it's on display for all to see.

The historic coat wasn't far from the Innu peoples who originally made it

The Innu coat has traditional paintings on it, meant to give the wearer special abilities when hunting caribou. After the hunt, they were hung up outside the tent as a thank-you to to the 'Caribou Master' or caribou spirit, says Jodie Ashini. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

An Innu coat is now on display in Labrador, more than a century after being made and after decades of sitting in a freezer. 

The caribou-skin coat now hangs in the Labrador Interpretation Centre in North West River, in central Labrador. It was discovered after a Labrador Morning piece covered a cultural guardian's journey to repatriate items. 

"CBC actually did an interview on my tattoo that I had got, and then a story about the caribou painted coat," said Innu Nation cultural guardian Jodie Ashini. 

"After that aired, someone messaged me and said, 'Did you know that they have one at the Heritage Museum?'" 

The Innu coat is now on display at the Labrador Interpretation Centre in North West River. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Ashini said she was taken aback that a precious artifact was tucked away so close. She contacted the museum and asked about it. After a couple of weeks, they confirmed the coat had been stored in a freezer to preserve it. 

She drove down and inspected the painted markings and its date: 1905. It's not as elaborate as some of the ones she's working to repatriate from the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., so this one may have been for a woman or child, Ashini said.

"Someone that wasn't going to go hunting, that didn't need the special powers behind the coat. The coat was made so that it would please the Caribou Master so that we could have a successful hunt. And after an extensive successful hunt, the coats were hung outside as a thank-you," Ashini said. 

The group would then go inside the tent that the coats surrounded and break the caribou legs to get the marrow, in a ceremony to thank the Caribou Master — the most powerful of all spirits in the Innu spiritual world. 

"We believed that everything had a spirit, that you must respect all spirits in order to continue to get and prosper," Ashini said. 

The Innu coat is delicate and should only be handled with gloves. Ashini is shown holding it before it goes on display. A tattoo of the traditional caribou painted coats is seen on her right arm. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Heritage society froze coat to help preserve it

The Labrador Heritage Society had been keeping the coat since the 1980s. Society president Ernie McLean said they were advised to keep it in the freezer to preserve it from bugs, heat and damage. 

Now and then, people would carefully remove it to inspect it but they were unsure of any other ways to preserve it. 

After finding out where it originated and how to preserve it on display, McLean said, they immediately worked to repatriate the coat. 

The Innu coat's lower paintings were made with each line individually, while the chest was done by a piece of painting equipment of three sticks tied together to create even lines. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

"Historical archives and objects should be placed where they have the most meaning, and the most meaning would be for the Innu because it was made by them," McLean said. "It has great meaning to us."

Ashini said the coat is in good condition.

'It's in really great, great shape for how old it is. We're very lucky," Ashini said.

The colours are still vibrant as well. The red was painted with red ochre, a natural clay combined with animal fat. The yellow is believed to have been fish eggs mixed with animal fat, and the blue is from blueberries mixed with animal fat, Ashini said. 

The Innu coat's colours were made by mixing red ochre, blueberries and fish eggs with animal fat, says Ashini. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

"They made sticks with three prongs so you could draw along and have three equal lines. They are very beautiful, beautifully done, very intricately done by the women."

Ashini said repatriating these items is more important than most people can understand. It's something she'd dedicated her life to and wanted to do since she was a child who was able to learn from the land, thanks to her father. 

She hopes children are able to learn from the coats and recreate them in the future cultural centre. Ashini said connecting them to their culture also brings them identity and helps with societal problems. She said she's thankful and emotional to have it on display. 

"Schools are already booked up to see it tomorrow. And that's just an amazing feeling. These kids are going to see something from 100 years ago that hasn't been made and it's not being made anymore," she said. "It's a very important thing to us."

Ashini holds the sign for the Innu coat being returned from the Labrador Heritage Society. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Heidi Atter

AP/Journalist

Heidi Atter is a journalist working in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. She started with CBC Saskatchewan after a successful internship and has a passion for character-driven stories. Heidi moved to Labrador in August, 2021. She has worked as a reporter, web writer, associate producer and show director so far, and has worked in Edmonton, at the Wainwright military base, and in Adazi, Latvia. Story ideas? Email heidi.atter@cbc.ca.

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