Nfld. & Labrador

Following the Mushuau Innu caribou hunt: A Land & Sea archival special

See a documentary from 1979.

From 1979: A new generation of Innu tries to preserve centuries-old hunting and spiritual traditions

Innu elders sing and drum to tell the stories of their dreams, which they believed held information about how to find the caribou. (Land & Sea/CBC)

For centuries, the Mushuau Innu lived nomadically in the northern Labrador interior. They followed the migration of the caribou, an animal that was not only essential to their physical survival but also key to their culture and spirituality.

When white settlers and fur trappers began to arrive, things changed, and by the late 1900s the Mushuau had largely lost their nomadic way of life. 

However, some younger Innu were working to preserve those traditions and culture, returning to the Labrador barrens to follow the caribou and live off the land, just as their ancestors — and even Innu elders still living — had done for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.

For centuries, the Mushuau Innu followed the migration of the caribou herd of the Labrador barrens. (Land & Sea/CBC)

Move away from nomadic living

Every year, Phillip Rich was bringing his family — from his own mother to his children — to the barrens to fish and hunt caribou, as those before him did. 

It's important to him that his children learn these traditions, he said, so they aren't lost. Most of their lives are spent on Davis Inlet, living in a modern home, attending school and playing hockey, but these trips are a connection to how life once was for the Innu.

Watch this 1979 episode of Land & Sea

The move to communities like Davis Inlet began in the early 20th century, when for unknown reasons the caribou numbers declined. In 1916, the Innu moved to the coast and began to rely on fishing and seal hunting, though the transition was not without problems. 

Some of the Mushuau moved south to join a sister tribe in North West River, becoming even further removed from the caribou habitat and their former way of life. 

Bringing together old and new ways

By 1979, many of the Innu with first-hand knowledge and memory of the old ways of living were physically unable to go back to those traditions. But they could still play the drum and sing their dreams, and talk about hunts passed.

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Younger people, inspired by this knowledge, recognized the importance of preserving it. Some in communities like Davis Inlet, like Rich, began travelling to hunt again as caribou numbers recovered. Others, further away in North West River, travelled to the hunt, bringing meat back for community dinners.

Phillip Rich brought his 14-year-old son caribou hunting on the Labrador barrens, and hoped his son would one day do the same with any children he had. (Land & Sea/CBC)

In either case things were a mix of the the old and new ways: the caribou had to be brought back to town, eaten on paper plates in a hall, and children who travelled to the barrens brought English school books and wore store-bought boots.

But as Rich taught his 14-year-old son to hunt caribou, he spoke about why it mattered.

Phillip Rich's mother treats caribou skins, which can be used for items like clothing and drums, while on the Labrador barrens. (Land & Sea/CBC)

'"He likes school and he wants to learn but I think he'd rather be in the country," he said of his son. 

"The more he sees of it, the more he likes it."

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