'Irreplaceable' audio of deceased Innu elders among research materials, artifacts to be returned to Labrador

Innu Nation cultural guardian Jodie Ashini and anthropologist Peter Armitage are working to bring decades of stories, documents, recordings and other cultural artifacts back to Labrador.

For Jodie Ashini, safeguarding Innu culture is deeply personal

A woman holds a plaque for an Innu coat. A painted caribou hide coat is behind her.
Jodie Ashini is the cultural guardian for the Innu Nation. She is shown holding the sign for a caribou coat that was recently returned to the Innu Nation. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

A cultural guardian for the Innu Nation in Labrador and an anthropologist are working to ensure that stories, documents, recordings and other cultural artifacts are preserved for generations to come.

Jodie Ashini's job description is broad ⁠— it includes everything from repatriating Innu Nation material from various sources, to providing input on government policy, to working with groups who are performing activities on Innu land, like the astronauts who recently performed a landing in Mistastin Lake crater. 

"It's a big job, but I love it," she said in an interview with Unreserved's Rosanna Deerchild.

For Ashini, safeguarding Innu culture has always been a way of life.

Ashini's father was Daniel Ashini, the president of the Innu Nation and an advocate for Indigenous rights, Innu land claims and cultural preservation.

She remembers her father, Daniel Ashini, telling her of a trip to Innu lands flooded due to construction of the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project in the seventies.

"It was a really important place for the Innu, a gathering place that everyone used," she said.

There were few remnants of the Innu who used to inhabit the area: some rusty shards, a porcelain plate.

Ashini said her father discovered what he thought was an oddly-shaped rock, before realizing that it was a skull from a burial site that had been disturbed. Everything else was gone, eroded by the flooding.

"That always struck a chord with me," she said. "I thought, 'I can't let that happen ever again. I can't.'"

'An immense gift'

Ashini said it wasn't until she had a daughter of her own that she realized why her father was so passionate about Innu rights and preserving Innu culture.

"It was for me and my sister. He did it for us so that we would have rights as Innu people, as Innu girls and women  ⁠— to be able to have equality in the world."

Ashini said people from all over the world would come stay with her family while she was growing up in Sheshatshiu, and her father would have lively political conversations about Innu culture and self-determination with each of them. Meeting all those Innu Nation allies from different backgrounds played into her desire to preserve her culture, she said.

"I think probably one of the biggest impacts on my life is having these people, these advocates that wore all different hats. They all had a different story."

One of the people who stayed at her house was Peter Armitage, an anthropologist who has been working with the Labrador Innu since 1981. 

He said he started out as a researcher, but later became an advocate, expert witness and part of the land claim negotiating team.

Peter Armitage, left, with Daniel Ashini, right, in 1997. 'We all miss him terribly,' said Armitage. (Submitted by Peter Armitage )

Armitage is not part of the Innu Nation, but built trust with the Innu, including Ashini's family, over time.

He said his experiences working with Indigenous communities changed his life.

"What I've been given by Indigenous people is an immense gift," he said. "I feel privileged to have benefited from the immense generosity of Indigenous people."


Now, Armitage is giving all his research materials back to the Innu Nation ⁠— but he said he has never considered the material to be his.

"It was always very clear that the Innu Nation owned all of the interview material and documents that came out of that research," he said. "My job was basically to be a caretaker of that information." 

Armitage is repatriating 30 years worth of research, like the boxes of documents in this photo, to the Innu Nation. (Submitted by Peter Armitage)

His materials represent over 30 years of research, including audio and visual recordings, interview transcripts, photos, maps and more.

Armitage said families will get to share "irreplaceable" recordings of long-deceased elders with new generations.

Ashini said she was able to share a recording of her father with her daughter. It was the first time Ashini's daughter heard her grandfather's voice.

"It was a real, beautiful moment," she said. "It was very emotional, a very emotional day, and I didn't expect it to be so emotional." 

"We can't wait for the children now to be able to hear their great grandparents and the stories that they wanted their great grandchildren to hear. That's why they were recorded." 

Armitage's materials represent over 30 years of research ⁠— enough to fill a U-Haul truck. (Submitted by Peter Armitage )

Ashini said Armitage's material will eventually go into a new cultural centre in Sheshatshiu, which is currently in the planning stages. 

The centre will include archives, ethnographic material, cultural programming, and educational programming in partnership with the Labrador Institute.

Ashini said the centre will ensure Innu culture is preserved for future generations, including her own daughter.

"I want to fight so hard to make sure that she has a culture and a language and a place to go in the future. That drives me."