A Guide to Indigenous Culture in Newfoundland & LabradorBy: Newfoundland & Labrador Indigenous Tourism Association
This travel article is brought to us by our friends at the Newfoundland and Labrador Indigenous Tourism Association (NLITA).
Newfoundland and Labrador is home to three distinct Indigenous groups: the Inuit, Innu, and the Mi'kmaq. Descendants of the Thule Inuit, the Inuit have made Labrador their home for centuries. Both descended from Algonkian-speaking hunter-gatherers, the Innu people are found in Labrador, and the Mi’kmaq people have lived and travelled throughout Newfoundland for generations.
Indigenous influence can be seen throughout society in a variety of ways. Hunting, fishing, trapping and foraging still contribute to the food supplies and livelihoods of many Indigenous People and these skills have transferred to most of the population in the province, with many households boasting a family favourite blueberry pudding recipe, or a jar of precious partridgeberry jam.
Today, although there are modern comforts available, many people are returning to the land and water for their survival, relying on the fresh and wholesome foods and medicines available to them. The ancestral ways of travelling by snowshoe, kayak and canoe, of listening to the sounds of nature to guide their journey continue to be a valuable way of life for many, whether working or exploring. Raising their children on wholesome foods from the land and educating and connecting through captivating stories are essential to community connection and a sense of identity.
These quiet and vast lands have remained protected and pristine under the stewardship of today’s people, as the ancestors did before them. Although technological advancement has modernised the way of life in Newfoundland and Labrador, deeply embedded traditions persist and some have been revived in the spirit of reconnecting to nature and oneself.
The island of Newfoundland, while isolated, has offered unique and plentiful food supply for thousands of years for those first inhabitants known as the Maritime Archaic and later the Beothuk and the Mi’kmaq (“L’nu” or, “the people”). The rivers of the west coast, known for their supply of salmon, the waters surrounding the island, thick with cod and mackerel. Seafood plentiful in the summer, and land game in the fall, made the island a place for these nomadic families to grow hearty before battling the unforgiving winters that inevitably came.
The spirits of the people would not be broken, as demonstrated by their ongoing gratitude to the natural world through feasts and ceremony; in particular, the Mi’kmaq feast of Apuknajit - the winterspirit - at the end of January, during the most difficult time of the year.
Beyond simple survival, the Mi’kmaq people of Newfoundland work tirelessly to preserve their unique culture and the ways of their people. Practiced and generously shared, the healing properties of ceremony and the teachings of the ancestors benefit all who experience them.
Today's islander Mi'kmaq people still walk along the rugged coastlines and rough terrain of Newfoundland and proudly guide visitors through the footpaths of their ancestors. Warm and welcoming families connect with guests on a terrain that tells a story of resilience of spirit and a gratitude for Mother Earth, sharing their stories and knowledge while you explore the breathtaking views and the unique landscapes.
For thousands of years, the people of the north have thrived through extreme temperatures, extended periods of darkness and a nomadic lifestyle that has seen them trek thousands of kilometres to follow the paths of survival. The Inuit are a unique and resilient group, one of the founding peoples of Canada. Experts in endurance, Inuit have made use of the land, sea and the animals that inhabit them for countless generations.
Our ancestors have occupied the circumpolar regions of the world for centuries – from Alaska and across Canada’s North to the coast of Greenland. The nomadic lifestyle of the Thule Inuit eventually led to the dispersion of the people with many drifting toward the Atlantic Ocean, drawn to Labrador because of its abundance of whales and other wildlife. They are maritime people, deeply connected to their environment.
Today’s Inuit exist in Labrador under two distinct groups, the Southern Inuit of Nunatukavut and the Labrador Inuit of Nunatsiuvut; both are vibrant, thriving groups.
Fierce land protectors, they are proudly reviving an identity that is rich in ancient custom and survival techniques. The exquisite craft, unique art, and enrapturing storytelling have become central to the way of life for many. The ways of the ancestors are being carried on, and the Inuit people continue to be knowledgeable guides through the vast and pristine land of Labrador, sharing their survival techniques, customs and rituals to immerse you in a way of life that is nearly supernatural.
It was in 1973 that the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) was formed and in 1977, the LIA began the long journey towards self-government by filing a statement of claim with the Government of Canada seeking rights to the “land and sea ice in Northern Labrador”.
For three decades, their negotiators pursued the dream of self-government for Labrador Inuit through the settlement of their land claim. The Nunatsiavut Government is the first Inuit region in Canada to achieve self-government, a proud accomplishment for all Labrador Inuit.
Nunatsiavut is home to a unique Inuit culture where tradition and modernity co-exist. Traditional clothing can be seen in each of our communities. On any given day, you can see adults and kids walking or driving their snowmobiles in their amauti or dickie next to others wearing the latest trend in down-filled jackets. Wearing sealskin mitts is necessary to protect your hands from the bitter cold winter temperatures.
Community gatherings are an opportunity for people to come together and participate in traditional Inuit games. Inuit traditionally used games to stay in shape and pass time. These games require little to no equipment and athletes rely on their strength and endurance. Elders and youth compete in the same categories. Drum dancing and throat singing are popular cultural demonstrations in our communities.
While visiting our communities you will be sure to hear Inuttitut, the language of Labrador Inuit. You may hear conversations spoken fully in Inuttitut, or words spoken with English words, or maybe even some Inuttitut words mixed with an English word.
The natural elements and the people of Nunatsiavut are a constant inspiration for the many talented artisans and craft makers found throughout our communities. A variety of finished pieces are available, ranging from stone, caribou and moose antler carvings, to handmade slippers lined with seal skin, to saltwater grass-woven baskets and bowls.
The Labrador Innu
The Innu of Labrador are an Algonkian-speaking people whose homeland (Nitassinan) is the eastern portion of the Quebec-Labrador peninsula. The word Innu means "human being," and the Innu language is called Innu-aimun and they are very proud that they have been able to retain their language.
The Innu were traditionally nomadic, travelling the interior of Labrador and Quebec in the winter to hunt mostly for caribou, and migrating back to the coast in the summer to fish. The Innu have been travelling the Labrador interior for generations. A permanent settlement was started at Sheshatshiu in the 1950's. Davis Inlet was built in the 1960s but the Innu from this community have chosen and relocated to Natuashish, on the mainland of Labrador.
The strength of the Innu culture has proven to be remarkable. In spite of the tremendous pressure to assimilate, they have maintained a strong cultural orientation toward traditional homelands, their nomadic roots and way of life.
The Innu relied on caribou not only for food, but also for clothing. The Innu women would make footwear as well as coats from the caribou. These items protected the people from the harsh elements of winter in Labrador. The Innu people are highly skilled crafters.
After a successful hunt, an important communal meal is held, known as the Mukushan. It is held in honour of the spirit of the caribou and continues to this day. The Innu are great story-tellers. Many of the stories have been passed on for generations and include narratives on how the world began, how the sun was born, and other spiritual beliefs.