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‘Spirituality' among the Inuit and Innu of Labrador

Adrian Tanner, Robin McGrath and Carol Brice Bennett
A Background Report
The Environmental Impact Assessment
of the
Community Resource Services Ltd.
St. John's, Newfoundland.

Labrador Inuit Spirituality
Aboriginal Spirituality
Moravian Influences
The Integration of Moravian and Traditional Influences

Innu Spirituality
Traditional Innu Beliefs
The Roman Catholic Church
Healing Movements

Works Cited


by Adrian Tanner

This report, consisting of separate sections dealing with the Innu and Inuit peoples of Labrador, attempts to summarize current knowledge about the distinctive forms of spirituality of these two peoples. In the context of the proposed Voisey's Bay Nickel Mine and Mill, it is the authors' contention that an understanding of these forms of spirituality will help elucidate some of the attitudes, values and reactions which local people may well have towards impending social changes which would accompany the opening of such a facility. The environmental impact assessment process, specifically with reference to ‘Valued Environmental Components', recognizes that the ‘environment' does not simply exist as an objective fact, but that it is socially constituted, such that different groups place different values on different aspects of it. In this study we examine how the spiritual beliefs and values of the Innu and Inuit contribute to the way they comprehend and evaluate certain aspects of the physical and cultural environment of northern Labrador.

Nobody today can remain unaffected by social change, but this observation applies to aboriginal people in a very special sense. Aboriginal culture is not a thing of the past, a way of life that is losing its relevance in the face of modernity. However, under pressure from main-stream Canadian institutions, aboriginal people themselves do sometimes express their particular concern that their cultural knowledge and practices are not being maintained to the extent that they would prefer. This kind of concern is especially common for a minority group, under pressure to change from forces which are mainly seen as controlled by a dominant group. Moreover, because of the uncertainty of their survival, the ethnic identity of a minority group is of proportionately greater concern to them. and is frequently marked by distinctive symbolically-rich historic cultural practices. Under these circumstance, there is an unfortunate but understandable tendency to ‘essentialize' aboriginal cultures - that is, to over-emphasize their uniformity, and to represent them as fixed, usually in some past era. Despite this, in Labrador aboriginal ethnic identity appears to be, if anything, of increasing importance to most contemporary aboriginal people of the region.

In this report we make general statements about certain aspects of Inuit and Innu culture. However, it must be recognized that this is actually a kind of shorthand; in actual practice a wide degree of diversity exists in the way individual Inuit or Innu put the general pattern of their own cultures into practice. Moreover, while he purpose of this report is to document actual contemporary spiritual beliefs, attitudes and practices, in so doing we also provide an historical context, so that the material sometimes refers to past times and to discontinued practices. This is because the past continues to act as an important source of ideas and identification, just as Europeans often explain their own present practices by harking back to their heritage, such as the customs and ideas of ancient Greece and Rome. Furthermore, we need to be aware that both of the aboriginal groups living in Labrador are parts of two geographically larger traditions, each reaching right across Canada and beyond. The Labrador Innu (referred to in some earlier sources as Montagnais and Naskapi) are part of the Northern Algonkian tradition (which also includes groups like the Cree and Ojibwa). The Labrador Inuit are part of the ‘Eskimo' tradition, which extends from Greenland to Siberia. As the section of this report on the Innu indicates, today some ‘traditional' aboriginal practices are now being introduced into Labrador from other Canadian aboriginal groups. Thus modern aboriginal spirituality is seen in this report within their wider historical and regional contexts.

The term ‘spirituality' is used as the focus of this report, in preference to a narrower idea, such as ‘religion'. However, we are aware that the term ‘spirituality' may be misinterpreted as suggesting an over-romanticized view of aboriginal people. It may be seen, for example as presenting them as bound by a timeless supernatural tradition, to the exclusion of the pragmatic concerns of modern life. We are also aware that a term like ‘spirituality' is sometimes used to focus on the unusual, the bizarre and the exotic, suggesting cult activity and strange rituals. However, in this report we are not dealing with people who blindly follow arbitrary customs, or who unthinkingly obey the dictates of ‘witch-doctors' or ‘shamans'.

Innu and Inuit spirituality each encompass matters which are also covered by terms such as ‘world view' - that is, the core beliefs, values and ethical principles that are characteristic of a particular group. ‘Spirituality' also refers to the revelation of hidden significance behind daily events, beyond that which is self-evident. As such, the details of the spirituality of the Innu and Inuit fall into the same general domain as the anthropological notion of ‘religion', where that term is used in a broad comparative sense of referring to the beliefs, rituals and symbols associated with the supernatural, and not limited to the specific beliefs and practices of a particular organized form of religion, such as Christianity. Both of the following sections dealing with the Innu and the Inuit address the historical relationship between these groups' aboriginal spirituality and a particular Christian church, Roman Catholicism in the case of the Innu, Moravianism in the case of the Inuit. And yet we are also dealing here with matters not normally included within religion, as the term is normally understood in the West.

In Western society, at least in those places where religion remains an active social institution, the general distinction can be made between civil and religious life, even if the two do often overlap. Among the Innu and Inuit of the historic period there was no neat and clear separation between spirituality and civil society. The political leaders tended to also be spiritual leaders. Even today the elders are generally felt to deserve respect, both as civic and as spiritual leaders. The basic everyday work in traditional times - hunting - was permeated with spiritual as well as material factors, and because wildlife harvesting continues to be important, to some degree this situation continues. For this reason, in what follows we will consider some subjects having spiritual relevance which non-aboriginal Canadians might assume to be ‘civil' rather than ‘religious' matters. For instance, reference will be made to Innu community ‘gatherings' held in the bush to discuss a variety of community issues. We will consider Inuit elder's councils, Innu community by-laws dealing with hunting and animal carcass disposal, and community concerns over social problems and the administration of justice. We will examine new social movements which address individual and community healing. All these are seen here as having an essential ‘spiritual' aspect, as the term is used here. Aboriginal spirituality also includes what in Western thought is classified as philosophical subjects, like ontology, metaphysics and ethics, although in this report we will not deal with these matters.

While we distinguish between spirituality and religion, there are some useful points that can be drawn from the overlap between these two concepts. In Western societies where the institutional forms of religion remain active, it is considered quite normal that most individuals are not knowledgeable about all the theological bases of their own religious faith. Such knowledge, which may even include serious differences between individual theologians, is considered the rightful domain of these specialists. Even so, those who lack such obscure knowledge are not considered to be atheists or outside the religion. Rather, the influence of religious beliefs and traditions is understood to be found not only in consciously held doctrine, but also in the basic values and orientations of the society. In this sense, religion is an unconscious part of the basic institutions of society. Religion, in this way, shapes the lives of all, whether or not that are knowledgeable about matters of doctrine.

Similarly, the Innu and Inuit also have their specialists in spiritual knowledge and traditions. Thus we should not expect that all the principles of Inuit or Innu spirituality will be known equally to all members. Moreover, since aboriginal spirituality has a strong ethical component, we must understand that, as with Christian morality, aboriginal people are not all saints. Not all the ethical principles of Labrador aboriginal spirituality are automatically followed by all people, all of the time, but this does not invalidate the principles themselves.

Finally, some general points of similarity between the spirituality of the Inuit and the Innu may be emphasized. Today, both these traditions have built upon a prehistoric ‘animist' belief system - meaning that the world of nature was seen as populated by numerous spiritual beings, associated mainly with the animals and the forces of nature. Each group has, historically, incorporated these beliefs alongside the beliefs and practices of a specific Christian denomination. This ‘religious dualism' was handled by assigning each of these two religious forms to a specific context - Christianity being seen as more relevant to settlement life, and traditional spirituality being more relevant to hunting and life on the land. The religious dualism was also handled by interpreting Christianity as consistent with the overall aboriginal world view. Both the Innu and Inuit have a ‘shamanistic' tradition - meaning that intervention in the world of spiritual beings was accomplished with the aid of rituals practiced by part-time specialists, or ‘shamans', who were ordinary hunting men and women, but who also had skills in making direct contact with spiritual entities. Both Innu and Inuit integrated spirituality within everyday activities, like hunting, and with their life in direct contact with the natural environment. In this sense, Inuit and Innu spirituality involve beliefs according to which humanity is not seen as separated from, but as an internal part of, ‘nature'. This includes the assumption that humanity, the land and the game animals are not just pragmatically, but also ethically, bound together, in the sense that all are considered part of the same moral universe. Finally, in both the Inuit and Innu cases, the spiritual traditions of the past continue to be sources of inspiration in the formation of present-day expressions of ethnic identity, in the context of modern, multi-cultural Labrador society.

The Innu and Inuit of Labrador are in a dynamic period in their history. It is a period in which people are seeking answers. It is a period of innovation, a period in which many are searching for a more satisfactory place for themselves in the world. It is also a period of turning inward, of seeking of ways for the expression of traditional ideas and values adapted to modern, rapidly changing conditions. This report cannot hope to fully encapsulate the dynamism of Labrador aboriginal spirituality, which no doubt will continue to change in the future in ways we cannot predict.

Labrador Inuit Spirituality

by Carol Brice-Bennett

Aboriginal Spirituality

At the northern extremity of the Labrador coast, a range of high barren mountains with sharp precipices extending inland from the sea was known to traditional Inuit as the abode of the master spirit in their mythology. Their name for the region, Torngait meaning a place of spirits, derived from the presence of Torngarsoak who was believed to control the life of sea animals and took the form of a huge polar bear (Hawkes 1916:124-5). As the area was considered to be dangerous, Inuit wore the claw of a raven and hung the blown paunch of a seal on a tent pole fixed to the side of a boat when travelling nearby. These were intended to protect them from any malevolence from the master spirit (Kohlmeister and Kmoch 1814:50-1).

Customs and beliefs such as these composed Inuit spirituality before direct contact with European missionaries advocating the adoption of Christian precepts. The aboriginal spiritual system is commonly described as shamanistic due to the primary role performed by shamans, called angakut, in propitiating spirit forces and mediating between them and the Inuit community reliant on success in hunting wildlife for survival. Shamans are part-time specialists in ‘animist' religions, in which the world is believed to be peopled by many spiritual beings, with which shamans have the ability to make direct contact. Labrador Inuit shamans commanded power through the agency of spirit helpers, called Torngak (pl. Tornait), which were sometimes disembodied and assumed strange forms. Inuit also believed that prominent physiological features, such as a mountain, cove or rock, had a spiritual counterpart called inua, meaning "its person," which represented the thinking spirit of the place or object (Hawkes 1916:127).

These ideas contributed to a world view that portrayed the environment to be populated by a host of spirits with whom people had to appeal, conciliate and defend themselves against harm in order to survive. It was a closely interactive system governing all aspects of Inuit life from success in capturing game to personal safety, good health, procreation and amiable relations between individuals. The system integrated people with their environment, and provided a complex code for social action that defined the Inuit culture.

An example of the wide range of rituals involved in traditional Inuit spiritual practice is shown in a whaling cult followed in the late 18th century, with similar elements to rituals performed in North Alaska and Baffin Island. The Labrador cult featured ceremonies conducted to give power to hunting equipment and to appeal for assistance from a shaman's torngak; a stipulation for new seal skin covers on kayaks; taboos against chopping wood, sewing and the consumption of berries; a prohibition against the use of fire or artificial light; a restriction on women's presence outside dwellings; and the performance of special songs to attract whales during a hunting venture (Taylor 1985). Other details on traditional Labrador Inuit spiritual customs are described by Hiller (1967:153-4), Taylor (1974:85ff), and Taylor and Taylor (1986).

Moravian Influences

The arrival of missionaries of the Moravian Church, a pre-Reformation Protestant sect, on the northern Labrador coast in the late 18th century challenged the legitimacy of traditional Inuit spiritual beliefs by presenting an alternative to their accepted knowledge. Determined evangelists of pagan societies around the world, the Moravians applied their previous experience in converting Greenlandic Inuit to Christianity in their early relations with Labrador Inuit (Hiller 1971:74, 82). A station established at Nain in 1771 was the first permanent European settlement in Inuit territory, after which additional mission communities were founded during the 19th century stretching to the northern tip of the Labrador coastline.

Initial Inuit converts to Christianity disrupted the solidarity of the aboriginal society by separating themselves from relatives and friends, as the Moravians required, in order to adhere to new standards of religious practices and moral behaviour at the mission stations. The division between converts and non-Christians in the area from Hopedale to Okak was eliminated after 1804 when a widespread religious awakening led to the adoption of Christianity by virtually the entire population in this region (ibid:86).

More northerly Inuit groups subsequently became converts once mission stations were established in their traditional harvesting territories (Brice-Bennett 1994:97-8). A notable exception was an extended family group based at Aulatsivik (north of Nachvak) which continued to resist abandoning their customary lifestyle until well into the 20th century. They were quickly baptised after they relocated to Hebron in 1933 (Hebron Church Book).

Compared to other Inuit populations in Canada, Labrador Inuit became Christian converts at a relatively early historical period and are distinguished by their Moravian faith, in contrast to Anglican and Catholic congregations in other arctic regions. Most of the literature on affairs in northern Labrador during the 19th and 20th centuries presents the Inuit adoption of Christianity as an inevitable response to the persuasive augments which the Moravian missionaries brought against the pre-existing Inuit spiritual beliefs and practices. The bias suggested by this perspective is that Christianity was actually superior to aboriginal spiritual ideas and Inuit acquiesced by becoming converts. A further implication is that traditional aspects of Inuit spirituality ceased with religious conversion and were completely supplanted by Christian beliefs and rituals.

Early Labrador Inuit had strong economic and social motives for affiliating themselves with the Moravian mission stations during the 19th century. Ample evidence exists as well that Inuit recognised fundamental parallels between Christianity and their own spiritual attitudes that fostered the acceptance of another religious order. For example, charitable assistance in food and clothing given by missionaries to people who had difficulty supporting themselves, such as widows with children, orphans, elderly and handicapped people, accounted for many initial converts (Brice-Bennett 1981:98). Protection from abusive situations also attracted single and married women, who gained more independence and a greater voice in Moravian congregations than they would have had in traditional Inuit society (ibid:95-107).

A number of Christian practices such as repeating prayers, singing hymns and confessing to sins compared with chants, taboos and admissions to custom violations made in traditional Inuit spiritual rituals. The nature of several Christian sins had a different emphasis than conventional taboos, particularly regarding sexual relations, but the idea of inappropriate behaviour was not foreign to Inuit. Missionaries replicated the role of the shaman as spiritual leader, physician and mediator with supernatural forces, with God or Jesus becoming the master provider of food instead of Torngarsoak if people observed their faith and behaved properly (ibid:110-112; Hiller 1967:165).

The Moravians also offered Inuit converts unique educational and economic benefits that significantly altered their lifestyle. Instruction in reading and writing, primary mathematics and performing on imported musical instruments introduced new skills to Christian Inuit early in the 19th century and expanded their intellectual culture. A prosperous seal industry developed from the use of nets for harvesting harp seals during the fall migration period, which led increased food supplies in winter. The seal nets were owned by the Moravians but managed by Inuit crews who received a share of the harvest in return for their labour; seal oil and pelts were also primary resources exported for sale in England (Brice-Bennett 1990:228-9). Various manual jobs created for male and female Inuit, along with charity distributed by missionaries at times of game scarcity, gave residents of mission communities a generally higher degree of material security and social stability than families removed from Moravian influence (Brice-Bennett 1981:184, 420ff).

The Integration of Moravian and Traditional Influences

The Moravians expected Inuit to make a conscious choice in becoming converts and sought to prevent people from blending elements of Christianity with traditional customs. Yet there was an implicit distinction between the two religious systems that fostered the retention of Inuit customary beliefs. This occurred because Christianity referred principally to social relations in a community context, while the primary focus of traditional spiritual practices centred on the harvesting and treatment of wildlife in locations beyond the border of mission stations. The Protestant ethic did emphasize attitudes toward the approach and use of subsistence resources, with value given to hard work, diligence and thrift, but it essentially ignored the activity of hunting, except for a prohibition against ventures on Sunday.

As is outlined in a later section of this report, a similar dualism in religious ideology and lifestyle was also typical in the experience of Innu residents of Labrador and Quebec, who adopted the Catholic faith by the early 18th century. Their contact with French priests, based mainly at trade posts in Gulf of St. Lawrence, was much more limited than the sustained relations which Inuit had with resident Moravian missionaries. Thus, Innu preserved the complex of their spiritual rituals as applying to their relationship with animals and spirits while hunting in the country, and perceived Catholicism to concern human relations in a community.

This dualism in ideology was not a contradiction to Innu, according to Armitage (1992:67), as it would not have been to Inuit, and allowed people to be devout Christians while at the same time reserving their own spiritual expression. However, since Innu did not begin settling in permanent communities until after the 1950s, they succeeded in maintaining many of their traditional rites. Consequently, more details are known concerning them than about Inuit spiritual practices that were suppressed over a century earlier by Moravian missionaries.

During the 19th century and much of the 20th century, Inuit families only resided in the Moravian communities on a seasonal basis, extending from the formation of land fast ice around December until the start of warm spring conditions in April, coinciding with Easter festivities. This pattern was altered after the 1960s when mandatory school attendance for children under 15 years of age began keeping families in the communities from about September until June. Once people moved away to remote campsites to hunt and fish, they resumed command of their traditional lifestyle and culture in a familiar environment that nourished generations of Inuit proceeding them.

Evidence of past inhabitants is shown by numerous material remains such as tent rings, sod house ruins, landmarks and graves that are found practically everywhere. In travelling from place to place, traditional names for locations are also an element of Inuit history extending beyond living memory. Some place-names simply describe prominent physical features but others refer to specific species of game or particular events that once occurred, giving Inuit a perceptual chart as well as geographic map of their environment.

Place-names also evoke stories about ancient former inhabitants and the activities of shamans, or fanciful legends about animals (see Brody 1977:318ff). These accounts are accompanied by tales of personal hunting experiences and by ghost stories referring to people formerly known in the community, giving a sense of mystery to people's past and present occupancy of the land.

All of these elements remind Inuit of the integrity existing between their society, culture and environment, and comprise a modern version of their spirituality. Although the activities of shamans, the beating of skin drums and the observance of taboos and rituals, have long since ceased, memory of them and people's continued hunting activities on the land and sea reaffirm the life force underlying traditional spiritual attitudes.

Moravian missionaries rarely visited Inuit at their seasonal campsites and were primarily concerned with people's adherence to Christian precepts. So long as a reversion to traditional rituals was not flagrantly demonstrated, the Moravians assumed that they succeeded in "The fall of Torngak," as the title of a book promoting the history of the Labrador missions proclaimed (Davey 1905). Missionaries may have been unaware of the subtle manner in which Inuit grafted essential principles of their traditional ideology into the socio-cultural framework of post-contact Christian society, thereby ensuring the continuity of their perceptions. The persistence of facets of a distinct Inuit identity over time, despite Moravian influence, is suggested in the name
of an agency based at Nain that was established to preserve the Inuit culture and called the Torngasok Cultural Centre.

To my knowledge, substantial research has not been conducted on contemporary Inuit spirituality and the manner in which symbolic aspects of traditional customs may have a counterpart in current cultural forms. There is only one relevant study of a ritual called nalujak, meaning "heathen" or "heathen spirit," that is performed on Epiphany [January 6] (Richling 1980). Its components suggest an admixture of aboriginal mythology with the historic conflict inherent between Christianity and heathenism.

The nalujak ritual involves two masked figures visiting houses and rewarding the good behaviour of children with candy or a small gift, but as well chasing residents outdoors and threatening to abduct them in their spirit bag, resulting in death (ibid:234). While the ritual ultimately endorses the dominance of Christianity, it alludes to anxieties and several ideological oppositions that confronted Inuit society in the past (ibid:239), perhaps serving as a paradigm for comparable stress in the present. A more subtle hint of the survival of a traditional Inuit custom is indicated in the practice of naming children after a close relative or friend. Prior to the adoption of Christianity, parents gave a new-born infant the name of the last person dying in their band, regardless of sex. They treated the child with the same deference that would have given to their namesake, called atitsiak (Hawkes 1916:112), due to a belief that the person's character and abilities were transferred with their name. Thus, personal names were repeated from one generation to another, providing a fundamental continuity over time in the identity of individuals and the composition of family groups composing Inuit society.

The namesake custom was only slightly modified after Inuit became Christian converts by the replacement of traditional names with English personal names given to people at their baptism. However, Inuit retained knowledge of their original names as one case of a man in Nain demonstrates. The person had the personal baptismal name of his grandfather but he was also known by a nickname in Inuktitut, which was his grandfather's original name before he was baptised.

My impression is that when Inuit adopted surnames at the turn of the 20th century, many families took the original Inuktitut name of the senior male of their household group for their surname. If research is ever conducted to pursue this question, it may be possible to trace back Inuktitut family names through several generations to the initial individuals who became members of the Moravian congregations. This exercise would reveal a poorly understood technique in which Inuit preserved a primary link with the spirit of their ancestors, and successively revitalized their society through the namesake custom.

Elderly and middle-aged Inuit know their namesakes and followed the convention in naming their children, but the present young generation of parents often select the personal names of musicians or actors in television dramas for their offspring. This practice disturbs senior members of the community because such modern names are unconnected to family histories and leave children unable to trace their name, which essentially symbolises their place, in the long record of Inuit society (see Maggo 1997 [1994:90]).

Other parallels between traditional and post-Christian constructs may be found by comparing the code of Elder's Rules, documented during the 20th century, with customary taboos, legends and the manner in which disputes were formerly arbitrated by shamans or other notable leaders. Elder's Rules concern restrictions on seasonal hunting activities, the allocation of game and resolution of social problems (see Brody 1977:325ff) that were also the focus of traditional conventions on managing relations with wildlife and among people in the coastal environment.

Similarly, the Elder's council, consisting of men over 25 years of age elected by the Church congregation with a ratio of one elder for every 100 members of a congregation (Kennedy 1982:21), resembles meetings of adult males that were convened in the late 18th century to reach a consensus on dealing with pressing issues (see Brice-Bennett 1981:41). As well, male chapel servants in church performed a comparable leadership role to former headmen of place groups. Chapel servants in the 19th century were typically elderly respected hunters who were affluent and outspoken, and their role became hereditary as was the position of band chiefs (ibid:431ff).

Inuit have also retained primary values governing their society before the arrival of Europeans, including emphasis on sharing resources, respect for opinion of elders and proper treatment of wildlife avoiding cruelty and waste. Some ancient taboos such as not combining land and sea animals at the dinner table, and not camping in places where a number of deaths occurred due to fear of ghosts (especially at Okak) are still observed by Inuit today.

The examples cited above suggest various ways in which Inuit adjusted traditional conventions as the nature of their society and culture changed over time. People do not perceive that their identity as Inuit was compromised by becoming Moravian Christians or either by adopting any of the technological conveniences that have replaced traditional facilities involving firearms, ski-doos, speed boats and prefabricated dwellings. An erosion in the use of the Inuit language by the young generation has contributed to a loss of knowledge about matters such as place-names, legends and the oral history of Inuit society kept in the minds of elderly adults. However, efforts are being made to revive the language and promote information about traditional ecological knowledge, along with social conventions, that formerly governed the coastal communities. So long as Inuit continue to be hunters and rely on their use of the local environment in a broad range of seasonal harvesting activities, people are assured that the essential spirit and vitality of the Inuit culture will persist into the future.

Innu Spirituality

by Robin McGrath, Ph.D.


This paper is a précis of recent works and currently accepted information about Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi) spirituality. It does not distinguish between Innu bands or regional groups, nor does it try to add insight to any of the published material. There are some comments which (as indicated) are based on the author's personal observations at Davis Inlet or on communications with others.

Traditional Innu Beliefs

There are four main anthropological sources for information on traditional Labrador Innu spirituality and beliefs available in English: Lucien Turner's Indians and Eskimos in the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula (1894) Frank Speck's Naskapi: The Savage Hunter of the Labrador Peninsula (1935), Alika Podolinsky Webber's The Naskapi Shaman (1987), and Peter Armitage's recent article "Religious Ideology Among the Innu of Eastern Quebec and Labrador" (1992). Adrian Tanner's Bringing Home Animals: Religious Ideology and Mode of Production of the Mistassini Cree Hunters (l979) deals with a closely related group and is also relevant. The following brief review of traditional beliefs draws largely upon the work by Armitage.

Traditional Innu beliefs focus upon the natural and supernatural world of animals, hunting and relationships to the land. The Innu have an predominantly ‘animist' form of belief, meaning the world is seen as containing a great number of spiritual entities, some of which are associated with material beings like animals or inanimate objects, while others are normally without visible material form. Some of these entities are more powerful and significant to humanity than are others, and many of these spoken of in Innu mythology.

As Armitage points out, the Innu divide non-domestic animals into various categories including four legged animals, waterfowl, birds, fish and insects, with "an additional classification of animal species into kingdoms (tipentamun) ...superimposed upon the category of Innu animals" (1992:68). Generally speaking, each of these categories of animals in the second classification is thought to be ruled by a spiritual ‘animal master' and in some cases there is a hierarchy in the relationships between the masters, with caribou and aquatic creatures being the most powerful (ibid:69). While Podolinsky Webber (1983:3) states the Innu believe in one ‘supreme being', with bands having different names and attributes for such a being, such a concept should not be equated with ‘deity' in a monotheistic religion like Christianity. Other beings also reside in the spiritual world, including cannibals, giants, weather spirits, and spirits of divination. Human relationships with these spirits are maintained through observance of taboos, spiritual ceremonies such as the ‘shaking tent', the burning of scapular bones, drumming, dreams (all forms of divination), and ‘mukaushan' or marrow bone feasts.

Innu shamans, who can be benevolent or dangerous, sometimes with the assistance of benevolent spirits who live in another world, called mishtapeuat, act as intermediaries between ordinary Innu and the spirit realm. The other world of the mishtapeuat, called Tshishtashkamuk, is similar to the world of the Innu in that it contains lakes, mountains, and vegetation. It is thought that the Innu once inhabited this world along with the spirits, but were flooded out and now live in the world we know which is an island connected to the spirit world by a land bridge. Shamans could, through drumming and chanting, summon the spirits and speak their special language (Podolinsky Webber 1983:16) and Tanner reports that shamans can "make the game come to them" (Tanner 1979:138). All hunters have some spiritual power but shamans have more power because they have direct access.

Armitage reports that "Respect is omnipresent in Innu culture; it is a key operating principle in their religious ideology" (1992:76). Respect involves maintaining good relations with the spirit world, the natural elements such as water and fog, and with physical objects such as snowshoes. Hunters obtain the cooperation of the animals they kill by showing respect to their bones and other remains, putting special offerings as well as leftovers in the fire, wearing decorated clothing and placing bones in trees away from dogs. Animals must not be left in traps too long, offerings of tobacco must be given to bears, and if these things are not done the animals are thought to withhold themselves from the hunters.

Divination is one way Innu obtain information about the animal and spirit world. Porcupine or caribou scapulas are held near a fire or candle and the scorches are interpreted by persons trying to locate game. Shaking tent ceremonies, somewhat similar to seances, were performed, although this was thought to be potentially dangerous. Most Innu informants say the Shaking Tent has not been performed in some years, although it is also likely than any performance would be kept secret, and the ritual is known to be performed among some other Algonkian groups. In any case, the ritual remains an important subject of discussion among the Labrador Innu, as the major occasion when virtually the entire spirit world of the Innu is on public display. For example, in the recent BBC video "Two Worlds of the Innu" (Wilson 1994), two elders describe the Shaking Tent ritual in some detail and discuss the serious possibility that one of them might soon receive spiritual instruction to perform the ritual.

Drumming to induce a trance state was also used to provide direction to hunters. For Innu, dreams were and are a vital source of information about the future. They are still a central part of any discussion of importance issues among the Innu of Davis Inlet (John Joy, personal communication, 1997). Armitage reports that communications from the spirit world are also thought to come, albeit in a somewhat garbled form, from a trickster figure called Matshishkapeu, the Innu Fart Man. The language of the Fart Man is said to resemble that of "an anglophone person who can't speak Innu-aimun [the Innu language] very well but tries to communicate all the same" (1992:88).

Armitage reports that Innu stories are divided into two categories: stories of real life happenings and stories of creation and sacred events (Ibid:92). Adrian Tanner points out that "Much of the ancestral religion is recorded in legends," (1988:1377), although there are only a limited number of these in print in English, and virtually none in the Innu language. Some Innu legends can be found in Lucien Turner's Indians and Eskimos in the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula (1979), as well as in Speck's Naskapi (1977). There are also three small volumes of stories from Labrador, all edited by non-Innu: Peter Desbarats' What They Used to Tell About (1969), Anna Hammond's Labrador Stories (1973) and Harold Horwood's Tales of the Labrador Indians (1981). As with most bodies of mythology, Innu myths create cosmic order, provide positive or negative models for behavior, and explain contradictions in nature and in human behavior.

Armitage's discussion of traditional Innu religion covers two other areas that still have an important place in Innu social relations: the distribution of food and respect for the elderly. Bush food, particularly caribou, must be shared with others in the community, particularly the elderly, and a failure to do this can result in serious misfortune. Respect for the elderly is based on the belief that they have, through hunting or the handling of game animals, accumulated an ability to communicate with the spirit world through dreams, drumming, and divination. In fact, according to Armitage, elders have a very high status because "the entire spiritual and material well-being of Innu society is thought to rest on their shoulders (1992:102)" long after they have ceased to participate actively in hunting or handling of game.

As Armitage makes clear in his paper, the aspects of traditional Innu belief summarized here persist to a greater or lesser degree in present-day Innu society, some of them according to how much time individuals spend on hunting and harvesting activities. Observance and belief vary from one community, family or individual to another, and although ceremonies such as the mukaushan are still performed both privately and publicly in Labrador Innu communities, shamanism and shaking tent ceremonies are either unknown or remain hidden.

The Roman Catholic Church

Like most Canadian Indians, the Innu of Labrador are at least nominally Christians, specifically Roman Catholic. According to Podolinsky Webber (1996) the first trading post was established in the Davis Inlet area before 1869, and missionaries soon followed, with the establishment of a mission at Sheshatshit. A Roman Catholic priest, Father Edward O'Brien (known locally by the Innu-aimun equivalent of ‘Father Whitehead'), began to work regularly with the Barren Ground Innu in the 1920s and in the 1950s Father Cyr came to stay in Davis Inlet. Father F. Peters followed, and took the challenge of conversion much more seriously than previous missionaries. According to Henriksen, Father Peters saw drinking as the primary problem of the Innu and actively intervened to stop such behavior, thereby alienating many people. He lent money for boats on condition that the borrowers stop drinking, gave medical aid, distributed vitamins and milk to children, repaired machinery and supplied electric lights to tents from his generator. The missionary learned Innu-aimun and, says Henriksen, through confession gathered information about the entire community that gave him considerable influence (1973:95). Podolinsky Webber, who worked in the Davis area and submitted material to the National Museum, writes that Peters "never understood that the Innu had their own religion, beliefs and traditions which had served them well for a very, very long time and that the Christian religion was in many ways alien to Innu beliefs and could not take its place but could even become detrimental to their life." (1996:4) While Henriksen, Podolinsky Webber and others write at length about the power and control of the Catholic priests, they have little to say about the nature of the Christianized Innu's beliefs.

The Innu relationship to the Roman Catholic Church and to Christianity as a whole is a complex one, as attachment to the church does not necessarily mean rejection of traditional beliefs, although until relatively recently, as church practices have changed, it did mean that these beliefs had to be hidden. As Armitage explains, "Innu see no contradiction between belief in the Christian God and Jesus on the one hand and animal masters and forest spirits on the other."(1992:67) Henriksen reported that in 1973, traditional Innu beliefs had been forced "underground" and "They no longer play drums, sing or dance, and are extremely reluctant to talk about religious traditions." (1993:79-80). In 1997, however, the priest who served mass in Davis Inlet wore a caribou-skin chasuble, with both Innu design motifs and a crucifix, there was a drum hung in the church, and the priest took the central place at a public mukaushan and said grace before the meal. The women who serve mass and lead services when the priest is absent are the same women who lead the dancing when there is drumming and who instruct novices at the mukaushan (personal observation, 1997).

The attempt by the Catholic Church to regain its influence in the community by appropriating Innu traditions is welcomed by many elders but resented by many young leaders, and Henriksen believes that "the younger Innu leaders would come to demand that the drum be taken out of the church." (1993:16). Henriksen also believes that one of the most difficult tasks of the young Innu leaders and elders in the near future will be "to sort out the ‘interface' between the syncretic religion of the older people and the younger peoples' yearning for spiritual power and the securing of their identity in a decolonized Innu religion" (ibid.).

The dominance of the Catholic church among the Innu of Davis Inlet has waned significantly in recent years, not because people are returning to their traditional beliefs, but because too many Innu suffered sexual, physical and psychological abuse at the hands of religious workers and teachers. Innu testimony at the People's Inquiry of 1992 (Fouillard 1995) indicates that the current perception is that while the priests suppressed the drum, dancing, and mukaushan, all they offered in exchange were certain social services that in most Newfoundland and Labrador communities would normally have been supplied by the government. In the 1930s Speck suggested that the Innu, while first bewildered by Christianity, were "later captivated with the unaccustomed splendor of the Roman ritual" (1936:917), but current testimony suggests that spiritual growth was superficial. Whatever meaning Christian observance had may well have been borrowed from the Innu tradition. Numerous writers have commented on the similarity between mukaushan and the Eucharist service, which is perhaps why mukaushan is tolerated and now even encouraged by the Catholic church, while shaking tent, scapula divination and other practices are still forbidden to Christianized Innu.

In many cases it is difficult to distinguish between Christian influence and traditional beliefs. For example, Dorothy K. Burnham found crosses used as a design motif on fifteen painted caribou-skin coats made between 1700 and 1930, but fourteen of these she identifies as "examples of the native type of cross" with arms of equal length. Only one has a clearly Christian crucifix type of cross, but it also has native-style crosses on it. Today, tents used by people from Utshimassit commonly have a cross sewn or embroidered over the doorway, and it may be that these are intended as declarations of Christian belief, yet at least half of these crosses are native-style rather than crucifix form, and all are red or occasionally blue, colours that are associated with traditional design. Podolinsky Webber asserts that during hunting time, "reliance on charms, in the ancient manner, is still considered essential for protection and hunting success" (1974:150). Christian beliefs dominate in the village, but Innu traditions dominate in camp. One tent observed in 1997 had ashes deliberately smudged over the cross, which may have been intended as a statement rejecting the Roman Catholic presence in the camp.

The current attitude towards Roman Catholicism can be summed up by two of those who testified at the 1992 People's Inquiry (Fouillard 1995). A teenager said of the church and white society "Their way of living is our way of dying."(ibid:59) An older Innu, Kaniuekutat, said "I was baptized and I believe in the Church, but I also believe in our own religion, our own spiritual beliefs...I respect the Church very much, but we have to go back to our old ways too"(ibid:63). Most young people reject the church, while many older ones wish to maintain their Christian affiliation while also reviving the traditional spiritual beliefs. Henriksen maintains that the inconsistency of adherence to two disparate systems of belief is in appearance only and that there is an internal consistency of values that for the older Innu is integrated in the country if not in the village.

Healing Movements

Healing movements are the focus of much of the Labrador Innu community and leadership at the moment and it is in the various forms of healing that current Innu spiritual growth can be found. Some adaptation of Christian service is being introduced in the community (the use of lay-persons in Eucharist service, the presence of the priest at mukaushan), but this is not popular with the elders and has limited appeal for younger Innu. Pan-Indian or new-age spirituality, twelve-step programs to control alcohol and substance abuse, sentencing circles for judicial crimes, and a return to Innu tradition (what Rupert Ross calls "born-again paganism" - 1992:116) all have a place in the spiritual life of the Davis Inlet Innu.

Christianity is by far still the most organized element in the healing movement. A case documented by Georg Henriksen in Life and Death Among the Mushuau Innu of Northern Labrador (1993) demonstrates the power of the church to affect healing among parishioners--in this case, an Innu man who had decided to die was exorcised by a Catholic priest, and he began to recover. Even the subsequent onset of aplastic anemia was not enough to reverse the healing process begun by the Christian ceremony. Henriksen sees this case as an example where both Christian belief (the power of the priest) and Innu religion (the power of the caribou marrow) blend to effect a cure.

A movement away from Christianity by some Innu does not always mean a return to Innu tradition, as is evident in the use of non-Christian, non-Innu, names such as Poundmaker, Dream and Sage for very young children. Several couples who had refused Christian marriage because they did not wish to involve the priest initially declared they were satisfied with Innu-style marriage but then expressed great interest when they found out that a civil ceremony performed by a judge was possible. ‘New-age' approaches to healing are being embraced by the Presentation nun currently in charge of the school in Davis. The Davis Inlet convent is decorated with numerous Indian-style pictures and statues, turtle rattles, drums, and various animal pelts (as well as some conventional crucifixes and Buddhist prayer wheels and bells), very little of which originates with aboriginal people. Almost no Innu material is included in the display.

Pan-Indian forms of spirituality have also begun to take hold in the general population of Davis Inlet, much to the dismay of some anthropologists and journalists (personal observation, 1996-97). ‘Dream-catchers' and eagle feathers are displayed around the community, including in the church, store and convent as well as in people's homes, and the use of steam-baths (referred to in English as "sweat lodge") that was once reserved for hunters is now being extended to women and people of all ages. Exposure to other native people through television and visits from Indian actors and musicians, as well as travel to Alberta and other places for treatment for alcohol, drug and solvent abuse, has created an appetite for clothing and decorations that are identifiably modern yet also Indian. Perhaps the integration of Christianity and Innu beliefs that elders seem to be achieving may be balanced by a similar integration of Pan Indianism and Innu spirituality by the younger members of the community.

Community drama also played a role, for a time, in the spiritual healing of the Innu of Davis Inlet. Loss of culture, solvent abuse, religious conflict, family violence are all viewed as illness and the community treated itself through the dramatic productions of its young people. The Innu Theater Company from Davis Inlet first presented The Quest for Food in 1990, and as part of the Innuinuit group it produced Manitou: The People in 1988 and The Boneman: Kaiashits. According to Helen Peters, The Boneman, "set in the 1920s, dramatized the conflict in which the spiritual values of the aboriginal people were defeated by the church, the law, the Hudson's Bay Company and the International Grenfell Association. In the play, the Boneman is crucified in a manner that evokes the power off the Christian passion narrative--the innocent prophet and visionary is destroyed by the more powerful forces in the clash of cultures" (Peters 1996:xxviii). The Innu drama included drumming, traditional clothing, and some dialogue in Innu Aimun. Photographs and reaction to the play in Gathering Voices suggest it was "very strong and powerful...very important" (Fouillard 1995:57).

Gatherings, which are organized by the band council twice a year, are an important part of the healing process. In Davis Inlet, most of the community attend some or all the Gatherings, which are in camps away from the community. Private and public mukaushans - in which caribou fat and bone marrow, as sacred substances, are consumed by the elders in a ritual feast - are held, meetings are called to discuss community issues such as health, education, and relocation, very little drinking is evident and the stress is put on hunting, sharing of food, and other traditional activities.

Due to the high rate of alcohol and solvent abuse among Innu, at least some of which is the result of physical, sexual and psychological abuse from outside the community, substance abuse programs are in high demand. Mikmaw Lodge, Escasoni, Rising Sun Rehabilitation Centre, Lone Eagle Treatment Centre and Quebec's Mikisi, as well as Poundmaker Lodge treatment centre in Alberta, have all provided treatment programs for Innu. The language barriers, the distance traveled, the separation from family, all limit the effectiveness of these programs. Some Innu feel that the essentially foreign nature of these programs are the reason for the high relapse rate of those who have gone through them and there is a strong demand for a specifically Innu approach to these problems.

The Outpost Program, where families are supported in going by aircraft to live in camps in the bush for as much as three months, is seen as part of the Innu healing process. A mobile treatment centre that could be put in the country at Border Beacon (about 180 kilometers from Davis) , has been proposed as an effective supplement to the Outpost Program.. The Outpost Program facilitates harvesting, which according to all sources "is important for the physical and emotional health of the Innu" (Mackey 1995:11). The Innu plan to extend the program to include a specific segment for young women.

In cases where sexual abuse, violence, substance abuse or theft come to the courts in Northern Labrador, more emphasis is
now being put on sentencing circles and healing. Traditional Innu practice in such cases emphasized restoration of peace and good relations rather than punishment, and the failure of the Canadian judicial system to acknowledge this resulted in 1993 in the court being ordered out of Davis Inlet for approximately 18 months by members of the community. Three Innu leaders (the chief, the justice of the peace and a peacekeeper, all women) went to jail for contempt of court, but the result has been a somewhat increased sensitivity by the judicial system in dealing with Innu. Innu influence on the court system should result in the court cooperating in the healing process that Innu see as necessary for their community. It is noteworthy that Innu also see all levels of the legal system as potential allies in the healing process, as is evident in the band council by-laws regarding the respectful disposal of caribou remains that are in effect in Northern Labrador Innu communities.


Relatively little is known of traditional Innu religion and spirituality, and even less attention has been given to the current belief systems of Innu. Areas that require more research are clearly identified by Armitage: Innu Christianity, Pan Indian spirituality, current forms of traditional Innu belief and practice, beliefs in ghosts, aesthetic relationships with the land, new methods of healing including drama, sentencing circles, sweats and herbs, twelve step programs, Outpost Programs, and Gatherings all contribute toward Innu spirituality in ways that are at this time unclear.

Works Cited

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