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Territory and Traditional Life Cycles

The Innu once occupied and exploited an immense territory encompassing the entire Saint Lawrence catchment area between the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and Labrador. They called this territory “Nitassinan” (our land).

Families occasionally crossed the Saint Lawrence Estuary to hunt on the land now known as the Bas-du-Fleuve (missionary Henri Nouvel accompanied a group south of present-day Rimouski in 1663-64). The north of the island of Newfoundland was also visited rather often, especially in the first half of the 18th century.

A nomadic people of hunters, fishermen and berry gatherers, the Innu travelled all over this extremely vast territory, following the rhythm of the seasons and the resources they promised. In the fall, bands composed of a certain number of families left their summer camps, mostly at the mouths of the large Côte-Nord rivers that flow into the estuary and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

This was the beginning of a long journey upriver, following the course of those same rivers, where numerous obstacles like strong currents or breathtaking falls were avoided by using portage paths sometimes several kilometres long, such as the great portages of the Sainte-Marguerite and Moisie Rivers.

The families separated during this trip upriver, some remaining on the river’s main course while others branched off onto smaller tributaries. In addition, families were sometimes scattered around the perimeters of great lakes such as Manicouagan, Ashuanipi, Minaieku or Petshissikupau.

In the interior, or “Nutshimiu”, as they called it, the Innu spent long winter months pursuing providential caribou herds or taking the opportunity to fish on one of the Québec-Labrador peninsula's countless lakes. In times of scarcity, they pinned their hopes on small game such as partridge, porcupine or hare.

Springtime and the thawing of the waterways corresponded to the start of the family groups’ trip back towards the coast of the Saint Lawrence. In May, thousands of Canada geese landed on shores and lakes during their migration towards the Canadian Arctic. Atlantic salmon swam up many Côte-Nord rivers in June, a highly strategic time for the Innu, who fished by torchlight or with nets.

Summer camps were sometimes composed of hundreds of individuals. The mild season was a high point of the year for the Innu. People gathered around the fire listening to captivating hunting stories told by family chiefs, elders told stories and narratives full of teachings to youth, and the shaman occasionally performed a few mysterious rites...

During this period, people met up with others from whom they’d been separated for long months or even years, they were introduced to neighboring band members, looked for a love match, etc. This was also the occasion to repair or build the few elements making up Innu material culture: arms, traps, containers, snowshoes and precious canoes. And as soon as August came along, they prepared once again to head North over the mountains that separated them from the Labrador plateau and its ever-so-desirable caribou.

This ancestral way of life was based on the traditional values and sharing that have allowed the Innu people to survive to this day.

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