mealy mountains, nitassinan -- i
have just returned from a week of walking with Innu leader Elizabeth Penashue in the Mealy Mountains. She will journey here for another two weeks, until she reaches Mininipi Lake, the Penashue family's traditional spring hunting grounds 170 miles southwest of Sheshatshiu.
This is the fourth year she's walked in the spring. Perhaps with the many tragic events that have come to light in Innu communities, it is also the most poignant. Penashue believes that the people in her community, and perhaps everywhere, need to reconsider the direction their lives are taking. Her action is her walk. In Innu language, a "path" is a "meshkanu." She speaks about making a good path for the future, "a good meshkanu."
She began her walk with several people: her son Jack and two granddaughters, Megan and Jenna, both 10 years old, and her grandson Cree, who is three. Three wonderful, strong young men break the trail and hunt for food, hauling heavy sleds as they go.
Penashue says her people need to know that they can still be strong and resourceful on the Nitassinan land, which is precious just as it is. It is not precious because it can be flooded (the Churchill River Hydro Development), mined (Voisey Bay), used as a low-level military flight range or lumbered.
Rather, it is valuable, she points out, because it gives people everything they need to become healthy again. There are porcupines, beavers and partridges to eat, clean water, trees for setting up camp and firewood. Walking, life slows to a pace where there's time to pay attention to the snow, the trees, the animals, the wind and sunlight.
The walkers use snowshoes and haul heavy toboggans with all the gear, although I took my dogs, dogsled and cross-country skis. The camp is set up each night. Every third day or so is a rest day for drying out and hunting for more meat.
The tent is a large canvas affair, about 10 by 12 feet, and high enough so a person can stand up in the middle. By design, it has no floor, so each time it is set up spruce boughs are collected from the woods and woven to make a soft, warm, beautiful-smelling layer of insulation between the snow and us.
The stove, a 1-by-1-by-2-foot tin box with a stovepipe that goes through a hole in the side of the tent wall, easily heats up the whole tent. We're able to dry out all the wet clothes from a day's expedition, and to cook on it. It's fuelled by the dry wood all around -- there's an endless supply. The tent poles are not carried with us but are made from the forest with each camp.
Penashue's walk is along the Traverspine River (called Wabush Shipushish in Innu -- which translates as Rabbit Brook). This river feeds into the south shore of the Churchill River. The distance is expected to be about 150 miles in all. We are travelling about 10 to 15 miles a day, and the snow is seemingly bottomless. To walk off the path without snowshoes is nearly impossible. I have floundered my way out of more than several snow holes after sinking up to my neck. On the way, the men hunt porcupine and partridge. Penashue says porcupines are like Innu Power Bars -- instant energy fixes.
It is very hard work walking along the steep paths that lead up from the river to the extensive marshes. Many times my dogs and I strain to haul the sled uphill. As I brace myself, holding onto a tree, Hannah and Nanook look over at me, shaking their dog heads, the sled precariously perched inches away from sliding all the way back to where we started. And then, having made it over the hill, I lie face up staring through the evergreens to the brilliant blue, momentarily exhausted and yet brim-full of this amazing adventure.
Snow is melted every day over the stove to make water for drinking. At those struggling moments on the trail, thirsty beyond remembering, I am reminded of how life, water, energy flow through me. When we are challenged and open, the life forces, whether in the form of food from the porcupine or water from the snow or brook, wash through us, wash us clean.
I write all these details because there has been so much negative press and so many tragic images of the Innu struggle in community life. As well, there is the questionable path of "institutional healing" under the guidance of "trained professionals" of one sort or another. But there is another healing story to tell -- a good meshkanu to walk -- and we must all be responsible for encouraging this path and then learning to walk it ourselves.
We learn to laugh at our equipment. My Therma-rest develops a serious bulging tumour. I cling to one piece of junk and then another, slowly learning to let them go. A list of "expendable expenditures" grows as item after item of high-tech, velcroed, Gortexed, breathable, waterproofed, essential outdoor-wear bites the dust -- often melted and leaking, mottled and deformed.
Having to haul the weight of one's choices quickly helps a person decide what can be dumped -- gleefully.
Jane McGillivray, a physician, has taken a leave of absence from her practice in Northwest River and Sheshatshiu.