Innu elder Akat Piwas remembered as 'kind and loving' pillar of community

·3 min read

An Innu elder is being fondly remembered as a friend to everyone in her community of Natuashish, and one whose long-lasting impact will be felt for years to come.

Akat Piwas died at home, surrounded by family and friends, on Feb. 3. She was 80.

Before her death, Piwas was the only elder still singing in the Mushuau dialect of Innu-aimun.

Her renditions of Catholic hymns are treasured by many ears in the community, including Rose Rich, who now lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, but grew up in Natuashish.

"She was a very kind and loving lady.… When I was a little girl I used to go to church a lot, every evening, to listen to her when she sang the hymn songs," said Rich.

"Whenever I listened to hear it was really calm and she had really nice voice.… When they were praying at the church, sometimes I couldn't wait for her to sing."

Thinking back on Piwas's singing is a special experience for Rich, who has kept recordings of performances and tries to sing along and learn to sing hymns in Innu-aimun. Piwas's death is a loss for the community, Rich said.

"I feel sad that she's gone. I still feel the sadness for the community, even though I'm not there," she told CBC's Labrador Morning.

Gary Quiqley/CBC
Gary Quiqley/CBC

Rich said it won't be just her singing that will be remembered; Piwas, who was Rich's godmother, also taught other traditional arts and practices to the younger generation.

"When I was in school, as a little girl, she usually came to school to teach us crafts like weaving and beading, so I learned how to knit from her from school," Rich said.

"My mother told me that when I was born, she was one of the midwives that helped when I was born. She and her late mother, and I think her sister. They were the ladies that were midwives when I was born."

Christine Poker said she will never forget listening to Piwas tell Innu legends, and the big laugh they would have as she told her favourite stories.

Gary Quigley/CBC
Gary Quigley/CBC

"Her laughter is a really big thing for me.… It's like she lifts up something inside me to feel good, and that, I will never forget," said Poker.

"She's everybody's friend in Natuashish.… It's like I lost my best friend."

Piwas was also a positive force for those facing their darkest moments, said Poker, the co-ordinator of the Mushuau Innu Healing Lodge in Nautashish, where she said Piwas would regularly visit and speak with clients.

"She would tell the clients, 'I will always be there if you need me.' That's the first word she would say whenever we introduced her to the group.… People, they turned to her," said Poker.

"When she would talk, she would talk about the good things, she would focus on good things instead of bad things. She would always tell us to wait, good things will come. Bad things will pass. She would always say that to me.… And when I was grieving for my mom, who I lost a year ago, she was there."

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