The last singer: This Labrador elder is the only one who can sing hymns in her dialect

The last singer: This Labrador elder is the only one who can sing hymns in her dialect
Gary Quiqley/CBC

Manishan Edmonds used to take it for granted that her mother would always be around to sing those songs.

Akat Piwas has been singing them forever. It feels like forever, to Edmonds, as long as she can remember.

"I record her in church, a lot of times, on my iPhone," Edmonds says. 

"People ask me to send them those songs, if they have a loved one sick in the hospital. And they play those songs over and over."

Piwas's renditions of Catholic hymns, sung in the Mushuau dialect of Innu-aimun, sound ancient. 

Maybe that is because Piwas is the last of her kind — the last of the original Mushuau Innu church leaders who still sing these songs. 

Gary Quigley/CBC

Now 79, Piwas belongs to the generation of Mushuau Innu who were born in tents and raised on the land, before — as adults — being moved into houses in Davis Inlet, a village that would be plagued by poverty, shoddy housing and substance abuse. The community relocated to Natuashish in 2002. 

The Roman Catholic Church looms large over Natuashish. It was an authority, along with federal and provincial governments, which led what proved to be a painful transition for many Innu.

Fifty years after the upheaval, mother and daughter both find peace in the church, but for Edmonds, that peace comes only after reconciling her Christian faith with the system of belief that her ancestors held.

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Piwas is old enough to remember life before settlers, schools and government. She lived through the tumult that besieged her people as they all tried to come to grips with a completely foreign way of life. 

Hymns are part of a complicated history

The church, and its music, helped her navigate the change.

It's a complicated relationship. The Catholic Church's legacy has been tarnished by the abusive priests who wrought misery on their victims in Davis Inlet, and by its practice of discouraging Innu tradition. 

Edmonds is quick to point out that some priests served her community well. 

"There were some really good priests that educated them, that helped them," she says. "Then, there were some who didn't do so good with the Innu."

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For those who were harmed, the church is little more than a wellspring of pain. 

For Piwas, it's a source of strength.

The shaman and the priest

For thousands of years, before making contact with European settlers, the Mushuau Innu lived nomadically, moving with the seasons across Labrador, following the caribou and other animals to hunt.

They are closely related to other groups Innu in Labrador and Quebec, but speak a distinct dialect of the Innu-aimun language. 

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It was a Mushuau Innu shaman who first introduced his people to Catholicism, Edmonds says, stressing that she only knows what her mother told her.

A shaman, on a hunting trip far from home, who, perhaps because of his own spiritual powers, was keen to learn more about other forms of faith.

When he returned to the Innu camp, he told his family and friends what he knew. From then on, priests and other missionaries visited the Innu, offering blessings and bibles.

All the while, the shaman and the rest of the Mushuau Innu continued to practice their own faith, in tandem with Christianity.

Gary Quiqley/CBC

The Innu religion says all animals have a spirit, which must be respected. The shaman can communicate with the animals by way of a special ceremony called the shaking tent. In doing so, the shaman ensures a bountiful hunt.

Without the shaman, the Innu could not survive in the country, Edmonds says.

But when the Innu moved into houses in Davis Inlet, the shaman's days were numbered. 

A new way 

When the Newfoundland government decided to shepherd the Innu into community living, the Catholic Church played a key role. 

The local priest had pull with officials. He secured food and supplies, and in some cases was tasked with overseeing welfare programs.

Some priests took on the role of teacher. Some had medical training. Some chose the band council chief.

The church had a profound impact on the first generation of Innu adults who moved into the community in 1967 — people Piwas's age. It was a source of stability.

Camille Fouillard

"She's been a church leader all her life, all her Catholic life," Edmonds says.

"My mom didn't go to school. She taught herself to read and write by going to church, by reading the Innu hymns and the Innu service books."

But church and tradition didn't always coexist happily. Most priests discouraged the old ways. Drumming ceremonies. The shaking tent. Even speaking the language. 

Far worse, some priests exploited and abused the Innu. Many people have come forward over the years to accuse priests of molesting them.

Edmonds says, people her age didn't revere the church the same way the elders did. 

Bernadette Nui

"Our generation started fighting back. No more abuse. No more of this negativity that's on our culture, on our parents," Edmonds says.  

"They didn't have a choice because they were just coming off the land."

Time travellers

Coming off the land in the 1960s was something like time travel. Imagine the societal and technological changes you've seen in your lifetime, then contrast them with what Piwas has seen. 

Piwas and her generation spoke only Innu-aimun and never so much as laid eyes on a white person while growing up.

After contact with settlers and the eventual move to Davis Inlet, everything started changing: where Piwas lived, where she slept, what she ate. How her children were educated. How people travelled. What language they spoke. What holidays they celebrated. How justice was meted out. How people were married. What happened when someone died.

Who was in charge. 

Everything. 

The Innu way of life was torn asunder. Traditions were lost, people were left adrift. For Piwas, the Catholic faith was one thing that didn't change.

Mark Nui

It got bigger and more important, but it didn't change. 

The sacraments. The prayers. The hymns.

Miraculously, still there, after everything else vanished.

Two worlds

Edmonds says that she didn't understand her mother's faith when she was younger.  

"I didn't see what she saw," she says of her mother's relationship with Catholicism. 

She sees it now, though — why her mother believes, and how she can live in both the Innu world and the Christian world.

The same way that Piwas has been comforted by the church, Edmonds is, too. 

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Because it's always been there. Because it's how she was raised. 

"I need the Innu spirituality and I need the Catholic faith. This is what mom taught me and this is the entwinement of the two cultures," Edmonds says.

"I think that's a beautiful thing."

Though some of the old ways have been lost to time, Edmonds and others are working to preserve what's left. She regularly now leads women and girls on walks, hundreds of kilometres through the wilderness, calling back to a time before community living.

Of course, they use modern technology like GPS and satellite phones on their trek — but it doesn't take away from the connection Edmonds and the other walkers feel when they travel the land. 

Gary Quiqley/CBC

Faith is a lot like that, for Edmonds, now. One doesn't take away from the other. They make each other stronger.

"Both represents God. The church and our spirituality," she says.

"That's how we survive." 

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