At a Natuashish gathering, a chance to reconnect with old friends and old ways

·3 min read
Delphina Rich gets an Innu tent ready for the elder's gathering in Natuashish, in August 2022. (John Gaudi/CBC - image credit)
Delphina Rich gets an Innu tent ready for the elder's gathering in Natuashish, in August 2022. (John Gaudi/CBC - image credit)

Delphina Rich crouched on the dirt floor of the big community tent, weaving together the spruce boughs that would act as a cushion for elders soon to enjoy a traditional feast.

She learned how to collect boughs and lay them just right back when she was a little girl. Rich and a few other women spent the better part of a day at it.

It's meticulous, meditative work. She hadn't done it since her father died 15 years ago.

"I never forget what my father showed me in the culture work. Our culture," she said.

"He would be proud of me, the way I'm working right now. Probably watching over me, right now."

John Gaudi/CBC
John Gaudi/CBC

The Elders Gathering 2022 saw hundreds of Innu from Labrador and Quebec descend on Natuashish for a week of cultural celebrations out on the land.

Nearly a hundred tents dotted the landscape just outside the Mushuau Innu First Nation. The Innu communities in the region take turns hosting one another. This gathering, in late August, was the first since 2019, thanks to COVID-19.

John Gaudi/CBC
John Gaudi/CBC

Eighty-eight year old Joachim Nui was born in the country at Kamestastin Lake in Labrador, and is the last traditional drummer in Natuashish.

He said the gathering is modelled on similar get-togethers that took place in the country before colonization and before communities were settled.

"People in the country sometimes met in the same place. They were all walking. They meet together and they set tents," Nui said in Innu-aimun, through interpreter Philip Pinette.

"There were meals, a feast together, because they meet together. They were having fun. There were drums and there was dancing, traditional dancing."

John Gaudi/CBC
John Gaudi/CBC

Nui told stories and drummed for a crowd, as family members danced along in the traditional style, stepping in time in a large circle in the community tent.

In the old days, Nui said, these kinds of gatherings happened spontaneously. Nowadays, the younger generations plan well in advance.

Apart from storytelling, drumming and dancing, the gathering has some modern entertainment: a king and queen named from each community, games like pass-the-package, and music from contemporary artists like Natuashish band The Gregoire Boys.

John Gaudi/CBC
John Gaudi/CBC

There were solemn events, too, like guided discussions about the impact of alcohol on Innu communities, and a visit to the abandoned community of Davis Inlet.

And in between, plenty of downtime to visit tent-to-tent, playing cards and reconnecting with old friends and distant cousins, after years spent apart.

"This kind stuff makes lives better. I just see good positivity around me. I just see a lot of good people having fun and being happy," said Roman Lee Penashue, 13.

Roman said he enjoyed being out on the land and connecting with nature.

"Being around elders, too, can really help you, they can teach you a lot of stuff."

John Gaudi/CBC
John Gaudi/CBC

That kind of intergenerational exchange doesn't come as easy as it used to, Nui said.

His parents taught him traditional ways of life in the country, but when Innu moved into communities and started attending school, those skills began to fade.

"It's not the same," Nui said through his interpreter.

For kids like Roman, a gathering of elders is a too-rare glimpse of how things used to be. A chance to learn the old ways -- tinged with the new.

The highlight for him: watching his dad play with The Gregorie Boys. Roman is learning to play guitar, and wants to pursue a career in music someday.

"My dream is to be like my dad," he said.

Next year, the Elders Gathering will be held in Unamen-Shipu (also known as La Romaine) in Quebec.

John Gaudi/CBC
John Gaudi/CBC

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