Sebastien Penunsi, among the last of nomadic Innu, dies at 91

·3 min read
Innu Nation elder Sebastien Penunsi and former MP Peter Penashue at the Muskrat Falls inquiry, where Penunsi gave an oral history of the Innu's links to Churchill River and Lake Melville. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Innu Nation elder Sebastien Penunsi and former MP Peter Penashue at the Muskrat Falls inquiry, where Penunsi gave an oral history of the Innu's links to Churchill River and Lake Melville. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Innu Nation elder Sebastien Penunsi and former MP Peter Penashue at the Muskrat Falls inquiry, where Penunsi gave an oral history of the Innu's links to Churchill River and Lake Melville.
Innu Nation elder Sebastien Penunsi and former MP Peter Penashue at the Muskrat Falls inquiry, where Penunsi gave an oral history of the Innu's links to Churchill River and Lake Melville.(Terry Roberts/CBC)

Innu in Labrador are paying their respects to a renowned elder, Sebastien Penunsi, who bridged eras of dramatic change while gathering knowledge that was critical to land claim negotiations.

Penunsi, 91, died late last week.

Born in 1930, Penunsi lived much of his life on the land, and was perhaps the last nomadic Innu to have followed the caribou herds as they traveled vast distances across Labrador.

"He was 91 years old, and with that came a lot of experiences and a lot of information," said former MP Peter Penashue, who noted that Penunsi was front and centre when the Innu Nation began discussing land rights.

"He was involved in the development of land travel routes, hunting routes, and mapping out all the significant sites on a huge map in a gymnasium back in 1980."

That year, Penunsi and a group of elders mapped out the sacred Innu sites of the region, including places where they hunted and travelled with their families.

The same map was later used by the federal provincial governments to begin land claims discussions with the Innu.

Former Labrador MP Peter Penashue called Penunsi a beautiful person, and a remarkable man who made great contributions to the Innu Nation and its continuity.

Sebastien Penunsi was a tireless advocate for Innu rights, said Peter Penashue.
Sebastien Penunsi was a tireless advocate for Innu rights, said Peter Penashue.(Greg Locke)

In an interview, Penashue recounted how Penunsi traveled alongside other Innu elders to the United Nations to fight for the rights of the Innu.

"He was a very remarkable man, and he was very good at communicating through an interpreter," said Penashue. "He was very present in the conversations that he was involved with."

Honoured for his work

Given his ease in the courtrooms and hearings which he attended, Penunsi was often called upon to testify to the customs and traditions of the Innu.

At 88, he was the first witness called after a constitutional challenge was made towards charges brought against Innu hunters, for the alleged illegal hunting of caribou in 2013.

The hunt in question occurred shortly after the provincial government instituted a five-year ban on George River caribou in an attempt to save the herd.

Then Innu Nation grand chief, Prote Poker, called the ban an infringement on the Innu way of life, and said that the hunt would continue.

"He was here in this part of Labrador prior to the development of Goose Bay," said Penashue. "He remembered a lot of the conversations, the people, and the history of it: that's why he was such a key elder in our court submissions, public submissions, or hearings."

A funeral for Penunsi was held in Sheshatshiu, and included prominent members of the Innu community.

"He was such a remarkable man, and he made a great contribution to the Innu Nation, and to the future of the Innu Nation," Penashue said.

"All of us in the Innu community honour his work, and we honour his presence."

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