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Living In Our Land

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Issue: 35 Section: Original Peoples Geography: North Nitassinan Topics: food security, Indigenous

March 29, 2006

Living In Our Land

The Tshikapisk Foundation aims to promote Innu culture and safeguard Innu land

by Kim Petersen

Tshikapisk Foundation provides experiential, cultural and spiritual learning programs for Innu youth. photo: Etienne Pastiwet
"We want to become independent, be normal, have our own culture and preserve who we are," Napes Ashini says simply. Ashini has hunted for over 30 years in Nitassinan (Our Land). He is now a spokesman for hunters and ordinary Innu.

Living in harmony with the land is the foundation of Innu culture, says Ashini, and hence, it also holds the key to the recovery of Innu society. The Innu are in the midst of a struggle to regain the land that was usurped from them by Canadian colonizers, despite the fact that no treaty ceding land was every signed.

Of the land claims negotiation process, Ashini says bluntly: "It was designed to rip off [the Innu]."

Ordinary Innu have been left without a voice, says Ashini, since the Canadian government recognizes only elected "leaders." This imposed system conflicts with traditional Innu culture, which is based on an egalitarian nation without chiefs.

Ashini describes how Innu consultants and the federal and provincial governments kept the Innu in the dark about land claim negotiation developments. "All our legal advisors or non-legal consultants were pressuring us to cede our land to the governments.

"They want us to extinguish our rights and our lands altogether, so that in the future our descendents won't be able to sue or have lawsuits against the governments." According to Ashini, the majority of Innu will never accept this.

Ashini believes the whole process is a deliberate government ploy to trap the Innu into settlements, a situation that has imperiled their culture.

Approximately 90 per cent of people living in the settlements are unemployed, says Ashini. This has led to "rampant" problems of substance abuse and a high rate of youth suicide, issues unheard of in the past.

The federal government, he says, has "thrown money" at the problems in the settlements, promoting sweat lodges and other "bogus" treatments. Ashini has also seen many mega-projects come to Nitassinan, promising "development" but bringing only more hardship for most Innu.

The key to revitalizing Innu society is getting back to its cultural roots, believes Ashini. "In the past we had our own culture, our own identity, our own history."

"We want to start our own ways to find a long-term solution," he says. Ashini is a co-founder of the non-profit Tshikapisk Foundation. The foundation aims to promote Innu culture and safeguard Innu land by providing experiential cultural and spiritual learning programs for Innu youth.

"In order to retain our own culture we must go back in the country and teach our young people about their identity, about Innu culture, Innu values, Innu history," says Ashini. "We have a history that dates back close to 10,000 years." This history and rich culture is not taught in Newfoundland schools, says Ashini.

Considering its importance in preserving the Innu way of life, Ashini believes the Tshikapisk Foundation is not getting the support and attention it deserves. He estimates that the foundation needs at least $1 million to complete an Innu Cultural Centre, money that has not been forthcoming from the government.

Ashini finds this ironic considering the federal government was hoping to put $500 million into a NATO Tactical Fighter Weapons Training Centre in Nitassinan in the 1980s. The proposed project, which was hugely controversial and met with strenuous objections from the Innu, was eventually stopped.

The Innu seek to end dependency and re-establish their culture and society, says Ashini. To achieve this, the Innu need an economy that corresponds to Innu needs and aspirations. The Tshikapisk Foundation hopes to help build a self-supporting rural economy, emphasizing traditional Innu knowledge and skills.

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