Innu Experiential Education
Tuamish Nua and Innu kids at camp near Utshimassits. Photo: Georg Henriksen (larger version)
Experiential Education and Innu Youth Programming
From the initial arcaheological surveys undertaken by Tshikapisk in 1998 and the log building work in 2001 up until the September 2005 youth archaeology program Tshikapisk has sought to provide experiential learning experiences and employment opportunities at Kamestastin for Innu youth. A key element in the social breakdown of Innu society has been the interruption in the flow of intergenerational knoweledge and values. The imposition of a structured school system without acknowledging or understanding what it was supplanting has played a direct role in creating the dysfunctional conditions which now prevail in most Innu villages. Tshikapisk is committed to work to repair these severed connections to the rich and personally fulfilling cultural foundations of the Innu.
A Mushuau Innu hunter scans the ice in front of the camp for caribou. Photo: Georg Henriksen (larger version)
Tshikapisk – Proposed Program of Experiential Learning: Introduction
Tshikapisk believes that Innu youth must be given the opportunity to reach a point of cultural self-confidence where they can face the future securely tethered to their identity and history.

Tshikapisk proposes to offer a year-round program of Innu studies to young Innu. The bulk of these studies will be conducted through experiential learning sessions and mentoring with older ‘country-educated’ Innu hunting couples.

In the tundra region of Labrador/Northern Quebec, at a location chosen for its abundant wildlife, purity and rich historical associations, Kamestastin, Tshikapisk is establishing an Innu cultural center as a base for its experiential learning programs. The center to be known as Ushakutum Utshistun, (the Gyrfalcon’s Nest) will consist of a main lodge, constructed out of locally available logs, a separate caretakers/managers residence, a staff cabin, and guest accomodations.

Kamestastin, in addition to its rôle as a center for Innu experiential learning, will also host fee-paying guests. Invited to participate in and experience Innu life their contributions will both help make the Tshikapisk work self-sustaining and provide salaried positions for young Innu people who have successfully completed the study program. Importantly the attention given to the Innu students by the visitors and the validation of their activities and skills by these guests will contribute to a new cultural self-confidence amongst Innu youth. Quite the reverse is the norm today. Innu cultural practices assume almost a surreptitious character amongst young Innu who fear that their association with these things will count against them in the teenage competition for prestige.
Instructor Ispastien Benuen working on canoe at Tshikapisk's Nutshimiu Atusseun Program - Uapinatsheunipit. Photo: Anthony Jenkinson (larger version)
The Experiential Learning Program
The subject matter to be covered in Tshikapisk's proposed program can, for the sake of presentation, be divided into four main areas. In real life the neat distinctions outlined here are much less exclusive: for example the distinction between the spiritual and practical dimensions of living are much less pronounced in Innu culture. Almost all objects, animals, features, even aspects of the change of seasons are felt to emanate spiritual power. For this reason one observer has described hunting among the Innu, once the preoccupation of all adults, as a holy occupation. The four areas are:

A. The practical Innu skills necessary to exist relatively independently, safely and comfortably in one of the harshest environments on earth. For example, knowledge of the properties of different woods and an understanding of how they are used in different implements; knowledge of tool making techniques including canoes and snowshoes and the tools required to build them. How to make a tent, stove, axe-handle, fish-spear etc.; innu cuisine and its ingredients; preparation and tanning of animal skins; making of Innu winter clothing; snowshoe weaving etc.

B. The intellectual grounding to be able to experience life in the interior on an intellectual as well as a physical level. For example, knowledge of the Atanukana, the fables and morality plays that are the oral literature of the Innu and which contain not only explanations of large themes in Innu life but also convey details of wildlife behavior and the inter-relationship between species including between humans and other animals; knowledge of the rich vocabulary of the Innu hunting life so that happenings and incidents and the landscape itself can be adequately described and discussed.

C. The spiritual dimension to the hunting life. Awareness of the obligations of the hunter to treat animals with respect and to maintain a harmonious relationship with the forces that control them. There are a host of different rules and procedures set in place over generations of Innu hunting experience which arbitrate the relationship between the Innu and the other animals who share the land with them.Some of these have to do with ritual disposal of animal bones, some exalt generosity, sharing and even-temperedness and others involve harnessing supernatural forces to ensure hunting success and to ward off misfortune.

D. Certain practical skills demanded by the inclusion of new tools in the inventory of the Innu hunter and by the requirements of participation in Tshikapisk eco-tourism activities. For example small engine outboard and snowmobile repair, in particular emergency repair in areas where service and parts may not always be readily available; use of telecommunications equipment, including HF radio-telephones, satellite phones and GPS; first aid; gun safety; site location using map co-ordinates; fly-fishing and the hatching periods of various local food insects; basic archaeological knowledge and skills including site identification and preservation, and cultural interpretation for visitors,inter alia.

The program will be able to take 24 students at a time. These will be divided into six groups of four each attached to a mentor or older Innu person who will be responsible for those in their group of four over the three year period. Three of these groups will be composed of Innu girls or young women and three of Innu boys or young men.

It needs to be appreciated that the knowledge and skills which Tshikapisk will teach to the participants was previously acquired by young Innu over the course of their childhood and adolescence. Tshikapisk is attempting to concentrate this learning over a more concentrated period period of instruction. The forms that this instruction will take will not be able to replicate exactly the kind of learning learnt literally at one’s father’s or mother’s knee. Some of the structure will not fit exactly the expectations of older Innu who grew up absorbing this cultural information almost by osmosis. But with the use of mentors and through small groups Tshikapisk will try to approximate the conditions in which this knowledge is most effectively transmitted.

Although an outline of some of the subject material will be provided here, much of the learning will come in the course of informal day to day activities, inside tents for example, as the mentors/teachers talk to their group on subjects such as the Atanukana, the Innu spiritual world, and Innu genealogy and history while they might be working on snowshoe making and other skills development.

The other consideration is that much of the learning activities will be timed according to the seasons and even particular weather conditions prevailing at a given moment. As the onset of different seasonal events varies and weather of course is not predictable decisions on when material is to be covered and in what order must be left to the discretion of staff. While some of the course content can be covered in a classroom environment by far the greater part cannot, and thus will require that the studentsexperience the subject matter in its own context.

The course of experiential learning will have to be staggered over several years to allow for breaks while at the same time covering the whole year of complete seasons. Innu life is attuned to the constantly changing conditions in weather, seasons, and the attendant variations in various animal populations. A break taken three years running, over the summer period for example, would mean that the students were never exposed to the subject matter covered by that time of year, such as Innu methods of dealing with biting flies, how to smoke cure fish, make and mend nets, build fish spears, the particular weather conditions encountered in summer etc.
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