Walking with Elizabeth Penashue

CPJ has long worked in support of the Innu people. We were proud to co-sponsor a Toronto event in December featuring three Innu women, including Elizabeth Penashue, to promote “It’s Like the Legend”, a book of Innu women’s voices. Below is a stirring account of a healing walk by former Labrador doctor Jane McGillvray, who is walking with Elizabeth and other Innu.

I have just returned from a week of walking with Elizabeth Penashue in the Mealy Mountains. She is a 57 year old Innu woman, mother and grandmother. She has asked me to be a messenger for her to tell people around the country about her walk and why she is doing it. Her walk will likely continue for three and a half weeks in total. The destination is Minonipi Lake, the head waters for several water sheds, and Elizabeth’s family’s traditional spring hunting grounds, 170 miles southwest of Sheshatshiu. This is the fourth year that she has walked in the spring. Perhaps with the many tragic events that have come to light in Innu communities, it is also the most poignant.

Elizabeth talks about growing up in the country, walking and paddling, living without skidoos and other high technologies, and without government handouts. She remembers her people working hard, having good food and laughing and being happy, and taking good care of each other. She believes that the people in her community and everywhere need to reconsider the direction that their lives are taking. We all need to think about what is healthy and good, and what is not. And more than just THINK about it, we need to ACT on it. Her ACTION is her WALK. In Innu language, a ‘path’ is called a ‘meshkanu’. She speaks about making a good path for the future, “a good meshkanu”. Her Walk is this path.

Elizabeth knows that it does not take a lot of money to quietly go walking. The skills to survive can be re-learned and passed on to young people. She knows that her Meshkanu, as simple as it may seem, is a path that creates a healthy life just simply by choosing to walk along it. It is in the process of walking and living along this path that brings balance and perspective. It heals both the body and the spirit, and is available to everyone who has the courage to begin the first step and keep going. It is also not expensive. She is not funded by the Innu Band Council, the Innu Nation or government. She has had some small, but helpful donations, to buy food staples like flour and tea.

She began her walk with several people. Her son Jack and two granddaughters, Megan and Jenna, who are both 10 years old and her grandson Cree who is 3. Shinipest and Tony Penashue and Philip Rich are three wonderful strong young men who are helping to breaking the trail and hunting for food, hauling heavy sleds as they go. As well, there is Erin, a white woman and anthropology/divinity student studying at Harvard.

Elizabeth believes that her people need to know that they can still be strong and resourceful and capable. She wants everyone to know that they are able to move on their land, under their own steam, like they always have. When she started her walk four years ago she needed to re-learn some things that she had forgotten, but each year it becomes easier. She becomes stronger and more committed to what she is doing. She also remembers her older sister Mani-Aten Andrew who tried also to make this kind of ‘good path’ before she died. She is thankful for her sister’s spirit that helps to encourage her. Elizabeth also thanks the Creator for giving her one more beautiful day, each day, as it unfolds its gifts.

She wants to tell people three important things:

  1. The land, Ntissenan, is precious just as it is – NOT because it can be flooded (Churchill River Hydro Development), mined (Voisey’s Bay), or used as low-level military flight range. It is NOT valuable because the trees can be cut down commercially. Cutting the trees down hurts the land. She wants people to know that this land is precious because it gives people everything they need to live and become healthy again. There are porcupine, beaver, partridge to eat. Beautiful clean water. There are many trees for setting up the camp and for fire wood. Each day is soaked in breath-taking beauty.
  2. She wants people to know that they can be healthy and become strong by walking and working. The land will give them what they need. People will be restored to health both physically, (by working and hunting), and spiritually, by knowing that the land is abundant and giving. She wants us to know that we are capable of living with all of the challenges that come up each day.
  3. By walking, life is slowed down to a pace in which there is the time to NOTICE. To really NOTICE. There is the quality of time to pay attention to the snow, the trees, the animals, the wind and sun light. Paying attention to all of these gifts of abundance makes people brim full in their hearts with gratitude and respect.

People are mostly walking by snowshoes, hauling heavy toboggans with all of the gear. (When I was out there, I took my dogs and dog sled and cross country skis.) The camp is generally set up each night. Every third day or so is a rest day for drying out and hunting for more meat, storing energy.

The tent is a large canvas affair about 10×12 feet and high enough that a person can stand up in the middle. It has no floor by design, so each time it is set up, spruce bows are collected from the woods and woven to make a soft, warm, beautiful smelling layer of insulation between the snow and us. There is a stove, a tin box, with a stove pipe going through a hole in the side of the tent wall. This stove easily heats up the whole tent, so that it is warm and able to dry out the wet clothes from a day’s expedition, and to cook on, fueled by the dry wood all around in the forest.The tent poles are not carried but are made from the forest with each camp.

Elizabeth’s walk is along the Traverspine River (called Wabush Shipushish in Innu–translated into Rabbit Brook). This river feeds into the south shore of the Churchill River. The distance walked is expected to be about 150 miles in all. The people are travelling about 10-15 miles a day. The snow is seemingly bottomless. To walk off of the path without snow shoes is nearly impossible. I have floundered my way out of more than several snow holes after sinking up to my neck. This ‘snow hole’ is an experience that everyone should have at least once in life.

While travelling through the country, the men are hunting porcupine and partridge. Porcupine preparation is a very interesting process and deserves an entire manual to describe it adequately. Out on the path, it tastes divine. Jack and Elizabeth would tell you that porcupine are like Innu Power Bars…. instant energy fixes. A kind trapper gave us a beaver on the first day of the walk, so we have had a wonderful feast of beaver meat as well.

It is VERY hard work walking along the steeply inclined paths that lead up from the river to the extensive mashes that are walked along each day. I had many times when my dogs and myself would be strenuously hauling the now-million pound sled up a hill. I might be braced around a tree, Hannah and Nanook looking over at me shaking their dog heads, sled precariously perched on a knoll, inches away from sliding back all the way from where we had struggled to come. And then, having made it at least over that one hill, though no guarantees about the next one, lying face up staring through the evergreen to the brilliant blue, momentarily exhausted, and yet brimming full of this amazing adventure.

Each day, snow is melted over the stove to make water for drinking. On those struggling moments on the trail, thirsty beyond remembering, and lying in the snow, I am continually reminded of how life, water, energy, flows through me, and, indeed, through each of us. When we are challenged and open, the life forces, whether food from the porcupine or water from the snow or brook, wash through us, and wash us clean. This is, I think, how the earth heals us.

I write all of these details because there has been all the negative press and tragic images of the Innu struggle in community life. As well, there is the questionable path of ‘institutional healing’, with ‘trained professionals’ of one sort or another. Elizabeth Penashue is trying to show that there is another, very important healing story to tell, another healing path to walk… and we must all be responsible for nurturing and encouraging this path, then learning to walk this path ourselves.

The days I have just spent on Elizabeth’s walk have been been gorgeous and simple. There are no fancy ‘therapists’, no person who is the ‘healer’ while every one assumes some lesser weakened role. The days are filled with humour…. hilarious contrasts. Like,Sexy Leopard Motif bedsheets on bulky foam mattresses beside, high-tech therma-rests. There is the hilarity of realizing how we cling to one piece of junk and then another, as we slowly learn to let them go…….Erin and I began a list of the ‘expendable expenditures’ as item after item of high tech, velcroed, gortexed, breathable, waterproofed essential outdoor-wear bit the dust.

What works when living in a walking process, and what does not work, becomes clear quickly. Having to haul the weight of one’s choices, quickly makes a person decide what they can dump, gleefully, to lighten the load. I would not be surprised to discover, in some future analysis, that the traditional Innu life is the highest bioregional technology possible in this land. These traditional technologies are extremely important in learning to live, again, a sustainable, mutually-enhancing and respectful path on this gentle, exquisite land.

Elizabeth’s walk is hard and challenging, but even more importantly, it is full of JOY. There are happy humans living, and being grateful, NOTICING the beauty and the abundance that is there for us any time we have the courage to go out and meet it.

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2 thoughts on “Walking with Elizabeth Penashue”

  1. I sincerely loved to read
    I sincerely loved to read this story of the walk everyone encountered with Elizabeth, this story is very informative of the ways of the innu life…Very inspiring and traditional. All those who encountered a walk with Elizabeth will have a taste of the beauty of the outdoors life and the abundance the land offers to them….I encourage you to take a walk and see for yourself the true beauty this land offers…and to NOT take away the rights of the Innu People of their land. God Bless!

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  2. Thank you for the
    Thank you for the descriptions of Elizabeth and Jack’s walk, along with their companions. I met them in Labrador in the early1990’s at their house and then took Jck and Bart (Mechen) to NYC to speak at the United Nations Youth Forum on the Environment. Then once, I saw Jack speaking at the Center for Wordl Relgions at Harvard. I have many happy memories of going around NYC withthose two young men, who helped me see NY through the eyes of Innu Hunters, who feed the people before eating themselves. I wish I could walk with the group, but know that I am in support down here on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where I live now.

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