Labrador Innu land claims and the indigenous archaeology paradox

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Community leader and activist and Innu Nation Chief Daniel Ashini (1959-2009) and Dominique Pokune survey the flooded shore of former Lake Michikamau in a 1995 archaeological survey. Source: Stephen Loring, Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution

Though several indigenous groups within Canada and North America have historically been exploited during the land claims process, the lack of treaties, the discovery of myriad natural resources, the hydroelectric potential, and the superimposition of provincial boundaries upon “traditional” territory have left the Innu of Interior Labrador (Nitassinan) in a uniquely challenging situation, both with regards to land claims and maintaining their autonomy. In recent years, the Innu of Nitassinan have initiated archaeological research to document sites important to their cultural heritage before they are destroyed in industrial development projects, to provide long standing evidence of land tenure to aide in land claim struggles, and even in what could be deemed “life projects” to help educate their youth.

Arguably, such projects were instrumental in bridging the gap between the Innu ontology of nutshimit (“Life on the Land”) and Canadian political and corporate interests, leading to the ratification of the Tshash Petapen (or “New Dawn”) Agreement in 2011 which both established land claims and mandated restitution for the damage caused to the land by the Lower Churchill Generation Project, and the Voisey’s Bay Agreement, which remains a work in progress, though should follow a similar vein. In this brief paper, several of the challenges that have faced the Labrador Innu communities such as the forced abandonment of their nomadic lifestyle, extreme poverty and high suicide rates, and the tragic fire in Utshimassit will be discussed. Furthermore, the process the Innu have needed to endure to make land claims, while forced to debate issues of land tenure with the provincial governments of Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec, the federal government, and commercial industries will be methodically analyzed. Next the practices of “indigenous archaeology” and ethnohistory in North America will be outlined as they have rapidly progressed in the last several decades and are now both accessible and applicable in many facets of indigenous communities, and particularly in the arena of land claims.

The theoretical applicability of indigenous archaeology will then be juxtaposed with archaeological practice among the Innu in Labrador to demonstrate how the face of archaeology has changed, and what it can do within a community. Finally, the present successes in land claim agreements, the hope that the Innu have for the future of their communities, and ways in which archaeology can continue to help will be detailed. Ultimately, this paper aims to not only outline several of the challenges that have historically been faced by the Innu, and the recent land claim success they have had with the Tshah Petapen (New Dawn) Agreement, but some of the modern methods of a more social archaeology which serve the community in which research is conducted.

Innu communities and contextualizing land claim struggles

At present, within Interior Labrador and Quebec there are thirteen extant sedentary Innu communities, with nine located within the Quebec border, with a population of 15,000, and four in Labrador, with a population of 2,400 (Mailhot 1997: 39; Newfoundland and Labrador 2011; Wadden 1996: 7). The “native” language that is used among them is Innu-aimun, although most also speak English and French (Wadden 1996: 9). Among all communities, the demographics are extremely skewed to the extent where, in communities such as Sheshatsiu sixty percent of the population is under the age of eighteen (Wadden 1996: 7). In the Innu Nation Representative Council the Chief is currently Mark Nui (Newfoundland and Labrador 2008).With such a young community, and with the Nutshimit of the Innu at stake, the impetus to secure land claims and pass on the traditions that have so rapidly been lost within the last few centuries to the next generation is strong. Before the present struggles are outlined however, the historic struggle of the Innu within Labrador must be contextualized.

Though there was no written record of the Innu before European contact, it is believed by geographers and historians that due to glaciation and caribou migratory patterns the Innu presence in Interior Labrador stretches back approximately 2,000 years (Wadden 1997: 26). Before this, it is likely that they derived from the “Maritime Archaic” tradition, who were a coastal people who disappeared approximately 3,800 years ago (Mailhot 1997: 5). Subsequently, it is unknown when the first contact between the Innu and Europeans was made, although it is believed that it must have occurred when the Basque were whaling in Red Bay, Labrador at the Strait of Belle Isle between the early 1500s and 1600s (Tuck and Grenier 1989: 1).It is speculated that earlier than this the Innu may have come in contact with the Norse around 1000AD or even John Davis in 1586-1587, though these musings have no means by which they could be confirmed (Mailhot 1997: 7).

When Cartier arrived in 1534, the Innu apparently boarded his vessels without fear to trade, but after a period the Innu became frustrated with the efforts of the French to meddle in political and economic affairs by trying to appoint chiefs and encouraging agriculture (Wadden 1996: 26-28). In large part because of this, the Innu helped the English seize Quebec in 1629, being the lesser of two evils (Wadden 1996: 28). Even this overwhelming statement did not deter the French, and they proceeded to change tactics by the opening of the Sillery Mission to try and encourage the Innu to act less like heathens by settling down, finding God, and producing crops for the French in 1637 (Wadden 1996: 30).

This “First Indian Reserve in Canada” was a miserable failure and was shut within the year (ibid). Surprisingly, the known first documentary evidence on a map was not until 1703 where ‘Sheshatshit’ was denoted by a Dutch cartographer (Mailhot 1997: 1). It was also clear to the Dutch who were visiting at the time that the Innu were long accustomed to strangers, as they were trading and greeting Captain Haan with the term ‘Capitaina,’ which is a Basque position of title, not French (Mailhot 1997: 8). Shortly after their contact with the Dutch, the French again entered the area with the intention of trading for pelts, leading Jean Pilotte, and his son Fornel to establish the first trading post in Sheshatshit in 1743 (Mailhot 1997: 11). Though another trading post followed in 1784 they were relatively unsuccessful as the Innu were far more interested in hunting caribou for both reasons of subsistence and spirituality (ibid). Due to this, these posts were used predominately in the effort to convert the Innu to Christianity, a practice which remained in place until their closure in 1950 (ibid). Despite the lackluster performance of these trading posts the Hudson’s Bay Company remained determined to develop the potential of the fur trade in the region, and in 1838 a pair of employees, Erland Erlandson and John McLean, were sent out to prospect (Loring et al 2003: 53). Though they established Fort Nascopie on Lake Petisikapau in 1838 to attract trade, but due to the Innu’s “stubborn independence” and unwillingness to be incorporated into their economic hegemony, it was forced to close in 1870 (Loring and Ashini 2000:173; Loring et al 2003: 53). It was this ‘tenacity’ that ultimately gave them the titles of Montagnais, those who were slightly more sedentary and easier to trade with, and the Naskapi who were the ‘bad Indians’ unwilling to come out of the wilderness, and the unsavory title of “princes and princesses of ragged fame” (Loring 1992; Loring and Ashini 2000: 173). Gradually however, however, through the determination of McLean and his successors the Montagnais, and eventually even the Naskapi were forced to settle due to an increasing dependency on western goods, particularly alcohol and gunpowder (Wadden 1996: 30). Beyond the trading posts established, there was marginal interest in the land by the new arrivals due to the harsh climate and almost insurmountable challenge that would be presented to any foolish enough to try and cultivate the land for agriculture. However, this mentality changed in a drastic fashion when the hydroelectric potential was realized and when vast mineral deposits discovered. Soon, the development of industry in Nitassinan became a veritable free-for-all.

By 1920, much of the Labrador topography was finally assessed and mapped by missionaries, fur-traders and explorers allowing outside populations to realize the extremely great hydroelectric potential and mineral resources in the territory (Loring et al 2003: 54). In light of these discoveries, and though Innu land in the Nitassinan remained entirely unceeded to any provincial or federal government, the boundary between Quebec and Labrador was quickly drawn in 1927 with no consultation of the Innu and directly through their traditional caribou hunting grounds (Samson 2003: 45). Plans began to emerge for the industrial development of the area, and by 1971 the massive construction project for the Churchill Falls Hydroelectric Project was finally completed resulting in the formation of the Smallwood Reservoir which flooded a substantial amount of valuable Innu territory, caused the loss of much hunting equipment, destroyed three ancient cemeteries, and influencing caribou migratory patterns (Loring et al 2003: 54). In 1993 at Voisey’s Bay, nickel and cobalt were discovered, making that land incredibly rich in potential for development, however due to an environmental impact assessment that stated that the mine should not proceed without an Innu Nation comprehensive land claim, that project has been put on hold (Salsberg 2001: 1-2). Further, low flying bomber jets have been on a training course over Innu territory since the early 1980s, also severely disrupting their daily quality of life, and their ability to hunt without interference (Wadden 1996: 6, 41).

After the shocking lesson provided by the Churchill Falls Hydroelectric Project, the Innu chose to elect their own band council in the mid-1970s as well as directors of the political organization within their community that is based on a system of favour distribution (Salsberg 2001: 54). These leaders attempted to promote comprehensive land claims for quite a time with little success, as they have been forced to work under a paradigm of land tenure (a landholding system of structured mobility) that is at odds with the western perception of land rights (Salsberg 2001: 131-133; Samson 2003: 67, 80). Perpetual frustrations led to protests among the Innu community as both groups of negotiators were unable to find a common ground from which to make progress (Wadden 1996). In the midst of this chaos, it was a truly tragic event that caused the Innu to reassess the deeper issues behind land claims, and focus on the mental and physical health of their community at large.

In February of 1992 there was a tragic house fire in Utshimassit which caused the premature and horrific death of six children in the community which left everyone stunned (Loring et al 2003; Salsberg 2001; Wadden 1996). At this many Innu found themselves wishing that their life was no longer one of forced sedentism and to once again go and pursue a caribou hunt, as this fire could have been a manifestation of Katipinimitaoch, the caribou spirit who decides the very survival of the Innu themselves and who, in recent years had been disrespected (Salsberg 2001: 30). Actions needed to change, and the community needed to find new ways to support their own well-being, and claim the land for which they had undeniable right.

With the extreme shock that came with the loss of six of their youth, the Innu reassessed their community and came to the realization that as a whole, the community needed to heal- not only from the acute loss, but from many debilitating respects of their marginalization. In claiming land rights, the protests had not succeeded. They were only further stirring the discontent amongst the population. So, necessitated by their need to produce claims of land tenure by the government, and, above all, dedicated to ensuring a more positive future for their youth, the Innu decided to collaborate with archaeologists to both document a facet of their cultural heritage and strengthen their “legal” claim to the land. Before the particulars of indigenous archaeology in Labrador is examined however, it is first important to look briefly at the development of the practice of indigenous archaeology in North America and how it grew to encompass modern societal concerns.

The practice of indigenous archaeology and ethnohistory

As indigenous archaeology has developed, specifically in North America, it has become increasingly apparent that, far from the academic Ivory Tower it was once perceived to be, archaeology holds a vast potential to try and rectify past injustices, while constructing a more holistic history of indigenous populations that can also be beneficial to the community at large. Under this new paradigm of archaeology, not only is the indigenous community collaborating with the archaeological team, but they have a manifest role in determining the research agenda itself. Though this shifting focus of research has incurred several criticisms which are worthy of mention, the ability of this field to promote the preservation of cultural heritage sites and make archaeology more accessible and applicable has, deservingly, been lauded.

Though archaeologists have always communicated with the community in which they were conducting research, the origins of indigenous archaeology as it is perceived today was established in the early twentieth century. This dramatic beginning to a new academic forum did not merely consist of a meager shift in archaeological methodology, but rather in the form of an “indigenous archaeologist” in the flesh, Arthur C. Parker, whose surprisingly affluent social connections allowed him to pursue advanced studies of archaeology even despite the adversity he faced (Colwell-Chanthaphonh 2009: 17-19). Despite few following in his footsteps during the following fifty years, this academic anomaly would later be the proof that unless trusting relationships were formed between archaeologists and the “indigenous” in whose territory they were conducting research, few locals would be willing to unequivocally support archaeology.

Tentatively, ethnoarchaeology first became engendered in the 1960s for the purpose of attempting to bond together relationships between the static material remains and modern social dynamics of groups (Simms 1992: 187). Though most of the cases that would have deemed themselves ethnohistorical in nature tended to be cautionary tales to strongly denounce the disregard of cultural heritage sites, particularly during wanton instillation of infrastructure, others came to realize that the hybrid product of materialism and behaviourism could be a systematic and quantitative study which could come to be as important as “pure” anthropology in social advocacy (Simms 1992: 186-187; Trigger 1998: 81). With the subsequent realization that, due to a distinctly non-western ontology, many “tribal histories” are strongly tied to the landscape and are minimally composed of spatial, social, spiritual, and experiential dimensions (Brooks 2002: 181; Greer 1997: 151; Howe 2002: 162-164; Lyons et al 2010), archaeology as it related to indigenous peoples was forced to undergo a paradigm shift to serve the object of the investigations (Geertz 1983: 21).

Though the resounding majority of archaeologists had previously believed themselves to be the sole stewards of the past, most were shocked in the 1970s to learn not only that many indigenous people in North America believed archaeology to be yet another means of oppression, but, as Vine Deloria Jr. so eloquently stated, that archaeologists had been seduced by the myth that the “only real Indians were dead ones” (McGuire 1997: 63-64). Determined to change, many archaeologists took the recommendations of Deloria himself to allow a fair informational exchange between parties: corrective measures were taken to alleviate “scientific misconceptions about Indians” (Deloria 1995: 60), and “Indian traditions” became contributors to the more holistic scientific study of the past, allowing such ontology to be interwoven with, and taken seriously by, a “valid body of knowledge” (ibid). Although still not a perfect practice, as time has progressed substantially more reciprocity is present, the colonial legacy has been left behind, and, though archaeologists are still regarded as the authority, the majority are no longer discrediting other views of the past, but integrating them, to try and provide the best possible explanation for the acquired data (Biolsi and Zimmerman 1997: 5; Deloria 1995: 40; Deloria 1997: 210, 221; Meyer 1988: 5; Wilcox 2010: 225). Indeed, there have even been pilot projects of indigenous field schools for younger members of the community to get involved and add their interpretations to the archaeological analysis, such as in the case of the Drum Lake Field School for Dene students which took place over the course of two years- 1985 to 1986 (Blondin-Andrew 1997: 273-274).

In the modern practice of indigenous archaeology the crux lay with the authority and the jurisdiction that is given to the descendant population. Where previously the problems of the community were liable to disappear under strata of anthropological and archaeological rhetoric, and the community was put at even greater disadvantage when trying to negotiate with national and provincial government with labels such as “tribal” or “primitive,” they now had the authority over their own intellectual tradition (King 1997: 115-118). Though the “control of the past,” and thereby the control of the present, is not entirely autonomous still, the shifting focus of research and collaboration under a framework comprehended by provincial and federal governments has aided in stopping the marginalization of indigenous communities (Goldstein 1992: 66). By analyzing and recording artifacts and emphasizing not only their centrality and significance in the lives of earlier indigenous residents, but also naturally implying the longstanding tenure of the land of the present population the legitimacy of their underlying title can no longer be questioned (Asch 1997: 267, 269-270; Schiffer 1992: 226, 238). Indeed Michael Asch states, when conducting research, “[a]rchaeologists must acknowledge the fundamental principle regarding jurisdiction of cultural property and work to assist Canada and the provinces to recognize it legislatively” (Asch 1997: 270). He further posits that the self-evident “aboriginal fact” needs to be recognized by federal government that indigenous populations have always held a legitimate underlying title and, furthermore, had both jurisdiction and sovereignty over the land prior to the arrival of Europeans and would have continued to do so without their imposition and incorrect assumption that Canada was a terra nullius(Asch 1993: 40; Asch 1997: 267). It has historically been made clear however, that it is the provincial authorities who were sovereign (not the indigenous people) in the Constitution Act of 1867, and despite recent Supreme Court interpretations of aboriginal rights using the Constitution Act of 1982 in which the sui generis nature of the aboriginal title is asserted, the extinguishment clause still remains central in land claims to this day, strongly downplaying the historical autonomy of these people (Asch 1993: 35-40; Kulchyski 2005). Though still grappling with the government over a title that should rightfully be theirs, Asch maintains some hope that this paradigm shift, and collaborative and socially responsible research could, in future, help to right this wrong.

Though there are many critics of indigenous archaeology and its ‘radical’ methodology, most of these criticisms focus on the question of whether it is comparably scientific, and cannot deny the benefits that such a method has on the larger community. One of the most vocal critics, Robert McGhee, stresses that an objective view of the past may only be obtained by historians who are aware of the biases of oral tradition and archaeologists following a strictly scientific method (McGhee 2008: 580, 591). He also believes that indigenous archaeology should not be considered more ethical simply because it incorporates a community that has been extant in the area for a long period of time, as their perspectives would be unsubstantiated, and that such a practice should be relegated to fall under the umbrella of “Aboriginal Studies” and certainly not archaeology (ibid 581, 583, 591, 594). However, the resounding response from McGhee’s peers, including Stephen Loring who has worked extensively with the Innu of Labrador, is that this branch of study fosters respectful dialogue between various stakeholders (of whom archaeologists are only one component), and community activism, which are equally important aspects of not only a scientific, but also a holistic, archaeology (Silliman 2010: 219).

The unique context and benefits of indigenous (Innu) archaelogy in Labrador

caption L’Anse-Amour burial mound site. Source: Creative Commons Labrador has some of the most varied and unique archaeology in all of Canada due to not only the myriad of cultures which have inhabited the area, but also due to recent developments in indigenous archaeology and how it has been applied to aide in the land claims process. The oldest archaeological site in Maritime Canada from a startling 7500 years ago has been found on the south coast of Labrador at L’Anse-Amour containing a ceremonial burial of a thirteen year old boy of the Maritime Archaic tradition, a group whom many posit were the ancestors of the Innu before they were forced to move inland due to skirmishes with the Inuit (Auger 1989: 4, 52; Loring 1992; Such 1978: 11). Traces of Innu settlement have also been discovered at the Strait of Belle Isle, and in the Hamilton Inlet area which through charcoal analysis have been dated to approximately 1000 years before the first verified European contact with the Basque whose archaeological remains have also been found at the Strait of Belle Isle and dated to 1530 (Tuck 1976: 103; Tuck and Grenier 1989: 10). There have also been remains found of the Beothuk and Inuit, of which certain artifacts, specifically those made of Ramah chert which is only found in Interior Labrador, indicate that the Innu were a part of extensive trade network in the area providing evidence of economic hegemony, and territorial tenure (Hartery 2007: 37; Pastore 1992: 13).

In the field of indigenous archaeology in Labrador, and specifically among the Innu, Stephen Loring has utilized a direct historical approach and extensive collaboration to trace the dynamic history of the Innu (eg. Loring 1992; Loring 1998: 269). In respecting their kanauenitam (stewardship or duty to the land), Loring has studied sites of particular importance such as areas drowned by the Churchill Falls Hydroelectric Project (Loring 1998: 269; Loring et al 2003). Not only does he realize that his results will be seen as admissible proof of land tenure among provincial and federal legislative bodies, he further sees that once land claim resolutions are resolved the Innu will be empowered by mandating activities that occur on their land and to produce and perpetuate knowledge of their ancestors in a multiplicity of forms (Loring 1998: 266). Also, citing the house fire incident as a catalyst in the Innu advancing their political, social, and economic agendas, in conjunction with several elders he established The Pathways Project in 1993, an interdisciplinary research project that provided Innu youth with motivation to go into the bush and, using archaeological methods, trace the ancient pathways used by their forbearers in tracking and hunting caribou (Loring 1998: 270-272).

Not only have the projects undertaken by Loring and his peers been unparalleled in re-energizing the community to learn about their cultural heritage by supplementing the oral tradition, but they have clearly been paramount in the settlement of the Tsash Petapen Agreement in which, among other stipulations, approximately 100 million dollars in compensation over thirty years will be granted to the Innu for the destruction caused by the flooding during the construction of the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project.

Land claim successes and future potential for Innu in Labrador

caption Flag of Innu Nation of Quebec and Labrador. Source: Creative Commons Finally in 2008, after several hundred years of marginalization and almost fifty years of unsolicited industrial development in the Nitassinan, the Innu finally came to a land claim agreement, appropriately titled The Tshash Petapen (or “New Dawn”) Agreement with the province of Newfoundland and Labrador (Newfoundland and Labrador 1996, 2008). This claim was ratified by the Innu Nation on July 1, 2011 and was seen both as a major victory for all Innu inhabiting Labrador and as a message of hope by those residing in Quebec (Newfoundland and Labrador 2011a, 2011b). Not only does it promise substantial financial restitution for the damage done to the native territory (in the form of 100 million dollars given over the following four years, three percent of the profits generated by the hydroelectric station, and training and business opportunities) it also gives land title to 5000 square miles, hunting rights on an additional 22,000 square miles and the ability of the Innu to develop resources of their own accord within that territory as they decide (Newfoundland and Labrador 2008). Furthermore, in the ratification several additional stipulations were approved, such as the requirement of the government to remove the low-flying bombers from the area in a reasonable timeframe (Newfoundland and Labrador 2011a, 2011b). Additionally, an agreement is in process to provide fiscal compensation for the Voisey’s Bay Project which would extract nickel ore from the area (Newfoundland and Labrador 2002). Specifically within the memorandum regarding the Voisey’s Bay Project is a requirement for archaeological remains, particularly those of ancient Innu burials, to be respected.


Though there is still much progress to made with regards to Innu land claims and restitution in Labrador, not to mention among many indigenous communities in North America and around the world, however the positive manner in which indigenous archaeology has been able to support claims of land tenure and underlying title, while remaining accessible and beneficial to the community in which it is practiced on several levels is reassuring. Despite minor criticisms of the methodology, it has been able to succinctly bridge the gap between indigenous ontology, federal and provincial politics, industrial development, and pure scientific pursuits, and has helped the Innu on the path to the major land claim victory of the Tshash Petapen Agreement. Sometimes, a little integration can be a very good thing.


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Graham, J. (2013). Labrador Innu land claims and the indigenous archaeology paradox. Retrieved from