Walking Woman and Her Legacy

Reviewed by Valerie Legge

Innu elder and activist Tshaukuesh Elizabeth Penashue has been the subject of a film (Meshkanu: The Long Walk) and her story has been published in In the Words of the Elders (1999) and It’s Like the Legend (2000). Her story affirms the experiences of other Indigenous women in Canada. During the 1970s and 1980s, the publication of Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree, Lee Maracle’s I Am Woman, and Jeannette Armstrong’s Slash signalled that something significant was happening across the country. Silenced for centuries, the voices of the grandmothers were being “channelled through the pen of one recently de-colonized woman” (I Am Woman). As D.A. Maracle observed in the introduction for I am Woman, Indigenous women were finally telling their own stories, “weaving the lessons, values and oratory of [their] grannies, utilizing the natural prose inherent in oral history and the tradition of teaching through the use of story, combined with [their] own poetic visions.”

The genesis of I Keep the Land Alive—the published form of Penashue’s diary, kept from 1987 through 2016—coincided with that important wave of women’s writing from the West. In It’s Like the Legend, Penashue described the destruction of Innu homelands by government, industry, and military. She was born in nutshimit (“on the land”) with only her family present, her father delivering her into her mother’s arms. This was before “settlement became a way of life in the 1960s,” a time when “the Labrador Innu lived a nomadic life for nine months of the year.” In The People of Sheshatshit (1997), José Mailhot recalled how “sedentarization . . . was the first stage of a government policy intended to assimilate [the Innu] into mainstream Canadian society.”

In I Keep the Land Alive, Penashue describes traditional Innu life as “like a circle.” Back then, nutshimit was “a school where the children learn[ed] from their elders.” By the 1980s, Innu territory was “being used by the military to practise war,” the sounds of fighter jets disrupting the nomadic way of life. According to Penashue, NATO viewed nutshimit simply as “an empty space” on a map, failing to understand the intricate Innu relationship with the land. Her concerns about the negative impact of the military and industry extended to all of Penashue’s relations: her children and grandchildren, her community, the animals, the rivers, and the trees. Noting that “the Innu have been hunting in nutshimit for thousands of years,” she identified how disruptive and traumatic these intrusions were. No one had ever “experienced anything like this. Neither [had] the animals. It must terrify them too—they must try to get away from it but they can’t. They need to be calm to eat and drink but they’re always poised for flight.”

In The Land of Little Rain, Mary Austin wrote that “to understand the fashion of any life, one must know the land it is lived in.” Editor Elizabeth Yeoman identifies the valuable cultural and historical knowledge contained in Penashue’s diaries: details about everyday life, her acts of political resistance, her extensive travels as an Innu spokesperson, and her “reflections on her ancestors and how they lived.” Not speaking Innu-aimun and knowing “next to nothing about Innu culture and history,” Yeoman describes the obstacles to transcribing, translating, and preparing Penashue’s diaries for publication. The project took eight years but the rewards were immense: “I have learned more from Tshaukuesh than I ever dreamed I could, and my life has been enriched in ways I never imagined.”

I Keep the Land Alive is an important story about the impact of colonization on Innu culture. A strong, and devoted leader, Penashue knows that the survival of her culture rests on an awareness that it is a living culture and that the land and the people are inseparable. “The land is [her] children’s inheritance,” and her work is a “legacy for [her] children, [her] grandchildren, [her] great grandchildren, all her descendants.” The photographs of Penashue and her relations provide a rich visual record for readers unfamiliar with the Innu or Labrador. This is an important book that contributes significantly to an established and respected body of literature by Indigenous women in Canada.

This review “Walking Woman and Her Legacy” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 12 Feb. 2020. Web.

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