(A late afternoon sun shines down on the common grounds in Maliotenam. Photo: Tom Fennario/APTN)
APTN News Sunday
In the centre of the teepee, a Sacred Fire burns.
Some cedar is thrown on and the flames that leap out light the face of a middle-aged woman who is crying.
She speaks Innu to the 20 people packed in around her.
At one point, the French word for suicide is spoken.
“There’s not really a word for suicide in Innu,” says Pepameshke Maikan, an Innu elder who is a part of the medicine society.
“We can say ‘take one’s life’ but for many years suicide has been a taboo topic. In the old days there used to not be any suicide.”
(Sacred Fire Keeper Pepameshke Maikan. Photo: Tom Fennario/APTN)
Maikan is one of the people in charge of the sacred fire that is burning just outside the hearings for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls (MMIWG) in Maliotenam First Nation.
He is here to perform healing ceremonies for anyone who so requires it.
On this morning, he uses a feather fan to push the smoke of the sacred fire towards the crying woman, who wails in pain.
“It’s a way to purify and to put some of that medicine inside of her,” Maikan explains
“The smoke comes from a sacred fire, and medicine has been burned inside of the fire.”
Maikan gently taps the crying woman with his feather fan until her sobbing subsides.
“Kuei,” he says to her, the Innu word for hello, and suddenly she laughs.
The tension in the teepee dissipates for the moment.
But judging from just a fraction of the 60 truths heard at the MMIWG hearings this week, there’s a lot more healing that needs to be done.
* * *
“I can tell you about women who have been raped, but it’s taboo. Women who have been raped and experienced incest,” testified Jeanette Pilot, an Innu woman from Uashat.
“At 25 years old I found my boyfriend hanging, he sent me off on an errand and when I came back he was hanging,” testified Jenny Régis, also from Uashat.
“We’ve had several suicides in the community, and most those happen when people experience sexual assault,” testified Lise Jourdain of Maliotenam.
“Everybody is aware here of what goes on in our community, everybody knows that there has been a complaint against our chief for sexual misconduct, nobody should hide that.”
The chief in question is Mike McKenzie, who has refused to step down from his duties while he awaits the verdict in his trial for three counts of sexually assaulting a minor.
He declined to speak to APTN News for this story.
“I would like to convey a message to my community, to all the men of my community,” Jourdain said near the conclusion of her testimony
“Do something. By the grace of God, do something. When women meet up, and we try to work on the healing, men don’t come. Men don’t show up.”
* * *
The next day at the sacred fire, Lucien St-Onge of Maliotenam nods when he has Jourdain’s call for action repeated to him.
“There’s a women’s shelter here, but eventually they go back to the men that abuse them and the circle begins again. It’s pointless if they’re just going to go back to the same bad situation.
“We need a centre for men too, and not just for them to go be by themselves and be miserable, but a centre where men can go with their families to get well, get better together,” says St-Onge.
Gaëtan Régis is also sitting by the sacred fire.
He says the solution isn’t to be found so much in the community as back out on the land.
“A couple of years ago we brought some [high school] dropouts out on to the land to live traditionally during salmon season. You could see how it helped them, how they absorbed it, how the land heals.”
Nitassinan is what the Innu call their vast territory which stretches across the north shore region of Quebec, hugging the coastline along the Gulf of the St.Lawrence before shooting up north into parts of Labrador.
Ten communities dot the rolling landscape, the biggest of which (with a combined population of nearly 3,000) are the sister communities of Uashat and Maliotenam, which sit about 15 km apart and are governed by the same band council.
Uashat lies just adjacent to the city of Sept-Îles, while Maliotenam sits up on a hill not far from the river. Spoken of by elders around the sacred fire neither community seems to evoke much fondness.
Maliotenam has the distinction of being a traditional summer settlement…but also hosted a residential school from 1952-1967.
* * *
The Innu word for thank you loosely translates as “I give you a goose”, which says a lot about their culture.
They hunt caribou, trap small game, and many, due to their proximity to the vast St.Lawrence, are deft fisherman.
Pepameshke Maikan, whose name translates as “travelling wolf”, says it was explained to him at a young age that the Innu weren’t meant to be settled into sedentary homes.
“I remember when I was about ten years old my father brought me to a mountain where we could see our community,” Maikan explains while smoking tobacco in his pipe.
“And he said, pointing at the cemetery ‘look, my bones will go there,’ and he turned to the west and he said ‘the bones of your grandparents are in the forest. Will you leave the bones of your grandparents?’ I said ‘never’.
“It was then I became a land protector.”
Maikain is in his 70’s now and has spent decades travelling the Innu communities speaking and performing healing ceremonies.
“I used to ask myself if the job [of healing] is too immense, I asked my mother once, ‘what am I doing wrong?” and she said ‘nothing, all these things have happened, it’s going to take time, it’s going to take a lot of time, it’s not going to happen the day after tomorrow, with the wounds we have, with intergenerational trauma.”
Maikan pauses, to smoke his pipe and reflect.
“I’m proud of what’s happening here now in Uashat and Maliotenam, I see here there are people that follow their ceremonies, they have the knowledge to do so.
“We have young people who are sun dancers, who are a part of the medicine society, who do the rain dance. Young people who work for healing,” he explains.
“It’s like mushrooms, what we’re doing here is like throwing spores in the air.”
* * *
On the next day of hearings, the teepee is again packed.
An Innu song is sung, another woman can be heard crying from the outside.
At the end of the song, the drum is hit five times for each direction, 20 in total, as is the Innu tradition.
By the time the last beat is played, the sobbing has faded.