On Monday, Tshaukuesh “Elizabeth” Penashue embarked on her annual trek to Nutshimit — the Innu term for “on the land” — but had to turn back after an incident that may have left her injured.
A Facebook post by Penashue’s daughter-in-law Tuesday said the elder was on the back of a snowmobile trying to pass through slush on the ice when the snowmobile tipped over and Penashue hurt her knee.
“She says that she didn’t want to go back home. She really wanted to stay out in Nutshimit. She says that there was a lot of slush on the ice which made the skidoo tip over while she was on the back of it,” Bernice Webber Penashue wrote in the Facebook post.
“She said that she will wait for her sons to finish the Cain’s Quest [snowmobile] Race and talk to them with her family members about her walk. She is hoping she can still continue her walk if all is well with her knee. She is still waiting for results at the hospital. Please keep her in your prayers.”
For almost 20 years the respected Innu elder from Sheshatshiu First Nation has led the weeks-long journey into the Labrador backcountry as a way to highlight the importance of maintaining the traditional ways of the Innu, and of preserving Innu culture and identity.
Among the greatest threats to loss of language, culture and traditions are large-scale industrial development projects in Nitassinan, the Innu word for “our land,” she said.
Penashue cites the Voisey’s Bay mine and the Muskrat Falls hydro project as two projects where she feels government did not listen to the people and went ahead with developing on Innu lands in ways that would hurt Innu people.
“Sometimes the government said, oh, the people, he don’t hunt, he don’t go anymore in the bush; it’s not true. It’s not true,” she said ahead of her walk, which began Monday afternoon.
“We want to show government, Innu people…respect the land, animals, and the water. And my people, the children, young children — I don’t want the children get lost, our culture.”
Penashue opens her walk to anyone who would like to join her, but she’s particularly interested in bringing along Innu youth, who she says are at risk of losing their identity.
“I explain many times [to] my grandchildren — I said it’s very, very important, school, and our culture. You’re Innu. Don’t ever ever think, ‘I’m a white person’. No. You got to know, you Innu people. And you’ve got to learn. I don’t want you to get lost. Our culture is so important.”
Fifteen-year-old Jolene Tshakapesh of Natuashish First Nation was one of several youth who are accompanying Penashue this year.
She said Monday she was looking forward to “[going] hunting with Elizabeth,” and to “enjoy the nature.”
Penashue said she wanted to show those joining her the traditional Innu ways of hunting and setting up camp in the woods — and that she planned to share stories before bed in the evenings.
Lucas Meilach-Boston traveled to Sheshatshiu from Toronto; it was to be his second walk.
“I just wanted to come back again and be part of it again, and be here to walk in solidarity with Innu people as they celebrate their culture and their heritage and show their strength,” he said Monday.
“What Elizabeth wants from [the walk] is what I want to share, and that’s to show people how important the land is, and how important animals are, and how important the trees ard, and that the Innu people know how to respect those things, and that their way of life is strong — and that it’s important and still exists.”
Penashue has long advocated for Innu rights in the face of colonial encroachment on Nitassinan and amid the ongoing dispossession of Innu people from their homeland.
She has been arrested while defending her land from the harms of the NATO low-level flying exercises in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, and subsequently the Voisey’s Bay mine.
In recent years she has been an outspoken critic of Muskrat Falls, which she says threatens the water Innu and wildlife depend on.
In 2014, she wanted to walk to the Muskrat Falls site to visit the falls one last time before they were flooded. Nalcor Energy, the Crown corporation building the dam, denied her request.
“Old people very sad what happened, like Muskrat Falls, and Voisey’s Bay. It damage our land, our river, and…we want to make government understand why the people always concerned.”
Penashue and the approximately 12 others were planning to hike across Lake Melville to the base of the Mealy Mountains, where they would set up camp for a day or two before continuing into the mountains.
The walk was to last three weeks.