Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut Culture

Although the Royal Commission on Indigenous Peoples stated in 1996 that Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut (formerly Labrador Inuit-Metis), display a “cultural self-consciousness that [is] essential to nationhood,” adequately characterizing that culture is problematic. Few historical documents exist that explicitly describe the Southern Inuit way of life prior to the mid-1900s. Moreover, the traditional isolation of Southern Inuit families during the long Labrador winters reduced opportunities to form a group identity. Historically, however, Southern Inuit culture has centred both on Indigenous and European practices, beliefs and technologies.

Group Titles

Until recently, the Southern Inuit were known by a variety of vague, and in some cases disparaging, labels, which were often invented and applied to them by other people. European traders and Moravian missionaries, for example, called them Settlers, half-breeds, half-castes and mixed settlers. By the 19th century, such labels as planters, Labradorians, Anglo-Esquimaux, Southlanders and livyeres were common.

It was not until 1975 that the word Metis was used in Labrador. Ten years later, it was institutionalized with the formation of the Labrador Metis Association (later renamed the Labrador Metis Nation and recently the NunatuKavut Community Council). Uncapitalized, the French word métis means mixed, but the formal name Métis refers to descendents of Indigenous and non-Indigenous unions. It is most commonly applied to the Northwest or Red River Métis of Western Canada, who are of Indian – largely Cree or Ojibwa – and European descent. In the mid-2010s, Labrador Inuit-Metis began calling themselves the Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut.

Southern Inuit are largely descended from Inuit ancestors, but some have Innu, and to a lesser extent, Mi’kmaq heritage. They today live in a number of communities on Labrador’s southeastern coast, in portions of central Labrador surrounding Lake Melville, and to the west, in Churchill Falls, Labrador City and Wabush.

The Traditional Way of Life

Historically, Southern Inuit have followed a way of life deriving both from Indigenous and European customs. Like their Inuit ancestors, Southern Inuit used harpoons while hunting seals, wore waterproof sealskin boots, and sometimes carried their babies inside parka hoods. It was also customary in both cultures to separate meat harvested from the sea and land – but to differing degrees. Inuit believed caribou and seal meat should never be eaten during the same meal, while Southern Inuit were less strict and traditionally drank water between mouthfuls of land and sea meats. From the Innu, Southern Inuit learned to make and use snowshoes, canoes, and tanned caribou moccasins.

Harp Seal, 1909
Harp Seal, 1909
Southern Inuit traditionally hunted seals in the spring, making use of the meat for food and the skin for boots. Pictured here is a harp seal.
Reproduced by the permission of The Room Provincial Archives, VA 17-73.1

Like their European ancestors, Southern Inuit spoke the English language – although various Inuktitut words were also incorporated, including ‘ulu’ (woman’s knife) and ‘komatik’ (sled pulled by dogs) – learned to write, and acquired notions of private property. The latter applied to trapping territories as well as to homes.

Southern Inuit developed a resource-harvesting economy that was sustained by seasonal migration. They traditionally trapped furs in the wintertime, hunted seals in the spring and fished for salmon and cod in the summer. August was also spent picking and drying wild berries. Many of these goods were stored for winter use, but much was also traded with Europeans businesses, including the Hudson Bay Company, and the North West Company, for gear or other types of food.

Edward Rich (right) and Son, 1909
Edward Rich (right) and Son, 1909
British trading companies in Labrador often traded with and employed Southern Inuit workers.
Reproduced by the permission of The Rooms Provincial Archives, VA 17-87.1

Families living in central Labrador spent the winter in their permanent residence, commonly at the head of Lake Melville, while the men left on long trapping excursions. Springs were devoted to sealing on the still-frozen Lake Melville, while families often migrated to the Groswater Bay cod-fishing grounds during the summer. Southern Inuit living on Labrador’s southeast coast often moved to sheltered coves and river mouths in winter and to outside islands and headlands during the summer.

Winter Trapping

A mainstay of Southern Inuit livelihood – especially for families living in central Larbador – the trapping season lasted between six and eight months, beginning in October and running until mid-spring. Most trappers worked along the Hamilton (now Churchill) River, but the Naskaupi and Kenamou Rivers were also frequented. Families began preparing for the fur trapping season in September. Women sewed boots, mitts and parkas, while men cut piles of wood to last their families through the long winter months while they were away trapping.

A typical trapline required at least three days to traverse, extended along a zig-zagged route, and consisted of between 200 and 300 traps. The path was dotted by a series of small cabins, referred to as ‘tilts,’ that were built about a day’s walk apart and provided the trappers with shelter. The men trapped beaver, fox, mink, muskrat, otter, weasel, wolf, lynx and bear. They also skinned, dried, and stretched the furs while on the trapline. After about three months of this work, trappers began their return journey home, pulling their catch behind them on toboggans. By mid-February, the men set out for their second and final trip for the year.

Once traplines were set, they were used annually by either the owner or by a hired hand who receive two-thirds of the season’s profits. The European concept of private property extended to these areas as it was Southern Inuit custom that whoever first set the trapline through the woods was its sole legitimate owner. Traditionally, the traplines were inherited by each family’s youngest son.

The women, meanwhile, remained at home during the winter months. It was an isolated and difficult existence as the wives now had to take care of any children and all of the chores alone. In order to find food, they sometimes walked into the frozen bay on snowshoes and jigged for fish through the ice. The nearest neighbour was often kilometres away, which made contact with other people, including other Southern Inuit, rare. This isolated lifestyle lasted half the year, and usually did not end until the annual summer migration to the fishing grounds.

This traditional way of life continued into the 20th century, but was disrupted during the Second World War, when construction of a military air base in Goose Bay began in 1941. Many Southern Inuit left their coastal homes to find work on the base, and some never returned. More devastating to Southern Inuit culture, however, was the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project, which flooded some land traditionally used by Southern Inuit trappers.

Cultural Revival

In recent decades, Southern Inuit culture has undergone a revival that was sparked in part by the formation, in 1985, of the Labrador Metis Association (later the Labrador Metis Nation and now the NunatuKavut Community Council). For the first time in history, Southern Inuit were represented by a social and administrative institution. In 1991, the Labrador Metis Nation (LMN) received status as a full Provincial-Territorial Organization of Native Council of Canada. Three years later, it filed a land claim with the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

The LMN's efforts to negotiate both a land claim and a claim of Indigeneity have resulted in increased interest and pride among the Southern Inuit in their culture and history. Genealogical research has become popular, and emphasis is often placed on uncovering any Indigenous ancestors; enrollment in Inuktitut language classes has jumped; and Southern Inuit leaders accentuate the importance of traditional skills – particularly fur trapping – and reliance on the land for survival.

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