A 30-year-old Innu man, Nikashant Antane (Michel Andrew), nicknamed Giant, has completed an epic 4,000km ‘health’ walk across the harsh hinterlands of subarctic Quebec and Labrador
Undertaken in temperatures as low as minus 45 degrees, Giant’s arduous but inspirational journey has been christened the Young Innu Cultural Health Walk.
The ‘healing walk’ has brought together Innu from across the region both literally and in terms of uniting them with a renewed pride in their heritage. It has also raised international awareness of some of the issues which beset the Innu people.
Giant spent five weeks snowshoeing across the snowy Nitassinan, which translates as ‘Our Land’, dragging a toboggan. For the first three weeks, Giant’s walk was solo but for the final two weeks he was joined by up to 40 other Innu walkers, aged from 15 upwards. En route the group hunted for caribou, partridge and porcupine and at night they slept on a bed of spruce pine inside a traditional canvas tent warmed by a wood stove.
Giant and his companions were living the semi-nomadic life style typical of his people. For some 7,500 years, every winter, small family groups of Innu had crossed the frozen wilderness on foot, following the vast herds of migrating caribou which they revered as sacred. This traditional pattern by which generations had lived out their lives was destroyed in the 1950s and 60s however, when the Canadian government confiscated Innu land, pressurised them into settling in villages and forbade hunting. The consequences of this dramatic change in lifestyle and diet have unfortunately been spiralling rates of diabetes, depression, alcoholism and suicide.
Giant was motivated to make his historic walk after he dreamed that his Grandfather told him to help his people. In Innu culture, dreams are considered highly significant and after discussions with his uncle, Giant decided to embark upon his adventure in a bid to publicise his people’s problems.
“I never thought the walk would grow this big,” said Giant. “There was zero diabetes among our people before, when our grandparents were living in the country, hunting and eating healthy country foods. Today, only a few families from my community go to nutshimit, the country. It hurts me to think about it. I want my walk to show our people that our way of life in the country is a healthy life.”
Giant’s actions seem to have captured the imagination of a disaffected generation. Supporters of his walk donated several thousand dollars, enough to buy five dialysis units for the community hospital at Goose Bay, Labrador.
On his return, Giant and his fellow walkers were met with a hero’s welcome and their achievement was celebrated by a huge gathering at Sheshatshiu, which included chiefs from six Innu nations.
Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, an organisation that works for tribal peoples’ rights, said: “This walk has engendered self-esteem and collective pride in being Innu…. It shows that despite the injustices and tragedies of recent years, the unique Innu spirit is still strong.”
The book Giant’s Dream: A healing journey through Nitassinan by Nikashant Antane is available from: www.creativebookpublishing.ca