Elizabeth Penashue’s Memoir Highlights Power of Indigenous Rights Activism

The Innu were aware of how powerful political involvement could make them. Young Innu began to lobby seriously for recognition of their Indigenous rights, which had been pencilled out of the Confederation agreement with Newfoundland.
Berry picking. Photo by Robin McGrath

“I took my rosary and my rifle…”

So begins a typical entry in the diaries of Innu activist Elizabeth Penashue. For more than three decades, Penashue has been working to preserve the culture, language and traditional homeland of her people, the Innu of the Eastern Ungava peninsula, and documenting the process as she lives it.

Now widowed, the 72 year old Elder is well settled in a life of sobriety, activism and activities with her large family – in all 63 children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Life was not always like that for Tshaukuesh, as she is known in Labrador. In the early 1980s, Penashue was one of many Aboriginal people caught up in a cycle of substance abuse, powerlessness and despair. In an attempt to break the pattern, she and her husband Francis tried to return with their children to a more traditional life in the bush, only to be thwarted by the low-level military flying program of NATO forces at Goose Bay.

Lunch break. Photo by Robin McGrath

Overflying by NATO bombers terrified children in bush camps, stampeded game, caused caribou to abort their young and generally made even short forays into the country a waking nightmare for the Innu people.

Penashue, who at the time spoke no English, became one of the leading organizers of a protest that saw numerous Innu men, women and youths repeatedly arrested on charges such as mischief and breech of court orders. She soon lost track of the number of times she went to jail and to court.

During this time, encouraged by Anglican Minister and Ontario NDP MLA, the late Don Heap, Penashue began writing down her thoughts and fears in an ordinary exercise book. “I knew what we were experiencing was important,” she explains, “and I wanted to remember it.”

She found the act of writing down her thoughts brought her relief from the stresses of the day.

Photo by Chris Sampson

In 1990, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the high state of readiness that had been the reason for the low-level flying program ended and the protests stopped. However, by that time, the Innu were aware of how powerful political involvement could make them. Young Innu began to lobby seriously for recognition of their Indigenous rights, which had been pencilled out of the Confederation agreement with Newfoundland.

Making bread. Photo by Robin McGrath

Penashue, too, had learned how to make her voice heard, dictating letters to editors and opinion pieces to anyone who could translate for her. As her contact with Akeneshau (non-Innu) increased, her English improved and she began to communicate directly. “When I was about 10, I spent a winter in hospital with tuberculosis, and I learned a little bit of English then. When I went back to my parents, I forgot it, but later on it came back to me,” she explains.

Getting the diaries into shape for publication has been a decades-long task. Penashue speaks her father’s dialect of Innu-aimun, used mostly in Quebec, so the first seven books were translated into French.

The project languished for several years, but then Dr. Elizabeth Yeoman, of Memorial University’s Faculty of Education, interviewed Penashue for a CBC “Ideas” program about walking. Yeoman accompanied Penashue on one of her annual walks into the Mealie Mountains, after which they agreed to work together on the diaries.

Reading. Photo by Robin McGrath

Yeoman does not consider herself the ideal editor, but she is fluent in both English and French, so she translated the early volumes. Penashue, who is a gifted teacher, has been helping Yeoman learn Innu-aimun while also improving her own English.

Yeoman and collaborator Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie, an Innu-aimun linguist, were able to obtain a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant to cover expenses and over the course of the last two years, Penashue and Yeoman have developed a process of what Yeoman calls “rendition” rather than “translation.” Using typed transcripts, tape recordings and one-on-one meetings, a manuscript has evolved that has clarified the often-enigmatic entries. Additions and explanations are being carefully noted so that they can be distinguished from the original diary entries.

The English version of Elizabeth Penashue’s diaries will be published this year under the title I Speak for the Animals. An Innu-aimun version is planned for a later date.

Written By

Robin McGrath is the author or editor of 15 books and has published more than 200 articles in magazines such as Beaver, Inuit Art Quarterly, Fiddlehead and Room of One's Own. She lives in Labrador and reviews regularly for the Telegram in St. John's.

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