For 7,500 years, the Innu were semi-nomadic hunters, crossing Nitassinan (north-eastern Canada) in search of the vast herds of caribou that migrate across their land. Since their land was occupied and they were pressurized into settling and hunting was forbidden, rates of diabetes, alcoholism and suicide have soared.
A dream about the crisis led a young Innu man, Michel Andrew (known as ‘Giant’), to start a walk, ‘The Young Innu Cultural Health Walk’, aimed at raising awareness of the diabetes crisis and to reconnect young Innu with nutshimit (‘the country’): the taiga, tundra and rocky barrens that sustained them for millennia.
Several years ago, Giant had a vivid dream. He was visited by an old man who told him, “Get up and help your people.”
In Innu culture, dreams are significant and Giant wondered how he should interpret the old man’s words.
He spoke to his uncle, Nikashant Antane.
“A couple days after his dream, Giant asked me what his grandfather looked like,” Antane said.
Giant had never seen a picture of his grandfather, who died of a heart attack four years before he was born.
“After I showed him the photo I had on my computer, he said, ‘I am convinced it was Grandfather in my dream.’”
Giant began alone in the winter of 2009, leaving his community of Sheshatshiu, on the Newfoundland and Labrador border, with just an axe, toboggan, stove and tent.
During the final stage this winter, 40 other young Innu joined Giant in crossing the frozen interior of sub-arctic Quebec and Labrador together. They ate caribou, partridge and porcupine hunted along the way.
It is the first time they have crossed Nitassinan since being forced into settlements in the 1950s.
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. They eat the white man’s food – canned food from the store – and drink alcohol.
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. Otherwise in another 10 years, what will happen? The whole community could have diabetes. Everybody could be losing limbs.
Giant has walked 2,500 miles (4,000km) and has raised enough money to buy five dialysis units for the hospital in Goose Bay, Labrador. Before that, people who needed dialysis had to go to St. John’s and live there permanently.
Antane has written a book chronicling Giant’s journey called “Giant’s Dream”.
Giant was given his name by brother Charlie.
Watch ‘Being Innu’ (warning, includes animal butchery scene):
- Find out more about The Young Innu Cultural Health Walk and where to donate at their Facebook group.
Giant (Michel Andrew) picture courtesy Joanna Eede/Survival