• Map credit: Mamu Tshishkutamashutau/Innu Education

It started with a few illustrated maps for two small schools. Two printed editions, one giant floor map in-the-making, and layers upon layers of watercolour later, the Nitassinan map project is grabbing attention across Canada. 

“We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback and a lot of people requesting copies,” says Kanani Davis, CEO of Mamu Tshishkutamashutau Innu Education. “So, we’ve ordered more. We’ve had a lot of calls, especially from Quebec.”

Mushuau Innu Natuashish School and Sheshatshiu Innu School are the two schools under the jurisdiction of MTIE. They are nestled in the heart of Sango Bay, northern Labrador, and at the eastern end of Lake Melville, central Labrador, respectively. At least, according to most maps. But to the Innu, who have lived in these lands for thousands of years, it’s not Labrador but Nitassinan — their homeland. This discrepancy was part of the initial motivation, according to the map’s illustrator and researcher, Jolene Ashini.

“The Innu have been travelling all over the North Shore of Quebec and Labrador since the beginnings of time,” says Ashini. “A lot of the time, especially on reserves, we have teachers who come in who are not Innu. We get taught the Canadian, colonised, view of how things are done.”

Camille Fouillard, contracted to develop curriculum for MTIE, has worked with the Innu for almost 40 years. She’d recognised the same gap in the curriculum, and cooked up the initial idea to map Nitassinan from the Innu perspective.

“There really aren't any maps like this that exist out there,” says Fouillard. “When I first suggested this idea, they were totally interested in it.”

The mandate was clear. Create a map representing the Innu world view, both old and new — including names for more contemporary places that didn’t exist in the traditional Innu world. It also meant no boundaries or borders. And it meant tapping into the vast knowledge banks of the community’s Elders.

“We took all of these huge maps and plastered them all over the wall,” said Ashini. “We asked people, especially Elders, about where they had been previously and what were the names of the places they recalled, and what animals they saw there.”

The painting process itself was no small feat. Ashini had to distill all the information from the interviews into a list of places and animals that should be included. She then began sketching rough drafts, before moving on to the lengthy process of painting and drying, building up layers of watercolour paint to create realistic final paintings.

Once the map was ready, the schools invited Elders into the classroom to talk the kids through the map. They described the place names and animals and shared their memories of their own visits to the different places.

One of those Elders was Elizabeth Tshaukuesh Penashue, Davis’s mother. At 76 years old, she knows a lot about how the Innu used to live and eat off the land. She was able to use the map to explain this to the children. 

“I showed the students where their grandparents and ancestors came from, the routes they took, the birth places and where some burial grounds and hunting territories were,” says Penashue. “The students were very interested in the animals, so I talked about how we hunted the porcupine, for example, and how we cleaned it.”

When Penashue first saw the map she was very happy — she’d never seen a map with Innu names and culture before. For her, having a map that Innu people can relate to provides a vital way for them to pass down their knowledge to youngsters. 

“The students were very interested and were very quiet. They listened to everything I said about the places and animals,” says Penashue. “We’ve been living this way for many generations, so it’s important to pass down these teachings so that children don’t lose their culture.”  

The success of the map, as well as drawing attention from other parts of the country, has inspired Davis and her colleagues to expand the project. As well as printing 200 copies of the 2nd edition of the map, which includes more animals, a giant floor map and an expanded school curriculum focussing on the map’s animals are in the works.