Participants in last year’s Labrador Research Forum were privileged to attend the launch of Sheshatshiu Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue’s edited diary and memoir, Nitinikiau Innusi—I Keep the Land Alive—which surely must have been one of of the most eagerly-anticipated books in Labrador history. At the launch, Tshaukuesh (Penashue) mentioned her pride at having been one of the first Labrador Innu women to write a book, and indeed it is true that still, not very many books by Innu women have ever been published. One other such book (albeit by many Innu women) has already been featured on this blog, but their continuing scarcity makes another example, published 44 years ago, all the more extraordinary.
An Antane Kapesh published her own first book, Eukuan nin mats himanitu innu-iskueu, in 1976, on themes of memoir and social/political activism that very much anticipate Tshaukuesh’s own. I may be taking a bit of a liberty in featuring Kapesh here, as she is from the Schefferville area, just across the border in Quebec, but she should absolutely be drawn to Labradorians’ attention as well. In any case, the border is not really relevant in terms of the Innu homeland, Nitassinan, which covers much of both Labrador and Quebec. Fittingly, the preface to the 2019 edition of Kapesh’s book specifically notes that she lived “sans carte et sans boussole. Sans frontière”—that is, without map, compass, or border.
Kapesh wrote in Innu-aimun, but if you do not read Innu-aimun (as I do not myself, unfortunately!), then José Maillot’s French translation, published the same year, might bring the narrative one step closer. And even if puzzling out French and Innu-aimun requires some assistance from Google Translate, I strongly recommend reading at least a little bit of this book, if at all possible! Language barriers too often keep us apart. (And you can borrow the e-book from the NLPL.)
The French title is Je suis une maudite sauvagesse—that is, I Am a Damn Savage—and this defiant tone, struck from the very beginning, exactly suits what follows. The main rhetorical point of Kapesh’s title is repeated in her afterword, in which she turns the derogatory word on its head. She explains that while the insult “savage” attempts to denigrate Innu for living in their traditional ways on the land, in her view, those ways are actually the best ways to live. The very last lines of the book are: “Or toute chose qui vit dans le bois correspond a la vie la meilleure. Puisse le Blanc me toujours traiter de Sauvagesse.” My own, loose translation: “But everything that lives in the woods is living the best life. May white people always call me a savage.”
The entire book is an extremely direct denunciation both of colonialism in general and of events at Schefferville in particular, and its points are made clearly, succinctly, and with power. As well as recasting basic narratives about the history of colonialism in Innu experience (Kapesh uses the terms “indien” and “indienne,” meaning Indian), the book addresses mineral development, injustices in policing and administration, education, alcohol, and the media, among other topics. While Kapesh also describes traditional practices such as the mukushan, for example, and explains the importance of Innu names and language, the book is not primarily a “them days” sort of book. Cultural details are not generally described for their own sake, but mainly in service of Kapesh’s larger argument—though a big part of that argument is about the importance of retaining and preserving Innu culture.
As serious and uncomfortable as these issues are, Kapesh’s writing is also a joy to read, for its clarity, precision, and focused emotion. Interestingly, too, as her 2019 editor Naomi Fontaine notes, Kapesh can really be considered an essayist—and approaching her subject through the genre of essay, rather than memoir or story-telling, makes Kapesh even more unique. Within Kapesh’s words, one finds not only the evidence of her wide experience as a community leader, but also clear signs of the charisma and force of character that must have led to her becoming chief at Schefferville in the first place.
The book has undoubtedly been controversial at times (as all strident political arguments must be), and even from her choice of title, it is clear that Kapesh intended to make waves, not soothe tempers. But that is all the more reason to read her words and find out what she had to say.
- a profile by Alison Wick at The People and the Text, Simon Fraser University (in English; takes a while to load)
- the publicity flyer for the 2019 edition (in French)
Student Cheat Sheet
Eukuan nin mats himanitu innu-iskueu (1976)
Author. An Antane Kapesh (1926-2004) was born in the country and lived on the land until Maliotenam was established near Sept-Îles in 1953. She moved with her husband from Maliotenam to Schefferville in 1956 for work associated with the new iron mines there. Kapesh later served for a few years as chief of the Innu band Matimekosh that was formed at Schefferville.
Summary. I am a Damn Savage is a long-form essay narrating local colonial history, mainly of the Schefferville area, from an Innu perspective. Kapesh denounces many aspects of interference and injustice by white actors and agencies, particularly in various areas of public administration, and she challenges the caricature of Innu as “savages” by asserting the superiority of traditional ways.
Origin. In her own words, Kapesh began writing to defend her culture and that of her children, even while asserting that writing itself was foreign to her culture. The book is an act of overt political activism, informed by Kapesh’s lived experiences. It is aimed more at general advocacy, as an indictment of white colonialism and an assertion of Innu rights, than at any single, targeted political issue.
Legacy. Naomi Fontaine, the editor of the 2019 edition, calls the book a “foundational work” and celebrates Kapesh as the first writer of her nation. Although it has been controversial at times, the book’s enduring relevance is demonstrated by its republication. Kapesh also went on to write a second book, What Did You Do With My Country?, in 1979.
Working on a book report for school? Here’s how to cite this article:
Mills, Morgon. “Book of the Week: Eukuan nin mats himanitu innu-iskueu.” LILA Online. Labrador Institute, 10 July 2020, lilaonline.ca/2020/07/10/kapesh/. Accessed [today’s date].