Innikueu: Innu Tea Dolls

Somiya Muzaffar

Innu people are the indigenous people of the land of Labrador and Quebec, which they call Nitassinan. They have been living here for at least 2000 years as nomadic hunters up until the second half of the 20th century. The vast herds of caribou that migrate through Nitassinan are at the heart of their way of life (Samson, Wilson, and Mazower 10).

In February 1992, an Innu policeman passed a tape on television station of six depressed Innu children who were saved on time from their attempt to suicide. ''Graphic pictures of wild-eyed children hurling themselves against the wall and screaming 'leave me alone! I want to die!' shocked Canada and made the focus of national and international media attention (6). Innu community has been constantly facing family breakdown, sexual abuse, and alcohol problems along with many other issues.

Innu children did not live in these difficult situations in the past. Pien Penashu's comment is stated in Canada's Tibet: the killing of the Innu,

We were educated too, but it wasn't the white society education we learned... Our fathers taught us and our grandfathers... Our teachers didn't have pens in their hands, they didn't refer to notes in books. They took us with them when they went hunting and taught how to kill animals... And we also learned to make what we needed to survive in the country, things like snowshoes, toboggans, sleighs, canoes, caribou scrapers... everything an Innu needs to hunt. (12)

Although storytelling and hunting played an important role in the upbringing of the Innu children, playing with Innikueu tea dolls was also a fun part of their childhood years. These dolls were part of the Innu history. Today, they help some Innu people connect with their past. They teach the young generation about the Innu culture. The stories tell that when the Innu people lived a nomadic life searching for caribou ''everyone in the family helped pack and carry the belongings - even the smallest children'' (''Selected Topics'' 586). The older women made dolls for the little girls and filled them with a kilogram of loose tea leaves. When the family needed tea, it was taken from the dolls, and replaced with lichen and moss (586). The children were encouraged to help carrying the load and they learned sharing in the community.

Angela Andrew is a craftsperson who is well known for her tea dolls. She states that in the past Innu people lived in peace, but today she can feel a growing frustration and depression in her people. By making tea dolls, she tries to ''recapture some of this past'' (Andrew 154). It reminds her of celebrating the caribou hunt and remembering the old ways in which her people lived a happy life (''Selected Topics'' 587). Martinen Selma Michelin, Innu tea doll maker, states, ''We dressed up like this [tea dolls] when men and women got married and the clothing was made out of caribou hide. The children were bundled up like that too'' (Fillion 46). Angela sees her dolls as a way to preserve Innu culture for the non-Innu people and for the young Innu generation. She states, ''I decided to try making dolls as a way to encourage younger people to think about their culture, about who they are as Innu people, and so that they could be proud of themselves'' (''Selected Topics'' 589). The non-Innu people can also see the glance of the Innu craft in these dolls.

I love Innu tea dolls. As a non-Innu, these dolls did make me curious to learn more about the Innu culture. Therefore, Innu tea dolls not only remind its makers about the Innu past, but they do teach non-Natives about Innu culture.

For more information on tea dolls, click here.
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