Labrador Winter: The Ethnographic Journals of William Duncan Strong, 1927-1928 // Review

Article excerpt

The past 30 years have not been kind to the Mushuau Innu (Montagnais-Naskapis) of Davis Inlet, Labrador. Most recently, their struggles with suicide and substance abuse and against government indifference have captured headlines at home and abroad. Regrettably, this has made them seem a defeated people, helpless and pitiable, not a community actively seeking, like many aboriginal communities, to hold on to its identity and culture against great odds. Worse still, the enormity and rapidity of the changes they have faced somehow overwhelm history, leaving us only to imagine the quite different life they led just a generation ago. Given all of that, the appearance of Labrador Winter is very timely, its first-hand account of Innu society drawn before the deluge began.

Early in the century, the Innu enjoyed a certain notoriety in anthropological circles; the remoteness of the subarctic Quebec-Labrador peninsula was thought to have preserved among them an archaic, static form of Algonkian culture. At the time William Duncan Strong went north to study them, accompanying the Field Museum's second Rawson-MacMillan Expedition of 1927-28, a 1928 anonymous report in the the American Anthropologist described these Indians as among "the most primitive of extant peoples" (30[1]:173). Hyperbole aside, Strong did find the Davis Inlet band living as nomadic hunters, their egalitarian social organization still largely intact, their interactions with coast-dwelling Inuit and Settlers and with outsiders--mainly merchants and missionaries--limited and highly selective. But there were also clouds on the horizon, signs that the sheltering isolation of Innu existence in Labrador's vast northern interior was coming undone.

Strong visited the Davis Inlet band once, the first--and until Georg Henriksen's field work 40 years later--and the only anthropologist to live and travel with the band during the harsh winter months. …