In the Arctic Circle, Innu peoples’ relationship with caribou “is so sacred that we could become them, and they could become one of us,” says Valérie Courtois. She is a member of the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, a forester by trade, and the Director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, an organization dedicated to strengthening Indigenous nationhood and leadership. Valérie has spent her life bridging traditional Indigenous knowledge and Western science. She shares stories about what it’s like to live in the Boreal, home to hundreds of species of lichen and nesting ground to billions of birds. The special relationship between caribou and people in these lands goes back thousands of years and holds lessons about caring for Mother Earth and each other. Learn more about ILI on their website and connect with them on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
Host: Jessica Ramirez. Producer: Felipe Contreras. Story editor: Julie Keck.
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Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.
Seedcast Season 2 Episode 6
Valérie Courtois and Sacred Kinship in the Boreal
May 25, 2022
[00.00] Jessica Ramirez: Before we get started in today's episode, we want to hear from you! We want to know about your special place, the land you feel most connected to. So chime in and tell us where it is, and why it's important to you! You can email us at email@example.com, or you can find us on Nia Tero’s social media.
[music plays in the background]
Hi, this is Jessica Ramirez, your host of Seedcast. We're a podcast that brings to you stories from Indigenous peoples from all over the world. And this season, we're focusing on stories about Indigenous guardianship—Indigenous people's inherent right and responsibility to govern and manage collective territory, using their own laws and values, their own culture and language and traditional practices. Now let's go to the Boreal forest.
[music plays and transitions into the theme song]
Theme song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling, we are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can't tear us down, we’re here to stay…
[00:01:35] Jessica: Today's story is about someone who has spent their life bridging traditional Indigenous knowledge and Western science. Indigenous knowledge is rooted in story, with teachings of connection to the sacred relationship to all beings. Producer Felipe Contreras has the story.
[music plays in the background]
[00:02:00] Felipe Contreras: Let's begin by introducing you to our storyteller, Valérie Courtois.
[00:02:08] Valérie Courtois: I’m Valérie Courtois—Val is fine—I'm a member of the Communauté Innu de Mashteuiatsh, which is located on the shores of what we call Peikuakami, or Lac-St-Jean, in the center of Quebec.
[00:02:24] Felipe: Valérie is a forester, and is the Director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, or, ILI. ILI is funded by, and is a partner of, Nia Tero. The world Valérie welcomes us into is the Boreal forest. The region of the world that is at the very top of our globe. It spans eight countries, including the United States and Canada. It is home to three types of caribou, and in the spring, is the breeding ground to at least a billion North American birds, including the white crowned sparrow…
[White Crowned Sparrow birdsong plays quietly in the background]
…a bird that can also be found here on Coast Salish territory. But for Valérie's people, the Innu, the white crowned sparrow signifies the end of winter and the start of breeding season. And it's so meaningful to Valérie that she has a tattoo of one on her right arm. But it's the caribou that are front and center in a story Valérie shares, showing how the Innu and the caribou are connected by more than the land they share.
[00:03:31] Valérie: In the before times, there was a young Innu boy and his father who were hunting in the tundra and they were hungry, looking for animals, and they weren't having any luck. That's not unusual for Labrador—it's rich and abundant, but sometimes harsh and unforgiving. And especially in the winter. They were traveling and they were starving, and they stopped and they put up their tent. They had the fire going, and were warming up, and hoping that they would build up enough energy to keep going, and hopefully at some point find some food. And they fell asleep. And during the night, the young boy—young man—had a dream about caribou. And for us, dreams are a conduit to the spiritual world, so they are very important. And so when he woke up, the young boy told his dream to his father and his father said, “Well, the caribou came to you in the dream. You need to go see if you can find it and hunt it.” So the young boy puts on his moccasins, and he laces his snow shoes, and he puts on his coat, and grabs his bow and arrow and lance. And comes out of the tent and he doesn't quite know which way to go. So he just starts walking. And he's walking over the tundra and walking over the tundra, and he comes over a ridge and below the hill there's a little pond, a little lake is surrounded by spruce trees, and it was kind of one of those kind of foggy days.
And so he couldn't quite see what was in there. And all of a sudden he started to see movement, and he realized that what he was seeing was caribou, just kind of dancing around the lake. And so he sneaks closer and he gets behind a little ridge and rock. And he crouches down and raises his bow and arrow, and is ready to let go of the arrow. And just as he's doing this, there's a female caribou that starts to walk right towards him. And so he's got his bow and arrow up, and for some reason, he can't let go of the string. And all of a sudden, the caribou starts talking to the young man, and the caribou says, “We are to be married.”
[00:05:54] Valérie: And the young man, he says, “That's not gonna work, you know, you've got hooves. I need snow shoes. You walk so far, I'm not going to be able to keep up with you.” And the caribou says, “Don't worry, once we're married, it'll be okay.” And then the boy says, “Well, you know, I need to be able to make moccasins and clothing to keep warm. I need a tent and a stove. I can't just sleep in the snow like you do.” And the caribou says, “Don't worry. It'll be okay.” And the young boy says, “Well, you know, I need to eat meat. I need to eat other things. I can't live on lichen like you do.” And the caribou says, “Don't worry, it'll be okay.” And all of a sudden, the caribou transforms into the most beautiful Innu woman the young man has ever seen, and he instantly falls in love. And they are married. And once they were married, he himself transformed into a caribou. So the caribou was basically assuring him that he would become one of them. And to this day, he's still with the herd. If you look at, and run into, the George River herd on the tundra of Northern Quebec and Labrador, and [inaudible place name] far lands, you'll see there's a stunted adult that's with the group. And that's the young boy, the young man, whose job it is to be with the caribou and to take care of it. And essentially, to me, that story is that our relationship with caribou is so sacred that we could become them and they could become one of us. It's a sacred commitment to each other, like a marriage is sacred. And so to me, the moral of that story is that we, you know, we have this—the deepest of, and most intimate, connection with caribou and that we have to be responsible in that marriage.
[00:08:02] Felipe: in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, there is a town called Goose Bay. And according to Valérie, it is about 140 kilometers inland from the ocean, along the longest inlet in Eastern North America. It is a place at first sight may seem wild and a little desolate, but Valérie says the contrary—if we were in Labrador right now, looking closely at the ground, we'd find hundreds of different species of lichen and mosses growing amongst the different kinds of trees: spruce tree, poplar, and birch. And as we look up across the landscape, we would see the striations left by the Laurentian glacier, about 10,000 years ago.
[00:8:47] Valérie: Labrador is as wild as it sounds. It's really hard to live there and to travel around. In the winter it's cold. We—this past winter, we had weeks of -40 weather. It's harsh! On average, there's over five meters of snow that falls in central Labrador and other parts in the Mealy Mountains. It's rugged, rushing—major—rushing rivers. Your life is at risk at every turn when you're on the land, and that kind of harshness and ruggedness means that you have to depend on others for survival, and you have to be dependable for others for their survival. ‘Cause you know, it's much easier to ask for help if you're willing to offer it.
[00:9:50] Felipe: Labrador and Northern Quebec are the ancestral homelands for Valérie's people, the Innu. Valérie was raised in Quebec, and moved to Labrador after university. Growing up in Quebec, she didn't learn the Innu language. So once she moved to Labrador, she had to rely on her community to teach her.
[00:10:09] Valérie: As a young 24 year old kind of just showing up in Labrador, I thought this is my chance to learn my language because my grandmother had been to residential school, my grandfather as well, and they had kind of been able to operate in the non-Innu world. And so my grandfather didn't teach his kids the Innu language. So my father doesn't speak Innu, and so we didn't grow up with it. I like, I heard it around, and some of my cousins speak, and now there's like a reappropriation within my family. But back then there wasn't really knowledge. And I thought, this is my chance; I can go to Labrador, a place where they speak almost only Innu, and there's no better way to learn language than to be immersed in it.
[00:11:00] Felipe: Even though she has been speaking Innu-aimun for over 15 years, the impact of it not being her first language is still felt.
[00:11:08] Valérie: For me, the way that I know Innu, is as if I'm looking at a picture and it's in black and white and it's supposed to be in color. So I can make out the image, I know what the subject is, but I'm missing flair and nuance.
[00:11:25] Felipe: Growing up, Valérie experienced what many people living in a Western society do.
[00:11:30] Valérie: This idea that the individual should be emancipated as the individual, and we should bootstraps and the whole kit, right? And then I got to Labrador and I was like, wow, these folks, they really like each other. And they're having these kitchen parties all the time and everybody has a shed and they're all like showing up at each other's shed. You know, Missy makes the other Missy a pie. And then all of a sudden there's a load of wood over here and I'm like, what is going on? And then it just dawned on me. I'm like, oh, this is a hard place to live. And you kind of got to take care of your neighbor. Cause you know you're going to need them at some point.
And so it's kind of, it’s like a pay it forward kind of notion. And I really think that in many ways, it's been a blessing for the communities in Labrador and the Nations in Labrador to have to live in an environment that, where you cannot, you can't really hold grudges. You can't, ‘cause you're going to need each other at some point. And there's really something to be said about that.
[00:12:36] Felipe: In Labrador, community isn't just made up of people. It's also made up of the natural world. Remember the caribou story. Even though the Innu language was new to Valérie, the language of the land was not. Her connection to it runs deep, all the way back to childhood.
[00:12:55] Valérie: Go to the rez and go to the, you know, go fishing, or go to the cabin and go to the bush, essentially. I didn't—and nobody at the time told me like, okay, right now you're doing Innu things. And right now, you're not doing Innu things. There was no—it was just what people did. I was always kind of like a tomboy, I liked to swing the ax and you know, hold the rod. There was never any like, “ew this is fish!” and I was like, “No, no, like, let me figure out how to cut this thing. And can I eat this heart piece? Can I?” I was one of those kids!
[00:13:38] Felipe: That kid grew up to become someone who studied Western forest management, alongside Indigenous guardians. Indigenous guardians are people who protect and restore nature guided by science, both Indigenous and Western. She has spent her life as a leader, a guardian, and a scientist bridging the gap between Western conservation and Indigenous knowledge. For Val, she was exposed to bridging knowledge early in her career.
[00:14:06] Valérie: Within a month of moving to Labrador. I was getting training from the guy who wrote the book on how to do ecosystem-based planning, and 11 Innu elders, who were talking about the Innu concepts of science, and geography, and ecosystem dynamics. And I discovered this whole kind of science, world of science! In many ways, I think that the conservation movement, globally, is just catching up to us.
[00:14:37] Felipe: Indigenous knowledge holds answers Western science does not.
[00:14:42] Valérie: When I talk about science, I mean fundamentally, science is about having a hypothesis, and testing that hypothesis, and coming to a conclusion. That's the theory of science. Well, we did that, only in real life. And the thing about Western science is, you try to simplify things, you try to control the variables, right? That's what you hear in your experimental science classes. Whereas in real life, you don't control variables. You just deal with them. And so I often say Innu science is like, science was a threat to your life, because if you got it wrong, that was part of the consequence.
[00:15:20] Felipe: To put this into perspective, Western science has been tracking caribou migration for about 50 years.
[00:15:26] Valérie: We have been—Innu have been—living with caribou, and depending on caribou, and understanding on caribou, and surviving on caribou for almost 10,000 years. And so that's a lot of population cycles, and a lot of experience. And a lot of time, and reading, and communicating with, and benefiting from, and consuming, and eating, and keeping warm, and all of the things that you can do with caribou. So surely Innu have something to offer to how you need to think about your responsibilities to caribou.
[00:16:08] Felipe: ILI, the organization Valérie serves as a Director for, has had guardianship programs in place since the nineties. They have been working on finding where traditional knowledge and Western led environmental science overlap, as well as where they don't.
[00:16:25] Valérie: We've been supporting Indigenous-led conservation in Canada for over 20 years as a campaign, in that time, in places where Indigenous peoples have held the pen and been able to design their land use planning.The average protection of those areas is anywhere between half and two-thirds of those landscapes. And some places it's 100% of their landscapes. Western science, by the way, says that in order to protect an ecosystem, a fully functioning ecosystem, you need anywhere between 40% and 80% of that ecosystem protected. So the global movement—conservation movement—has a lot to learn about the notion of balance, and what is enough.
[00:17:07] Felipe: We talk a lot about Indigenous guardianship on Seedcast. ILI considers themselves as the eyes and ears on traditional territories. Indigenous guardians around the world face many barriers to their sacred calling; not the least of which is a lack of support from federal and local governments. In Canada, however, there are over 70 Indigenous guardianship programs stewarding land, water, and resources, right now; work as varied as the terrain they live on. And these programs play a vital role in managing Indigenous protected and conserved territories. For Val, guardians and guardianship hold lessons—lessons we can all think about and learn from.
[00:17:53] Valérie: When I see guardians, and I meet them, I see how proud they are to be connected to their lands and to be the ones whose job it is to take care of their area; and how that kind of permeates into the health of their family and how they treat each other, and how that kind of permeates then into the community and into the Nation.
You know, all of us are emerging out of the dark period of colonialism. We're still feeling the effects daily. There is still strong, systemic racism in our government systems, and in our health systems, and in our social systems. And so this kind of reconnection with the land is kind of our pathway to taking that on, and going towards the light and out of the darkness that that was colonialism. And quite frankly, it's the only way. ‘Cause if we stay in that darkness we also, in turn, over time, we’ll forget who we are; which means that we will forget our values, which means that we will be a part of the system that is hurting the land right now. And that's not an easy thing to do. The path to emancipation from an Indigenous perspective is to be your authentic self in your place. Now, the definition of place can be very wide, and doesn't mean that you have to be where the blood is from. What it means is that you have to feel connected to that place, and a sense of responsibility and reciprocity to that space.
[00:19:49] Felipe: As the Director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, Valérie oversees not only the programs that support Indigenous guardians, but she also advises Indigenous Nations in their movement away from colonial models of governance, and towards self-determination. She also works with Nations on land use planning as they look to the future of their lands and communities. Valérie's life has prepared her well for this role, but it's also true that a part of her has always been ready for this work. She shared a story from her childhood, a memory with her grandfather that shows that this fire has always been inside of her.
[00:20:31] Valérie: And I have a memory from when I was 11. Now, my birthday is in mid-April, and that's when on the Peikuakami, on our Lac-St-Jean, is when the ice can start to break up. And I remember that year, we went just after my birthday, so it must've been early May and the ice was leaving, and the bay still had a bit of ice. And of course we were looking for landlocked salmon. In our language, it’s called [Innu word for salmon—wananish?], and it's a delicious fish. Like that's kind of like spring comes, you're hungry for it. And so we were setting nets, and normally you set your nets in where there are river outlets, and so we had to go into the bay and we were pushing the ice out of the way. And my grandfather was a tiny little [inaudible, word for boat?]. He was in the back with the engine, and I was in the front, and of course he had to control the boat so it was my job to put the net in the water and to take the net out of the water. And it wasn't warm with ice still around the boat. So, you know, and I was 11, so I was kind of grumpy about it. But I was doing it and you know, just kind of doing it and putting the net and now all of a sudden I hear my grandfather in the back laughing. He was kind of a jokester. He was always like, teasing. And so I, you know, proud as a peacock, whip around and thought he was laughing at me. And I'm like, “What, what I'm doing it! Like, what are you talking? Like, what's the problem?” And he's like, “No no I'm just so happy to see you doing what you're doing!” And he said, “You need to keep being in nature. You need to keep doing this. You need to keep going in the bush”
[00:22:23] Felipe: These stories from Valérie Courtois give us all a chance to hold ourselves accountable to this marriage we have with our community. A community that includes people and the natural world. Indigenous knowledge has the answers to climate change that science has been looking for.
[00:23:00] Jessica: Special thanks to Valérie Courtois, Director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative. To learn more about their work visit ilinationhood.ca.
Nia Tero is a Seattle-based foundation. We're both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making earth livable for generations to come.
Here at Seedcast, our guests represent themselves. They don't necessarily reflect the views of Nia Tero. We honor their honest perspectives and lived experiences. You can learn more about Seedcast, and about our work at Nia Tero, on our website: niatero.org.
This interview was recorded in April of 2022 on the unceded ancestral and traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
This episode was produced and mixed by Felipe Contreras, and edited by Julie Keck. Our executive producer is Tracy Rector. Our senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Fact-checker Roman Lee Johnson. Social media by Nancy Kelsey. Transcripts by Sharon Arnold. And theme song by Mia Kami. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we look forward to sharing more stories with you all very soon.
Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die.
No staying quiet, we stand united, we’re rooted to the ground can’t tear us down, we’re here to stay…