Innu Mythology

The Innu oral tradition is replete with countless stories of creation and culture heroes of one sort or another. In general Innu stories are divided into two categories: tipatshimuna (accounts) versus atanukana (myths) (Vincent, 1982:11-12). The former concern the real life events of Innu people, living or dead; their travels in the country, dealings with spirits, other peoples, the Hudsonís Bay Company, church and government. They are accounts that relate events that have been witnessed or experienced by the Innu (ibid.:12). Atanukana on the other hand "recall the creation of the world and events which transpired during an epoch when humans and animals were not yet differentiated" (ibid.:11).

Kanipinikassikueu, the Caribou Man, is a typical atanukan that discusses a time when mythical beings underwent transformations between human and animal states. In this myth, an Innu man goes to live with the caribou, marries a female member of the herd, and is transformed into one himself, becoming in the process the Caribou Master who provides the Innu with caribou. Another myth, about the wolverine and the penis, explains the origins of aquatic animals and plants as well as the present location and size of the male penis. Some of these myths occur on Tshishtashkamuku, the land of the Mishtapeuat, while others occur on the earth itself, populated as it is by the Innu, the animals, and their spirits.

The myths about Tshakapesh (the man in the moon) and Kuekuatsheu (the wolverine) are perhaps two of the most popular myths among the Innu. Both myths are widely told throughout Nitassinan, and involve multiple episodes in the lives of both characters. Each myth has also been the subject of extensive anthropological analysis. Savard has devoted one book (1972) to the analysis of various versions of the Kuekuatsheu myth and another to the analysis of Tshakapesh (1985). Lefebvre (1974) has also devoted a book to the analysis of various Tshakapesh myths.

The various versions of the Kuekuatsheu myth are of special interest because the wolverine is an intelligent but foolish trickster figure, a paradoxical character par excellence. The general form of these myths corresponds closely to trickster myths among many other Native American peoples including the Cree, Ojibway, Assiniboine, Winnebago, and Tlingit (Radin, 1956). Radinís description of the archetypal trickster figure clearly applies to the Innu Kuekuatsheu:

Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself. He wills nothing consciously. At all times he is constrained to behave as he does from impulses over which he has no control. He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being (Radin, 1956:ix).

Imagine lying on the fir bough floor of an Innu tent listening to a middle-age or elderly Innu person perform the various parts of a Kuekuatsheu myth. You will note the suppressed mirth of the audience in response to the often hilarious trials and tribulations of Kuekuatsheu. Radin has also noted this response to the trickster figure among Native Americans: "Laughter,humour and irony permeate everything Trickster does. The reaction of the audience in aboriginal societies to both him and his exploits is prevailingly one of laughter tempered by awe" (ibid.:x).

The Kuekuatsheu myth and other Innu myths present important cultural problems such as incest, cannibalism, the need to share, and excessive pride (arrogance). Some of them appear to have no apparent functional meaning or utility whatsoever. However, a number of anthropologists have noted that myths in general reflect what appears to be a very basic human need; the need (or desire) to understand the world, including nature and human society (Lévi-Strauss, 1978:16). Lévi-Strauss in particular has devoted considerable energy to the analysis of myths from hundreds of cultures from the Americas. He notes that the aim of mythology and other elements of religious ideology is "to reach by the shortest possible means a general understanding of the universe - and not only a general but a total understanding" (ibid.:17).

Finally, we should note that some Innu myths are set in known geographical regions of Nitassinan. One example is the myth, told by the late Sebastien Nuna of Sheshatshiu, concerning events at Michikamau Lake involving the Toad Master and a number of Innu.