Traditional Cultural Expressions
Content provided by: Tim Borlase, Director, Labrador Institute of Memorial University
Throughout its long history, Labrador's peoples have identified with the land and waterways by expressing aesthetically their close personal relationship. Evidence of amphitheatre style sites in northern Labrador thousands of years old indicate that cultural expression was something that was done not only individually but collectively. It is easy to conjure up images of Inuit throat music, teasing songs and songs of competition between rival angekoks during this time. By contrast, the Innu dreamt individual "spirit" songs which they sang to help them locate and honour the caribou, whom they endlessly pursued. These were highly individualized songs and not shared with other people. Beautiful, often miniature, amulets made of bone or ivory brought good fortune for both groups and warded away danger and the unknown spirit world.

Clothing also reflected an intertwining relationship to the land and sea. The Inuit women's amautik, for example, has a tail symbolizing the seal; the Innu's deerskin hunting coats are intricately decorated with geometric shapes made with carved tools and natural dyes. For both groups the drum was both profound and sacred.

As the Europeans arrived, they brought with them their own cultural traditions and mores. The Moravians brought Bach chorales and small ensembles of brass and string instruments, which the Inuit easily adapted to their own use. Newfoundland, Basque, French and British fishermen brought sea chanties and folksongs which often reflected their home towns or the hard life they experienced on the sea. As these people developed a trapping lifestyle and intermarried with Innu and Inuit they began to sing their own songs -- often reflecting the haunting beauty of the environment and at the same time their isolation. These songs were shared at traditional celebrations such as Christmas and Easter, when small groups of people would cluster to sing and dance away the evening hours, in isolated homesteads, across hundreds of miles of barren coastline. Because there was little prosperity and people were forced to eke out an existence, ingenuity and craftsmanship became the order of the day. Women redesigned flour sacks for a multitude of purposes including long underwear; men toiled to make komatiks out of bone, ice and wood. Rags were twisted and hooked into unique Labrador designs and sold internationally through the mission. Christmas time at the International Grenfell Association hospitals was one way for the whole community, even patients, to get involved. The doctors and nurses often wrote and performed their own scripts.

As new communities grew so did their exposure to outside cultural influences. Men and women would line up over a mile long in frigid temperatures to hear the likes of Benny Goodman play at the Ashuanipi Lounge in Labrador City. People in the larger centres formed theatre groups. The Carol Players of Labrador City, the Mokami Players of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the Nunaksuamiut Players of Nain have all performed and won major awards at the annual Provincial Drama Festival.

Out of these traditions came unique celebrations such as the Easter Fair and the races still held in many coastal Labrador communities today. The Goose Bay Winter Carnival is still the oldest Winter Carnival in North America; and other events such as the Striver Beach Festival, the Big Land Fair and the Bakeapple Festival rejoice in local musicians and artisans. The Labrador Creative Arts Festival was formed in 1975 and continues to this day, involving over 4000 young people in a week-long celebration of the arts including original stage productions, workshops with professional artists and travelling art shows. This Festival is also the longest running children's festival in Canada. As a result, there is a richness and vibrancy in arts education in this area unheard of in larger urban centres.

Today, the cultural expressions of Labrador combine new and old; beauty and function. The sea grass of Rigolet for example is painstakingly woven into tightly coiled baskets that will hold water when properly crafted. Innu snowshoes of babiche or sinew are now highly prized commodities. Labrador soapstone carvings reflect the ingenuity and personality of the craftsperson. The Innu tea doll whose function was to hold that precious commodity, pulled on toboggan over great distances, now adorns many homes across this country.

Poets, songwriters and writers all celebrate Labrador's uniqueness. As the world whizzes by, people no longer seem to have the time to invest in this level of craftsmanship or artistic expression. It behooves us as Labradorians, to pass on to succeeding generations the joy and skills needed to define us as a people.
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