My lens had just focused on the animal. Then, feet from my head, the Innu's rifle cracked and the Caribou crumpled. I was slow with the shutter. Another picture of a Caribou falling to the ground. Then, I clutched the back of the snowmobile while the Innu drove across the snowy meadow to the fallen animal.
“Wait,” he said. I got off, standing now awkwardly next to the dying Caribou. The Innu sped away on the snow mobile.
The brapp of the Innu's snowmobile faded. I heard more shots in the distance. Now I heard the labored breathing of the animal dying at my feet. I looked straight down into its eye. The eye looked back at me, still wild with fear. Then the eye followed me as I kneeled down next to it.
I squatted by the animal. I knew I'd be adding fear, not peace, if I touched it for comfort. This outcome from a single bullet. Life's fragility was in sharp focus. My camera was useless to capture that. I just sat, listening to the raspy breath. I watched the animal try to lift its head. My own breath catching in the cold air as days of emotion washed over.
After 10 minutes of squatting there, the breathing had stopped and the black eye stared at the grey sky.
The Innu came back and sliced the animal from its anus to its ziphoid. Warm organs spilled onto the snow. In the bitter cold, the Innu sliced the organs from the carcass, eventually cutting the heart from the animal. He held the heart up for me to see and explained in bits of English that the Caribou heart was important. It looked large and powerful in his hands. I noticed the crude English word “love” tattooed on the Innu's arm above his bloody hands.
I too love. I love wild places. Wild animals. Caribou. I love the world for all of its interconnectivity, richness and diversity. I was here to cover a Innu hunt and I was lost, conflicted, and more and more, profoundly sad.
The Innu tucked the heart back into the gutted carcass, tied the animal with the others to drag from the snow mobile, and we sped back towards camp. At camp, the animals were piled with the hundreds of others killed during the hunt.
In Labrador, the Innu are told that they cannot hunt the Caribou. But the Caribou are central to the Innu culture. Hydroelectric projects, logging and mining have claimed Innu land across the Boreal forests, and the Innu have retreated to impoverished towns. Their land is being lost along with their language and culture. Across the globe we see indigenous cultures facing the same challenges. When we lose these cultures, we lose irreplaceable knowledge, wisdom, richness and wonder. The speed of this loss is staggering when we look at it historically. We are speeding at a rate we've never experienced towards a destination uncertain at best.
This was a protest hunt. It was an opportunity for the Innu to exercise what they feel is their right to their land. It was a chance for their people to build community, sustain their culture. But it was only a gesture. By the time that the animals were distributed to all of the Innu in the towns, the people would be lucky to have a few Caribou meals. Just decades ago, the animal was a staple.
That night the elder of the Matimekush Innu made the first slaughter of a Caribou. She carefully carved out each piece of the animal, demonstrating how everything was used. The cheek flesh, the marrow, the kidney, liver, and the brain, the hide, and the bones. Speaking only the Innu language, she explained through an interpretor that she wanted to show the youth how to properly care for a dead Caribou. But I did not see the youth at the camp watching. Tears blurred the images through my viewfinder as I thought of the piles of carcasses yet to slaughter and all of the loss for the Innu.