Children Amongst the Caribou: Clothes for a Young Innu

By: and Ben Kelser

December 20, 2018

The Penn Museum holds around 400 objects attributed to the “Naskapi” people and acquired by Frank Speck in 1930-1931.[1] The diverse collection includes games, charms, toys, hunting tools, snowshoes, paint brushes, and clothing made of caribou hide, among other things. Historically, the First Nations Innu (Naskapi) people of northern Labrador have long regarded migratory caribou as central to their social and spiritual worlds. [2] A child’s coat, made of pale caribou hide and elaborately decorated with blue, red, and yellow edge designs captured our attention, inspiring this question: what were the lives of Native children like in Speck’s time?

An Innu (Naskapi) child’s coat, object #31-7-7. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Mapping the Territory

“The oldest Tshishennuat (Elders) remember the days when caribou were speared from canoes as they crossed the Mushuau-shipu (George River). They recall living in shaputuans (multi-family dwellings) that were heated by open fires, hunting partridge with bow and arrow, and wearing caribou-hide clothing. Innu maps of their territory made for land claims negotiations show innumerable travel routes, camp sites, burials, birth locations, harvest areas for caribou and other wildlife, locations of mythological significance, caribou migration routes, as well as Innu names for many of the lakes and rivers in the territory. These names and maps demonstrate that Labrador and eastern Quebec was not an untouched, unexplored “wilderness” but a cultural landscape that the Innu have lived in for numerous generations.”[3]

The Innu are the Indigenous inhabitants of the northern, sub-arctic tundra of the Labrador Peninsula, a large expanse of territory at the eastern edge of Canada, known to its Indigenous inhabitants as Nitassinan (“our land”).[4] All of the First Nations people of this region identify themselves, in their language, as Innu (“human being”), but some groups still use the French term Montagnais (“mountain people”) in the forested south, or the old term Naskapi (“uncivilized people”) for the residents of the coast and sub-arctic north.[5] These people have long maintained trade relations with Cree, Huron-Wendat, and other First Nations people in present-day Quebec.

Traditionally, the Innu move seasonally around their territory, relying on hunting in the winter months and fishing in the summer months. After colonial settlers arrived from Europe, the Innu engaged in trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company, providing furs to French and British trading partners. By the late 1800s, however, the expansive fur trade, along with the introduction of commercial forestry and sport hunting and fishing, had decimated the territory, and First Nations peoples became increasingly vulnerable to disease and starvation. By the early 1900s, many First Nations communities across the continent had been forced to relocate and re-settle on reserved lands set aside by the Canadian government. Even though Canada failed to recognize Innu Aboriginal title, these people refused to give up their traditional subsistence hunting and fishing, and refused to stop following the caribou.[6]

“Group of Barren Ground Naskapi.” Portrait of Innu people wearing undecorated caribou hide coats. Hunting lodges are seen in the background. Graphics 2348 in the Frank G. Speck Papers, Mss.Ms.Coll.126. Photo by Frank Speck, courtesy of the American Philosophical Society.

By the 1930s, the Innu communities of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish (collectively identified to outsiders as Naskapi), had adapted their seasonal lifeways to include regular camps at trading posts. “Hunting groups, generally consisting of three or four families (or about twenty people), spent the winter harvesting fur-bearing game in remote camps and then, in summer, met up with other groups at the fort.”[7] When Frank Speck encountered these people, he perceived them as rare survivals practicing pre-colonial lifeways. The Innu perceived themselves, then and now, as having an inextricably reciprocal relationship with the caribou, salmon, and all of the other “other-than-human” beings who sustained them.[8] Those relationships were evocatively expressed in the garments they wore while hunting.

Dressing for the Hunt

To better understand the meaning and use of the hunting garments in the Penn Museum, our study focused on a pair of children’s knee moccasins (object #30-3-14, acquired in 1930) and a child’s coat with an accompanying cap (object #31-7-7, acquired in 1931). For the sake of comparison, we also looked at a pair of adult man’s moccasins (object #31-7-11, acquired in 1931). The object tags on the moccasins identify the man’s pair as being made of caribou hide and the child’s pair as being made of “buckskin” (deer hide), but they seem to be the same material.

Careful inspection of these moccasins reveals the hide to be surprisingly thin. The insulating furs that would line these and other Innu winter clothing for warmth were not collected along with the outer garments. The dirt on the bottom of the adult moccasins likely indicates their moderate usage, while the lack of such markings on the child’s boots probably points to minimal use. Despite the age of these objects, which were purchased by the Penn Museum almost 90 years ago, the boots have no apparent rips and tears. Further, the blue, yellow, and red paints, which seem to be the same on each boot, still appear very vibrant.

Ben Kelser in the Penn Museum Study Room, examining the child’s (left) and adult’s (right) moccasins. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

The patterns on the two sets of moccasins initially appear somewhat similar but a closer look yields significant differences. Both pairs of boots feature repeating, carefully crafted geometric shapes in the same color scheme with orthogonal components in the horizontal and vertical directions. The sides of the adult boots feature a more intricate pattern that runs higher up on the boot, featuring red right triangles with a very finely painted interior blue grid, as well as blue rectangles with deliberately unpainted interiors. The sides of the child’s moccasins include a string of blue diamonds surrounded by thin yellow and red lines as well as red isosceles-type triangles. The child’s moccasins are missing the presumably shoe-tightening string present on top of the adult pair.

Analysis of the child’s coat in conjunction with the moccasins is useful in offering a more complete picture of what an Innu child of the early 20th century would wear, and what activities they would engage in. The coat is uniquely decorated with many lines and curves and a row of dots; this is similar but not exactly like the moccasins. Some painted caribou coats were tanned with the hair on for insulation; a lightweight coat like this one is sometimes described as a “summer coat,” since the hair has been entirely removed from the hide.[9]

The designs on these coats are more than mere ornamentation. By dressing in highly decorated caribou skins, the Innu believed they could attract the caribou and, should their designs and behaviors be respectful enough, the caribou spirits would again be released in the following season. In this sense, the caribou coats were reflective of powerful other-than-human beings who would give up their powers at the end of the year.[10] At this point, the Innu would often sell their coats. Hunting, like other seasonal activities, depended upon constantly replenishing and adapting to the game and the environment.

“Any attempt to hunt for caribou is both a new experience and an old experience. It is new in the sense that time has elapsed, the composition of the hunter band has changed, the caribou have learned new things, and so forth. But the hunt is also old in that if you have seen one hunt you have seen them all: There are always hunters, weapons, stealth, decoys, tacks, odors, and winds.”[11]

Innu boys have long been taught by their fathers and uncles, and girls by their mothers and aunts, while also learning crucial traditions and skills from the elder generations. Elders share “ecological, material, social, and spiritual knowledge,” and explain how flora and fauna are classified “according to their social, economic, or symbolic importance.”[12] While on the hunt, several family groups travel together, and children learn their respective roles and responsibilities; in general, men plan and conduct hunting activities, while women prepare and preserve meat, maintain camps, tan hides, and make clothes.[13]

Painting detail on child’s coat. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

It is significant that the Innu use salmon eggs as the basis for many of their paints; the fish glue provides a binder, and the basis for the yellow color is prepared fish eggs. Yellow appears to be the most common paint used by the Innu and it is often used as the starting paint to be mixed with other substances to achieve other colors.[14] There is a certain symmetry in decorating the caribou skin clothing with fish products since, during the summer months when the Innu live on the shore, they rely on fish for their livelihood. It seems fitting that the hunting garb of the Innu pays respect to the two communities of other-than-human beings traditionally most responsible for their survival: the caribou and the salmon.

Collecting Coats

The literature on these “Naskapi” coats is vast, but it focuses almost entirely on adult coats, since so many painted coats now reside in museums.[15] During the 1930s, a large number of caribou coats were sold to Richard White, a fur trader and shopkeeper in northern Labrador. Frank Speck sometimes put in orders for hunting clothing in advance. In 1931, for example, Speck ordered “3 or 4 complete new Naskapi Costumes” from White. White told Speck, “I have a regular market for the deerskins but once they are made into garments the market is limited to Museums or an occasional private party with a scientific bent.” He noted, however, that he also successfully sold “painted coats” to tourists on the steamer boats.[16] Most collectors only wanted coats, which explains why so few complete sets of Innu garments, and so few children’s garments, survive in museum collections. Speck, however, desired entire sets of clothing: coats, leggings, moccasins, gloves, and even hats.

Cap accompanying Naskapi child’s coat. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

The Innu child’s outfit in the Penn Museum has with it an associated hunting cap. This cap features the same red and blue decorative paints used on the other clothing items, but is notable in its inclusion of a six-pointed red shape enclosing a red-and-blue bullseye. This is distinctive (perhaps representing a sun?) since Innu depictions of other stars on clothing tend to have only four or five points.[17] Perhaps most interesting is the contrast between this cap and the hoods that were present on many adult caribou coats: “furred winter coats often had a hood made from a caribou head…the eyeholes were always closed either with sewing or patches, but the earholes were left open.”[18] Given the degree of respect the Innu had for the caribou, it is possible that they would attribute a sense of observational agency to the caribou head on their hoods, particularly given the animal’s open ears. Perhaps only adult men, and not young boys, wore such a hood, since any recklessness with one’s eyes or words might upset the animal and threaten the success of the hunt.

Taken together, the coat and cap feature some of the very same patterns and paint colors seen on both pairs of moccasins. There are distinctions that suggest the garments are not necessarily matched. Yet, given the highly intricate designs on the child’s moccasins, coat, and cap, along with their apparent wear patterns and caribou skin composition, it is reasonable to believe that this clothing assemblage (or one very much like it) could have been worn by a young Innu boy on a caribou hunting trip. This clothing also evokes reciprocal and collaborative relations across the seasons: in one winter season, Innu men and boys would have hunted the caribou that provided the skins for this coat; during a summer season, Innu girls and women would have tanned the hides and made and decorated the coat; and then, during another winter, an Innu boy would have donned the coat to prepare for another hunt.


[1] Speck also deposited a large collection of Naskapi garments and tools at the Canadian Museum of History. Some of Speck’s Naskapi photographs are archived in the Frank G. Speck Papers, Mss.Ms.Coll.126 at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, PA. Part of Speck’s photograph collection is also archived in the Frank Gouldsmith Speck Photograph Collection, 1885-1934, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC.
[2] Frank G. Speck, Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1935). Also see Carole Lévesque, Denise Geoffroy, and Geneviève Polèse, “Naskapi Women: Words, Narratives, and Knowledge,” in Living on the Land: Indigenous Women’s Understanding of Place, edited by Nathalie Kermoal and Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez, 59-84 (Edmonton, Alberta: Athabaska University Press, 2016).
[3] “Introduction to the Innu: The Innu and Their Territory,” Tipatshimuna: Innu Stories from the Land, Virtual Museum Canada website.
[4] In the present day, the Innu population of over 16,000 people is distributed among thirteen nations in Nitassin: eleven in the eastern parts of the former province of Quebec and two – Sheshatshiu and Natuashish – in Labrador. See “Innu Nation” website. Also see Peter Armitage, 1997, “The Innu,” Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador.
[5] See Adrian Tanner, “Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi),” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2010.
[6] Peter Armitage, 1990, Land Use and Occupancy Among the Innu of Utshimassit and Sheshatshit (Sheshatshiu: Innu Nation).
[7] Lévesque, Geoffroy, and Polèse, “Naskapi Women: Words, Narratives, and Knowledge,” 65.
[8] Peter Armitage and Tony Penashue, “Innu Tshishennu ethics and the need for respect: Worldviews in collision,” powerpoint presentation, n.d. For a fuller discussion of “other-than-human” category, see A. Irving Hallowell, “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View,” in Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, edited by S. Diamond, 19-52 (New York: Columbia University, 1960).
[9] For an example of a painted Innu coat with the hair still on (and turned to the inside for warmth), see object #III-B-575 at the Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau, Quebec.
[10] Dorothy K. Burnham, To Please The Caribou, (Toronto, ON: Royal Ontario Museum, 1992). Also see Peter Armitage, “The Religious Significance of Animals in Innu Culture,” Native Issues 4 (1) (1994): 50-56.
[11] Karl E. Weick, “The Collapse of Sense-Making in Organizations: the Mann-Gulch Disaster,” Administrative Science Quarterly 38, 642.
[12] Lévesque, Geoffroy, and Polèse, “Naskapi Women: Words, Narratives, and Knowledge,” 66.
[13] Frank Speck and Loren Eiseley, 1942, “Montagnais-Naskapi Bands and Family Hunting Districts of the Central and Southeastern Labrador Peninsula,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 85: 215-242.
[14] Elizabeth A. Moffatt, P. Jane Sirois, and Judi Miller, “Analysis of the Paints on a Selection of Naskapi Artifacts in Ethnographic Collections,” Studies in Conservation 42 (2) (1997): 65-73.  Frank Speck also collected samples of the paints, pigments, sticks, and dishes used in the process. See, for example, the “Naskapi paint brushes” in the Penn Museum collections and a similar assemblage of “Naskapi painting sticks” at the Canadian Museum of History.
[15] See the following examples: Man’s Coat in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Naskapi Man’s Coat at the Canadian Museum of History; and Innu Hunting Coat at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
[16] August 1, 1931 letter from Richard White to Frank Speck, in Box 20, Subcollection I, Series II, Biographical Material [correspondence], Frank G. Speck Papers, Mss.Ms.Coll.126, American Philosophical Society.
[17] Burnham, To Please The Caribou, 4. The Penn Museum also has an infant’s cap of caribou skin with the same star design, object #30-3-8.
[18] Burnham, To Please The Caribou, 24. For an example of a caribou coat with ears still attached to the head that forms the hood, see object #III-B-21 at the Canadian Museum of History.

Sources Cited:

Armitage, Peter. 1997. “The Innu.” Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador website.

Armitage, Peter. 1990 Land Use and Occupancy Among the Innu of Utshimassit and Sheshatshit. Sheshatshiu: Innu Nation.

Armitage, Peter. 1984. “The Religious Significance of Animals in Innu Culture.” Native Issues. 4 (1): 50-56.

Burham, Dorothy K. 1992. To Please the Caribou. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.

Hallowell, A. Irving. 1960. “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View.” In Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, edited by S. Diamond, 19-52. New York, NY: Columbia University.

Lévesque, Carole, Denise Geoffroy, and Geneviève Polèse. 2016. “Naskapi Women: Words, Narratives, and Knowledge.” In Living on the Land: Indigenous Women’s Understanding of Place, edited by Nathalie Kermoal and Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez, 59-84. Edmonton, Alberta: Athabaska University Press.

Moffatt, Elizabeth A., P. Jane Sirois, and Judi Miller. 1997. “Analysis of the Paints on a Selection of Naskapi Artifacts in Ethnographic Collections.” Studies in Conservation 42 (2): 65-73.

Speck, Frank G. 1935. Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Speck, Frank and Loren Eiseley. 1942, “Montagnais-Naskapi Bands and Family Hunting Districts of the Central and Southeastern Labrador Peninsula.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 85:215-242.

Weick, Karl. 1993. “The Collapse of Sense-Making in Organizations: the Mann-Gulch Disaster.” Administrative Science Quarterly 38, 628-52.

This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2018 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out and consider similar materials, research articles and archives, Indigenous knowledges and histories, and non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

For more blogs from the 2018 Anthropology of Museums class, see the following articles edited by Margaret Bruchac:
• With Erica Dienes. “The Salmon Basket and Cannery Label.”
• With Erica Dienes. “Choctaw Beaded Sash.”
• With  Lilianna Gurry. “Moose Hair Embroidered Birchbark Trays: French, Native, or Both.”
• With  Lilianna Gurry. “Blackfeet Moccasins: A Gift to Charles Stephens.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Investigating a Pipe Tomahawk.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Tlingit Raven Rattle: Transformative Representations.”
• With Ben Kelser. “The Kaskaskian Beaver Bowl.”
• With Leana Reich. “Lady Franklyn’s Quilled Mi’kmaq Box.”
• With Leana Reich. “The Mysterious Beaded Collar.”

For links to blogs from past Museum Anthropology classes, see:
2017: “Object Matters: Considering Materiality, Meaning, and Memory”
2015: “Deep Description and Reflexivity: Methods for Recovering Object Histories”
2015: “The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects”