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'By Innu, for Innu’

For anyone interested in a virtually untold piece of Labrador history, you may want to take in a new documentary film.

Director of Photography (DP) Rohan Chitrakar filming 'NUTAK' at the Old David Inlet Trading Post, with Sam and Angela Pijoggee.

There will also be a showing of an earlier film — NUTSHIMIT – On the land’.

‘NUTAK’ tells the story of the first forced settlement and relocation of the Mushuau Innu to Nutak — located on Okak Island on Labrador’s north coast — in 1948. It was the first of three relocations the Innu experienced in the last 60 years.

German filmmaker Sarah Sandring describes the story as ‘a historic jigsaw puzzle of events and interests of different stakeholders — the government, trade, the church.’

“The Innu were caught in the midst of all this, not knowing what was going on,” noted Sarah, via an email interview with The Labradorian.

“There are still a number of Innu elders who remember this episode.”

Sandring and her crew travelled to Labrador to capture this story four years ago.

She said she has been interested in so-called ‘Indigenous issues’ for a long time which she said is likely the result of her own experiences in living and studying in the United States and my German heritage.

“Germans love to romanticize about the feather-wearing Indian and his dotted pony,” she quipped.

However,  she said her initial encounter with Innu issues was far from the romanticized scenes from movies or television.

“In 2008, I was researching about military actions on tribal lands, which is far from romantic,” she said.

“I learned about the NATO base in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the low-level flight training over the Labrador-Quebec peninsula, which is Innu land. Especially in the 70s and 80s, the planes frequently brushed the ground at 30 m elevation going 900 km/h in an area, where the Innu were and still are following their nomadic way of life for part of the year. This means they are hunting, trapping, fishing and camping with their families on the land, which they call Nutshimit. The sudden noise and speed of the planes was traumatizing to them.”

Sandring said at that time, the Innu voiced a very creative and colorful protest, which interested her.

“I thought, ‘Wow, David and Goliath,’” said Sandring.  “So I got in touch with Colin Samson, professor at Essex University in the UK and human right activist, to find out more. Colin has been working with the Labrador Innu since the 1990s. He said the NATO conflicts were pretty much gone but that there’s another story the community of Natuashish is interested in documenting — the story of NUTAK. This is how we got started.”

‘NUTAK — Memories of a Resettlement’ is a documentary film commissioned by the Innu Nation, which financed the film.

Sandring and her film crew recorded 15 accounts of elders from both Natuashish and Sheshatshiu of the forced resettlement, with five making the final cut.

“We went on a journey to revisit Nutak with elders Joaquim and Manishan Nui from Natuashish,” she said. “The harshness of this trip hinted at what the Innu must have gone through back then. The northern part of the coast is quite windy and barren, with steep mountains. Caribou are hard to get to.

The relocation to Nutak went along with a widespread relocation policy of the Canadian government at that time, which left a lot of First Nation groups traumatized to say the least.”

Sandring said their accounts are all different and very personal.

“You must remember, they were children and teenagers at the time of the relocation. However, there are some common denominators in their stories. So, the film is a balancing act between these personal stories and the ‘official’ narrative of the events. It shows that  — in the end — historic changes are really the result of very subjective, individual decisions.”

Sandring also noted the production is a collaboration on many levels.

“Our international film team worked with the wonderful Innu filmmaker Christine Poker and with Colin Samson. We involved Innu youth in the making. This is a film by the Innu for a mainly Innu audience. Thus, the story is told from an Innu perspective, which means it leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

It shows the confusion of the Innu people back then. Sometimes this is challenging for a non-Innu audience because we like to have straight answers, understand causalities.”

Not easy

Sandring said the making of NUTAK was not an easy one.

“It’s not an easy story to tell.  On one side, if you want to make a film with the Innu, you have to earn their respect — for me, the Director of Photography, Rohan Chitrakar, and our sound engineer,” she said.  “This means chopping wood, baking bannock, cooking caribou and shoveling snow between filming. We are total ‘greenhorns‘ and travelling in Labrador is always extreme; there were a number of dangerous situations. It wouldn’t be possible without the experience and knowledge of our Innu partners.”

She said archival material and official correspondence concerning Nutak is rare and there still is no thorough analysis of the circumstances of the relocation by historians.

However, she noted, while NUTAK was still in the production stages, the documentary film ‘NUTSHIMIT – On the land’ was made.

“We held workshops to support local filmmaking and started the Innu Travelling Film Festival, which brings the Innu-language films from our collaboration to remote Innu communities.”

She said it is “wonderful to collaborate and make films at places and about stories that have an inherent need to be told.” “These may not be international blockbusters but they are Innu blockbusters. NUTSHIMIT, NUTAK and the films of the Innu filmmaker Christine Poker are very rare examples of a filmic change of perspective. They are trying to counterbalance a whole array of films and media coverage that focuses on alcoholism and decay in Innu communities. These dysfunctions are there and painful, but they are a result of decades of more or less subtle cultural destruction. There is another side to the story, which talks about endurance and strength, love and laughter.”

Sandring said while there are no specific plans for another Innu-related project, it doesn’t mean there won’t be.

“Christine Poker is working on her first Innu feature film, Colin Samson is using the films internationally in his lectures and talks, there is frequent interest in our work by film festivals…and I hope we will be able to do another edition of the Innu Travelling Film Festival in 2015 or 2016,” she said.

“I have been to Labrador many times over the last six years. The Innu people are in my heart and will be forever. I learned so much from them. Their warmth, strength and humor is a constant inspiration for me.”

Sandring added one of the great things she learned from the Innu is to not judge others or put your view of things as the only true account.

“In the interviews, the elders simply recounted the events. They didn’t pretend to know causalities, didn’t judge the various non-Innu stakeholders — although there would be enough reasons to blame the Newfoundland government orthe church for their cultural ignorance and destructive, self-serving behavior. As the elder Joaquim Nui says, ‘This is only my story. Others may tell it differently and that’s what storytelling is about.’”

For more information about the film, contact information Nirgun Films at or visit

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