Several years ago, Michel (Giant) Andrew had a vivid dream that was to greatly affect his life and the lives of others in the Innu community.
In the dream, he was visited by an old man who told him, “Get up and help your people.”
In Innu culture, dreams are significant and Giant wondered how he should interpret the old man’s words.
For help, the then 26-year-old turned to his uncle, Nikashant Antane (In English, Alexander Andrew). Giant told his uncle the man in his dream had said he should walk from Sheshatshiu to Natuashish to help people who have diabetes.
“A couple days after his dream, Giant asked me what his grandfather looked like,” Antane relates from his home in Sheshatshiu.
Giant had never seen a picture of his grandfather, who died of a heart attack four years before he was born.
“After I showed him the photo I had on my computer, he said, ‘I am convinced it was Grandfather in my dream.’”
Giant decided he would set out on the journey to help those with diabetes, as his grandfather had instructed.
According to Antane, the community of Sheshatshiu has a high incidence of diabetes — about 200 of the 1,800 people who live there are affected by the disease and the numbers are similar in other Innu communities, he says.
Changes in lifestyle have had an effect on the overall health of the people.
“Innu people come from two worlds, the world of wages and the world of the hunter. You’ve got to work to survive, but on the other hand you think about how your ancestors lived off the land — whereas in the white culture people want to see that they get a good education, have a job and a home and a car.
“People in my culture were dependant on wild food in the past. They worked hard every day, walking for miles and miles searching for caribou, porcupine, beaver, and those foods were really good for us. Now they’re eating canned food and are dependent on Ski-Doos and trucks.”
It wasn’t like that back in Giant’s grandfather’s day. Matthew Ben Andrew had to walk to survive, to feed his family.
“His people walked many hundreds of kilometres, crisscrossing the vast lands of what we now know as Quebec/Labrador,” Antane says. “To the Innu on both sides of the provincial border, (that area) is Nitassinan (Our Homeland).”
In the winter of 2009, Giant set out alone on the 400-kilometre, six-week trek and raised $26,000 — enough to buy a dialysis unit for the hospital in Goose Bay, Labrador.
“There are now five at the hospital. Before that, people (who needed dialysis) had to go to St. John’s and live there permanently. Now nobody has to go to St. John’s anymore.”
Antane has written a book chronicling Giant’s journey.
“Giant’s Dream” was recently released by Creative Book Publishing in St. John’s. He follows with reverence Giant’s solo journey, interlacing stories about the young Innu man, past and present; his family, his ancestors and the struggles of his people. One portion of the book is dedicated to photography from the expedition.
Antane says his brother Charlie (Shan Shushep, deceased) would have been proud of Giant’s decision to “walk behind the history of his people.”
Charlie bestowed the nickname when Michel Andrew was quite young — “You’re not a baby, you’re a giant!”
“He was the largest baby in the family,” Antane says. “Much bigger than his cousins the same age.”
The journey continues
Last year, Giant started out on a second walk from Sheshatshiu, heading for Uashat (Sept-Isles). One of the younger boys in the community was to accompany him. However, before they could begin, Giant was devastated to learn that his 15-year-old friend had died tragically in a fire.
But supporters rallied and the number heading out to walk with their toboggans and gear swelled to 13. By the time they stopped in Goose Bay, that number had doubled.
Giant dedicated the walk, which was to cover 1,300 kilometres, to all the troubled youth in his village. After 25 days the group reached St. Augustine, a distance of about 450 kilometres. They were forced to postpone going any further because with the mild winter, the ice wasn’t safe on lakes and rivers.
Giant, and the group now known as the Young Innu Cultural Health Walkers, picked up the trek to Sept-Isles again this year, after flying to St. Augustine Feb. 11.
“This year, 15 walkers started from St. Augustine and some young people joined them along the way,” Antane says.
“Another seven joined him in Natashquan.”
The two youngest walkers on the journey are three-year-old Menuatan and Shipec, 4.
In addition to drumming up support for the Canadian Diabetes Association, the group is making the journey to help one young man in his 20s, Harry Dyke, who was badly burned in a house fire.
“He’s having a terrible time getting back to recovery. After 16 months in the hospital, he still can’t get out of bed,” says Antane.
“The youth group led by Giant is very supportive. So far they’ve raised about $5,000. They plan to go on to Schefferville in the fall with backpacks — not toboggans this time — camping out in tents and doing about 30 to 40 kilometres a day.”
Giant and the Young Innu Cultural Health Walkers were expected to arrive in Sept-Isles today.
The author of “Giant’s Dream” was the last of his siblings to be born in a tent out in the country (in March 1959). The following day, the family continued their travels on foot and toboggan.
His family was caught between wanting their children to be educated and wanting them to learn their own culture. While his younger siblings were taken to the country, Antane remained in Sheshatshiu to continue his schooling, promising himself that when he finished school he would go into the bush with his family.
He is an economic development officer with the Sheshatshiu First Nation Band, and organizes and handles public relations for the walks.
Three years ago, when Giant first started on his journey, Antane intended only to record the event as part of his family history.
“I just wanted to save the story to share in our family,” he says.
“But a family friend who does some book editing recommended I write a book.”
Antane is creating a video documentary during the current walk, interviewing the youth walkers and elders in Innu communities along the way. He plans to submit it to the CBC as a mini-documentary.
“It’s a story by the Innu for the Innu,” he says.
His experiences working with young people have given him hope.
“I see a lot of satisfaction in helping youth and I see they want to make a difference. I’ve wondered why so many young people resort to suicide so much in the aboriginal community. I think a lot of people think about suicide at least once in their lives — it starts when you’re a teenager.”
Giant’s commitment to following the journeys of his ancestors is proving to be a big step in helping young Innu people find a balanced path between two completely different ways of life.
From a toddler, he was raised by his grandmother, Mary Adele Andrew. She died when Giant was in his early teens, causing him great grief, and he attempted suicide several times.
“Despite his awareness, he was very much into alcohol and drugs at one time,” Antane says. “Now he talks to the young people.”
They have been sharing conversations when the long day of walking is completed and the group settles in for the night.
“A lot of the young people are relating and they say they feel comfortable talking to Giant about their problems. It’s a journey of personal healing as well.”