Anthropologist chronicles struggles of Innu, Inuit against oppression

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on April 21, 2014
Gerald Sider, a New York anthropologist, has written a new book about the struggles of the Innu and Inuit in Labrador.<br />— Submitted photo

Governments forced the Innu and Inuit of Labrador into “concentration villages” and even the most recently constructed of the communities failed their needs, concludes a New York-based researcher in a new book.

In a phone interview from New York, Gerald Sider, an anthropology professor emeritus at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, describes Natuashish — built  a dozen years ago to replace the rundown community of Davis Inlet — as more a benefit to its developers than the Innu.

“Government is just damn useless. There is no thinking at the government level,” Sider said. There  apparently was no thought to planning and installing recreational and social facilties that would appeal to all in the community.

He spent more than 10 years on the research, compiling “Skin for Skin, Death and Life for Inuit and Innu,”  and delves into the historical challenges, as well as the modern social devastations of addiction, suicide, gas sniffing and domestic violence.

Sider faults the Canadian and Newfoundland governments, corporations, and historically, the Hudson’s Bay Co. and the Moravian mission for the troubles. The title is a reference to the historical fur and sealskin trade.

 

Accusations of lies

He accuses governments and companies of lying over and over again to the Innu and Inuit.

“All this has put native leaders in a position that it is immensely difficult to serve their own people’s needs,” he said.

“Over and over and over again the government and corporate policies have caused chaos in the lives of the native people.”

The legacy of historic brutalities and more recent wrongs — such as flooding hunting grounds for hydroelectric power in the 1960s or low-level miliary flight training in the 1990s —  is that aboriginal people remain at a disadvantage in trying to negotiate their rights, he said.

 Sider advises the Innu and Inuit to become activists.

“It is reasonably clear here that the native people are being bullied and native lives diminished to serve what the Newfoundland government regards as a higher purpose — the unfettered development of Labrador for Newfoundland’s own purposes,” Sider writes in one chapter.

 

Lived in Dunville

He developed an interest in Newfoundland and Labrador research while living in Dunville in the early 1970s.

Sider said he drove to Newfoundland in a Renault with bald tires, seeking to escape the intensity of his work in the civil rights movement in the southern United States.

Off and on, he spent summers and research stints in the province and has previously written about rural Newfoundland.

Sider said he expects some controversy over his work, but he isn’t sure what the overall reaction will be.

“My job is to do the best to tell the truth,” he said.

“It will be a controversial book about painful subjects.”

The book is published by Duke University Press. Sider can be contacted at gsider2@gmail.com by anyone who wants to discuss his conclusions.