Traditional Dances and Ceremonies

The caribou is the most important animal to the Innu. When they lived on the land, it provided food, clothing, shelter, tools and even medicine. Even now that Innu live in houses in settled communities, caribou remain a central part of their culture. Because of this, the Innu treat caribou with great respect.

The Innu danced before and after the caribou hunt. If hunters saw signs of caribou in the snow or on the land, they would come back and tell an elder who had special powers. The Innu call this person “Old Man,” or kamataukatshiut.  Someone referred to as Old Man would be an elder who had lived and hunted for a long time in the country, who understood the ways of the caribou and other animals. Such a good hunter would have gained power to communicate with the animals. Very few people had this power.

When the Old Man had received news of caribou, he would play the drum. He would sing songs about his dreams and see visions of where the caribou were. Innu believe that dreams and visions sometimes predict the future. The Old Man would tell the hunters what he had seen and where the caribou were. He would tell them what direction to go, and how many days to walk, but he did not give an exact distance.

When his vision was done, everyone would join in a circle dance. They danced because they were happy and because they believed the dancing made the caribou master happy. They also believed that this dance had the power to bind the legs of the caribou spirit so that the caribou could not move. The Innu call this dance nanatuakateskuakanu, or “breaking the legs of the caribou.” The hunters would then leave to hunt the caribou the next day.

The Old Man also drummed when people were hungry and there was no sign of caribou. He would drum in the dark so that he could find the caribou in his visions. After he finished, people would dance and the hunters would leave for their hunt.


When the hunters returned with a large number of caribou, maybe ten or fifteen animals, they would invite other families to join them for a big feast that lasted one day. Families were scattered in different camps in the country, except in the summer when they came together at larger camping areas, often around a lake, or, after contact, the trading post. Whoever had a successful hunt would invite ten or fifteen other families to join them. This feast was called makushan.  After Christianity was introduced, they might not hold the makushan right away. Instead, they would preserve the caribou and celebrate at Christmastime or Easter.

Makushan was a very festive occasion, where people danced, laughed, and enjoyed themselves. During makushan, the bones of the caribou were broken and boiled in water with the meat. The meat was turned into a powder. The marrow from the bones turned into grease, which was also called makushan.  The hunters shared the food evenly between all the families at the feast. When the Old Man received food, he would say to the caribou spirits “tshiuepatashimi,” which means “return back home again.” The animal spirits could then come back as caribou in future hunts.

After the feast, the Innu would have a celebratory dance. The Old Man would play the drum and sing songs. These songs were different than the songs he sang when he was having visions. This dance happened during the day. This dance was a way for the Innu to thank the caribou. After the dance, the Old Man might tell a story about what he had seen. He would predict what kinds of animals they would find the following year. He would speak of many kinds of animals, like beaver, muskrat, and otters.

Makushan used to be celebrated with different kinds of animals, but today the Innu only have caribou makushan. The feast is held in the town now, usually around Christmas and New Year’s, and not after the hunt. Innu stopped having makushan in the country around 1950. Today, they do not always dance, and sometimes they eat turkey instead of caribou at their feasts.

The Drum Dance

The Innu have one style of dance, called the Drum Dance or Circle Dance. In Innu Aimun, the dance is called innuniminanu, or “people dance.” It can have spiritual significance or be purely celebratory. The dance is always used during happy occasions, for visions of caribou or bear, successful hunts, feasts, weddings or holidays. They might also dance if a shaman, or Old Man, found a lost person in his vision. Sometimes when the elders gathered, they would play the drum and dance for the little children.

Innu dance to a drum played by a respected male elder. Adults and teenagers stand in a circle, alternating women and men. They move in a clockwise direction, the direction of the sun. If they are inside, they dance around a stove, or around a woodpile or some other object outside. If the dancers are in a small tent, they dance in place.           Before the Innu were settled in towns in the 1960s, they danced outside or in a big tent. Today, they dance in the community hall or school gym.  Only the drummer sings. Men and women move the same way, with small rhythmic steps in time to the drum. They fold their arms on their stomach or let them hang down at their sides, swinging them gently with the music. Sometimes the men call out “Heh! Heh!” as a way of being boisterous. Dancing involves a lot of playfulness and joking, which the Innu call uitetakushikashu. Sometimes people turn around and joke with those behind them to make people laugh.


The dancers do not have to be couples. One elder said they could dance with their girlfriend or grandmother, anyone they loved or wanted to make happy. Another person said that during a celebratory dance, a man would ask a woman he liked to dance with him. Teenagers dance along with adults. Before the Innu were settled in the 1960s, children did not dance, but now they sometimes do at weddings or for holidays in the town.

Sometimes, only one or two people danced, instead of a group, if they had special reasons to celebrate. On certain occasions, special women would do a dance by themselves to the shaman’s drum.

Dances held in towns tend to be held during the day or in the evening. Some elders said it would go on for hours, but would always stop by midnight. Spiritual dances in the country lasted about an hour, but celebratory dances were sometimes held at night and lasted all night. One woman described her memory of going into the country as a young couple with her husband:

In the fall, in the moonlight, you could see through the tent with a candle inside, and I could hear the drum and people singing and laughing. I never questioned anybody, I just observed. The drummer’s wife kept asking people to dance with her, late at night. The old man drumming was a shaman, I was told after by my husband. Why was there dancing, I wanted to know? The grandfather wanted to look for caribou or for any kind of animals through the drum. That’s why they were dancing.

Up until the last forty years, dancers wore their traditional clothes and moccasins made of caribou hide. Women wore skirts and dresses, and hats or, as now is often the case, kerchiefs over their heads.


Drumming is a central aspect of Innu culture. Drums are a very important part of the “Old Man’s” communication with animal masters, and are handled in a certain way. A young man would always handle a drum for a drummer. He would hang it on a tent pole, or inside the house, and always bring it out so it is waiting when the Old Man wanted to play.

Innu made the drums from caribou hide. The drumsticks today are made mostly of carved lightweight wood, but in earlier periods Innu used feather quill and bone (Diamond, Cronk, & von Rosen 1994: 87). The drummer could tune the drum by adjusting a rope tie attached to lacing that holds the drum membrane in place. Sometimes, the surface of the drum was painted with solid circular lines or concentric dotted circles, often with red and/or blue paint (Ibid 1994: 88-89).  The drum might have feathers attached to it. Different types of feathers gave the drum different sounds and powers. Drummers used feathers from certain owls and partridges that had loud or unusual calls (Simeo Rich personal communication, Dec. 2005).

The drummer played different beats for different songs or different parts of a song. He often began with quick, short strokes that made a steady, continuous sound. When he is having a vision, he might break up the sound and use a pulsing rhythm (Ibid 1994: 89).  Similarly, dances started just with the drummer rhythmically beating the drum, then increasing and changing the rhythm to signal the dancers to begin dancing (Dance event, August 19, 2006).

Drummers were elders who had visions and dreams. This power passed on from father or grandfather to son or son-in-law. Power also came from hunting animals and living in the country. Traditionally, only men played the drum, but today, a few women have started playing in the towns of Sept Isles and Schefferville. To read an interview and hear some songs by an Innu elder follow this link. [pine.innu.interview.pien.doc]


When Innu people dance to the drum, the drummer also sings. The Innu word for song is nikamun (Diamond, Cronk & von Rosen 1994: 71). The songs that the Old Man sings depend on the occasion. Most of the time, drummers sing about their dreams and life in the country. They sing about how life is experienced on the land and their connection to the animals. They long to know how the caribou feels and what the black bears say. A drummer might sing about going hunting, or about going in search of a dream that he had. When the drummer is looking for caribou, he has visions and then sings about his vision. At weddings, the drummer will play love songs.

Songs are passed on within a family. An elder will sometimes say to his children that they can use the songs after he is gone. When a drummer sings, he will first talk about the song and say from where he got it. Many of these songs are no longer sung because people do not live in the country anymore, hunting and traveling as they had done throughout thousands of years of history. [Insert link to:]


Until some time in the 1930s, some Innu continued to wear traditional clothing made of caribou hide (Webber 1997: 81). Women wore caribou hide dresses, and men had special coats and ceremonial robes. There were no clothes made especially for dancing. [insert photo:]

Hunters had special coats painted with complicated designs that they used for hunting. They would also wear these clothes for dances before and after the hunt. The designs came to the hunter in a vision, and his wife would then paint them on the coat.  The motifs had many different meanings. They symbolized the Caribou Master, the union of human and animal, mythical voyages, ancestors, and protection, and many other things (Webber 1997: 16). Innu women painted them mainly in red, blue and yellow, and mixtures of these colors. The Innu did not generally put fringe or beads on the clothing, only on the moccasins.

There were two types of coats. One had furred skin and was closed in the front, while the other had bare skin and was open. These second coats were probably for shamans, while the first type was used by all hunters (Webber 1997: 20). The power of the coats only lasted one year.

Hunters also had ceremonial robes painted with motifs that represented the Innu view of the world or cosmos. Shamans would have a sun in the middle of the robe. These robes were either rectangular or were made from one single caribou hide. The hunters displayed them at sunrise to please the Caribou Master and used them in ceremonies and during the hunt. Elders sometimes danced in them (Webber 1997: 54-55).

Traditionally, women wore dresses of caribou hide and used the sinew from the caribou as thread. These dresses also had painted patterns on them, representing growth, the earth, mountains, water and summer, along with other motifs similar to the hunters’ coats. Women also received visions that related to their many tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, caring for children, gathering water, making fire and dressing hides (Webber 1997: 66).

By the 19th century, the Innu had begun to adopt western materials for their clothes. They used cotton and decorated with beads and silk thread instead of paint. Traditional ways lasted longer in Innu communities in Labrador, where they were more isolated from outside contact than the Innu of Quebec. Anthropologists have noted that the caribou skin hides were still worn in the 1930s and even later, but were no longer painted after this time (Webber 1997: 81). Traditions may have also transferred to the new material. Some elders today remember hunters wearing white cotton or hide jackets belted at the waist, along with leggings and moccasins. By the twentieth century, women began adopting cotton dresses and skirts. By the 1960s, they began wearing pants, even sometimes when dancing. To see the outfits worn by men and women at a dance today follow this link. [Link to]. To read interviews with some of the dancers follow these links. [link to pine.innu.interview.kathleen.doc;; pine.innu.interview.marie.angela.doc]

Caribou Women

A small number of women in the Innu community gained special powers through working with caribou. They were called onoitamiteiskueu, which means female caribou. These special women had particular abilities to make moccasins, work with hides, clean any kind of animal and do beadwork quickly and better than other women. They possessed great knowledge of the different activities for which women were responsible. They also showed a deep respect for animals and treated their remains properly.

The special power of an onoitamiteiskueu could come from different places. It comes from years of working with the caribou and giving to the caribou spirit. If he was a shaman or a good hunter the power might come from her husband. A mother or grandmother might pass it on to her.

Sometimes, an onoitamiteiskueu did a special dance by herself after a caribou hunt. One elder described how her grandmother used to dance alone while her husband played the drum. She danced in one place, turning to each direction. This was unusual, since Innu mostly dance in groups. These women had visions of the future work they needed to do and of how they might do it. They could pass on their power to a daughter or granddaughter, although this tradition has now been lost. Onoitamiteiskueu were also the only women who asked questions of the shaman during the shaking tent ceremony.

These women, referred to as Old Lady, also had a connection with black bears, in addition to caribou. Black bears and caribou were the two most respected animals to the Innu. The Old Lady would pound her foot three times to signal that hunters had caught a black bear. When hunters returned with the bear, the Old Lady would clean the bear and then dance alone with the drummer. By dancing, she paid respect to the bear spirit and made it happy. Then the community would hold a sweat lodge.

The Shaking Tent Ceremony

The shaking tent ceremony was an important way for Innu to communicate with animals. A small number of elders, always men, could speak directly with the animal masters. Innu refer to these elders as “Old Man” in English, but in Innu Aimun it is kakushapatak. They gained their power from spending years in the country and hunting. Very few of these people are still alive today.

The ceremony could be held at any time of year. When hunters had a hard time finding animals, they would ask the Old Man to do the shaking tent ceremony to find out why they were having trouble.

The Innu held this ceremony out in the country. They built a special tent that was four or five feet tall, which only full-grown adults could help build. It had a circular base, a small, circular opening at the top and a band around the middle. The Innu used a special kind of willow for the top and the middle frame. They used caribou hide or heavy canvas for the tent walls.

During the ceremony, the elder entered the tent alone while other community members sat outside. The ceremony lasted around two hours. The Old Man would begin by calling the animal masters to the tent, and the tent would start to shake. The Innu believe that each animal has a “master” spirit or “boss,” like a caribou master or a beaver master.

The Old Man was the only one who could understand the animal masters. People outside the tent asked questions, and the Old Man translated between the animal masters and the people. The audience might ask questions about why they could not catch any martens that year, or whether the master could give them more animals. The people outside could hear male and female spirits of many different animals, like geese, gulls, owls and beavers. However, no one except the kakushapatak saw them. Through his power, the kakushapatak could see who was outside the tent, too. He could tell who was speaking, where they were from, and how well they had treated the animals that year.

Men asked most of the questions, but certain women with spiritual power called onoitamiteiskueu also asked some questions. If a woman touched the tent, it would stop shaking.

The kakushapatak would talk, negotiate and sometimes fight with the animal masters. They did not fight out of anger, but rather to determine how well the hunt would go. If the Old Man won, then hunting would be good. If he lost, then things would be difficult for his people. When the animal masters won, they would dance to celebrate their victory. One elder described part of one ceremony this way:

One time, the Old Man asked to have marten for hunting. The marten spirit said, “Open your traps.” He didn’t say yes or no, just “open your traps.” That means we were allowed to set the traps. If we caught fifty or a hundred marten, then we would know the marten spirit had agreed to let us get the marten.

Speaking to Animal Masters

Innu believe that they are very closely connected to the animal world. They live in a harsh climate where their survival, up until recent times, depended on the animals they hunted.  Caribou were particularly important. The caribou master, a powerful spirit who ruled the caribou, would send his subjects to be hunted by the Innu as long as the Innu pleased him by their ritual art and respect for the animals [Webber 1997: 10].

The Innu believed other animals had masters who ruled them, as well. Beliefs vary in different bands as to how many individual masters there are, but the caribou spirit is almost always seen as the most powerful [Armitage, 8-9].

They had an intimate relationship with animal masters that ensured the continuation of animals to hunt. If Innu did not behave properly, they risked angering the animal masters and faced possible starvation.

Innu have many ways of talking with animal masters. One of these is the shaking tent ceremony, but some elders also have dreams, visions and rituals that connect them to the animal world.  The animals send these visions [Webber 1997: 12]. One elder who has spiritual powers spoke of a dream he had:

A week ago, I had a dream of a male caribou sitting on the road facing me. The next day, my son went with some friends to hunt caribou. I knew from my dream they would only find male caribou, and when they came back, they only had male caribou. The male caribou spirit gives himself first. The next time we hunt, we will get young caribou and female caribou, too.

Both women and men can have these types of dreams. The power to communicate with animals came from hunting and working with the animals over many years.

This elder also spoke of a ritual called nimamakupatshiskaout, or “flattening the ground.” He visited a pond with his grandfather as a child to hunt beaver. It was winter. His grandfather told him to wait, and he walked around the edge of the pond. When he got back, they went to the beaver dam and caught all the beavers. This ritual trapped the beavers in their dam so they couldn’t swim under the ice to holes where they could breathe and be safe from the hunters.

If the Innu did not treat the animals with respect, the spirits grew angry. Some hunters had the power to make them happy again through certain powerful objects. These objects could not be used by anyone else, and could only be used on the land and not in the community.


Caribou are one of the two most important animals to the Innu. It is the only animal of which they use every piece. The hide is used for clothing, coats, moccasins, snow shoes and tents. The Innu used the sinew for thread, the meat and bones for food, and the fur to stuff mattresses. They made tools out of the bones and antlers. Nothing was thrown away or left lying on the ground. As a sign of respect, they hung the unused antlers and bones in the trees.

The Innu believe that the caribou have a leader or a caribou master. The caribou master and the caribou live in Caribou House Mountain. Every year, the caribou master releases the caribou so the Innu can hunt them and have food to eat. He will send visions to the hunters and elders to tell them where the caribou will be [Webber 1997: 9] The Innu believe that the souls of the caribou never die. After they are hunted, the souls return to the Sacred Mountain and return for future hunts.

The caribou master will only send caribou for the Innu to hunt if he is happy. The Innu please the spirit by painting the visions they are sent on clothes, conducting rituals like song and dance, and treating the animals with respect. The bones and antlers are hung up on trees or scaffolds. If the bones are left on the ground, and a dog eats them, the Caribou spirit will punish the person who left them there by refusing him or her more caribou.

Weddings and Holidays

By the 20th century, the Innu adopted the Roman Catholic tradition of marriage. The priest would come to towns in Labrador for two weeks every summer. Because the priest only came once a year, several couples would get married at the same time. One couple, married in 1945, was married along with three other couples. They wore western-style clothes: a white wedding dress and a suit. The community had a makushan in a big tent and held a dance after the meal. The Old Man who drummed played love songs for the new couples. Another elder remembered her wedding in 1963, where there was a feast and a dance afterwards.

The conversion of Innu to Christianity also influenced the holidays they celebrated. However, even up to the 1950s and 1960s, Innu celebrated Christian holidays in ways that still maintained some of their traditions. At Christmas, the communities would have a big feast. Everyone would make sure there was enough caribou, porcupine, beaver, rabbit and other types of food for Christmas Eve. Families ate a feast at midnight and prayed together. Then people would dance. The tradition of gift-giving was introduced by a priest who would bring presents from the military base at Northwest Point. He would bring chocolate bars and soda. Children began expecting presents for Christmas.

© 2024 This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Indigenous Dance