dog harness - atim-utapaniapi

Always quick to adopt new technology that would ease the burden of life on the land, the Mushuaunnuat (Barren Ground Innu) adopted dog teams and komatiks (atim-utapanashku) from the Inuit and Settlers on the coast of Labrador. The atim-utapaniapi (dog harness) was used to tie the dogs to their traces, which were in turn attached to the komatik.

 Listen to Natuashish Elder, Etuat Mestenapeo, recall one of the advantages of using a dog team

In borrowing dog team technology from their coastal neighbours, the Innu even learned the Inuit commands to the dogs.

 Listen to Natuashish Elder, Shuashem Nui, talk about giving commands to the dogs

More information on Innu dog teams

While permitted the Innu to transport heavier loads to and from the interior barrens, they came with a price. The Inuit dogs had big appetites and had to be fed. Seal meat, caribou organs, and fish had to be obtained, and cornmeal had to be transported into the barrens with the dogs. Those responsible for the dogs had to stay up late to feed them and to ensure they were tethered so that they could not get at the caribou meat or harm the children. The Innu also had their own dog breeds, but these fox-like animals were used primarily to hunt small game, and had little if any role in hauling (see Cummins, 2002:120-132; Speck, 1925).

Two Innu elders from Natuashish – Shushem Nui and Etuat Mestenapeo – have provided detailed information about Innu use of dog teams in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

According to Shuashem Nui, the late Chief Shushepish “Joe” Rich was the first Innu person to have a . Most Innu, however, acquired dog teams only during the Newfoundland government’s experimental settlement programme when Innu were taken to Nutak on the North Coast of Labrador. Shuashem Nui says,

As far I can I remember, it was 1948 when we went to Nutak, and 1949 was the year we had our dogs. There were no dog teams in the past. Innu people went to Nutak to get the dogs….We didn't have dogs when my father and I went there. We came out with 9 dogs. In 1950 when Innu People started to move back to Davis Inlet and Sango Bay, we stayed there at Nutak. There were a lot of komatiks and a lot of dogs. When we left to go to Nutak, we didn't have anything to haul our belongings. [On the way back] every family had a dog team, and no one had to haul their belongings. Ever since then, we didn't have a problem with the traveling.

Shuashem and Etuat made many other points about dog teams:

  • Before Innu acquired Inuit dogs, they had to pull their belongings and supplies on toboggans (utapanashk u) and sleds (ush-tetanakanashk u) . When the snow was really deep and soft, the men would have to put their snowshoes on and make a trail early in the morning for the group to follow. Once they acquired dogs, the Innu did not have to break trail in this way before the next day’s travel;
  • Most Innu kept dog teams from 1948 to 1967, when settlement in Davis Inlet took place and snowmobiles came into use;
  • An Innu dog driver could have up to 10 dogs in his team;
  • Dogs used up a lot of food. Depending on availability, food consisted of cornmeal, rock cod, seal meat/fat obtained from Inuit or harvested by the Innu themselves, and/or internal organs of caribou such as lungs and intestines;
  • A stew of cornmeal and caribou would have to be prepared for the dogs in the evenings;
  • By the time the dogs had been fed and tethered for the night, it could be late in the evening (for example, midnight). Dogs were a lot of work;
  • Dogs were trained so that they would understand what was said to them. For example, when somebody said auu they would stop, sit down right away, and the rope would be put around them. The command kuis meant the dogs were to run (or weet, weet – go fast). The command eiuk, eiuk meant to go straight ahead. These words were adopted and adapted from Inuit and Settler people whom the Innu encountered on the
  • Innu mostly obtained their dogs in trade with the Inuit. One pair of snowshoes would be exchanged for one dog;
  • The oldest dog was usually the lead one. The lead dog was called the utshimau - the “boss.” Only the oldest dog could understand the commands from the driver;
  • ;
  • The lead dog had the longest trace, while the junior, inexperienced dogs had short traces and ran closer to the komatik;
  • Whereas Inuit traces were made out of seal hide, the Innu generally made their traces out of store-bought rope;
  • When there was no trail available, the drivers would tell the dogs where to go. Often times, if there was no trail, the drivers would walk ahead on snowshoes to make a trail for the dogs to follow, so that they would find it easier to haul the komatik load;
  • Under certain conditions in the spring, when the snow was crusty, the dogs would cut their feet. It was a very hard time for the dogs. They used to bleed very badly, and when the cuts dried, their feet were very painful, and the dogs would start limping.

Vocabulary related to dog teams and komatiks (not yet in standard orthography)

ashikupesh – part of a seal used for harnessing dogs

ashissu-utapanashku - “mud sleds,” name used when runners have mud smeared on them to make them slide better.

atim-utapanashku – komatik.

kanatustumuess, kanutistumest – dog driver

kamamitashauet – “the navigator,” one who drives dogs

kanikauapet – lead dog, “one who leads with the rope.” Kanikanutess meaning “the little leader.” [ MacKenzie Shoebox dictionary lists kanikanitesht and kanikanutesht as “scout; leader, one who goes ahead”]

pamaskupatakin – name for some kind of dog rope, trace, harness?

pashakashteikan - a whip to use on dogs when they do not want to pull.

utanikan - rope attachment of komatik and the dogs [ MacKenzie Shoebox dictionary lists atim-utapaniapi as “dog harness”]

utapanashku neshek - metal shoeing for komatik runners

ush-tetanakanashkua sled with runners. Often used to transport canoes at breakup and freeze-up, and to haul logs.

Examples of names given to dogs

Kakustashet – “coward”

Kakutshuet – no meaning provided or translated

Kuekustishu – “fearful, timid one”

Nipishapui - “cup of tea”

Pitshu - "gum, sap"

Tshamaskai – “short-tailed dog”


Cummins, Bryan D. 2002. First Nations First Dogs: Canadian Aboriginal Ethnocynology . Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd.

Leacock, Eleanor B. and Nan A. Rothschild. 1994 (eds.). Labrador Winter: the Ethnographic Journals of William Duncan Strong, 1927-1928 . Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Podolinsky Webber, Alika. Fieldnotes. 1960-62. Canadian Museum of Civilization. Labrary, Archives and Documentation. III-X-44M, box 171 f.2.

Speck, Frank. 1925. “Dogs of the Labrador Indians.” Natural History . 25, pp.58-64.

VanStone, James W. 1985. Material Culture of the Davis Inlet and Barren Ground Naskapi: the William Duncan Strong Collection. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History. Fieldiana, Anthropology New Series No.7.

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