As late as the 1950s, the Innu people of Labrador still followed an ageless tradition of moving twice each year in pursuit of their primary sources of food. Every winter, families packed up and moved to the interior of Labrador to follow the caribou herds and hunt and trap. In summer, they moved back to the coast to live off fish, seals and sea birds. Summers were also the time to visit the trading posts. Black tea, valued by both the elders and the hunters as a source of energy, was always high on an Innu shopping list.
As everyone who has ever moved knows, space is at a premium when you're packing up all your belongings. For the Innu, who had to carry everything (including their tents) on snowshoes and toboggans in the winter and by birch bark canoes in the summer, space was especially limited. Everyone had to take a share of the load, including the children. During the summers, mothers made dolls of caribou hide for the children and stuffed them with a pound or two of tea leaves. The child's new toy was also a small contribution to the family's critical need for space. When the larger tea supply ran out, the adults would "borrow" the doll and cut it open to retrieve the extra cache of tea leaves. The doll would then be re-stuffed with grass, leaves or moss and returned to the child. This custom of the tea dolls also taught the children an important lesson in Innu culture - to share with elders and hunters.
No one knows exactly when the tea doll tradition began. Madeleine Michelin, 68, of Sheshatshiu, had a tea doll as a child and remembers many stories of her mother and grandmother also playing with the dolls. The Smithsonian Institute collection contains several dolls obtained in the early 1880s from Innu people who traded at the Hudson's Bay Company post at Old Fort Chimo, Labrador.
By the middle of the 20th century, infringements on Innu territory and a severely reduced caribou herd had limited the Innu's ability to hunt and trap. Their traditional migratory lifestyle destroyed, the Labrador Innu were moved permanently into two communities, Sheshatshiu and Davis Inlet. While the Innu are no longer migratory, Innu women continue to make the tea dolls to ensure that this part of their history will not be forgotten. Doll-makers follow their own designs and each doll is unique. Although the earliest dolls were made almost entirely from caribou hide, most contemporary makers use a combination of caribou hide and cloth. Some embellish the moccasins and hats with beading, and some add details such as a canvas coat, a hunting bag, or a baby tea doll.
Angela Andrew, of North West River, is a master tea doll maker who designs her dolls based on the way she saw her elders dressed when she was growing up. "Nobody wears the traditional clothing anymore," she says. She wanted to make the dolls to encourage younger people to think about their culture and who they are as Innu people.
Andrew learned to stitch moccasins as a child. "Way back then, all men and women knew how to prepare skins and make moccasins," she says. It was only after she got married that she taught herself to make the dolls. She uses caribou skin for the face and embroiders the facial features. Hair is made from black yarn and traditional-style hats are made from broadcloth. The body is sewn from plain broadcloth. Underclothing is made from flannelette, and the dress and apron are made from corduroys and cottons. Stockings are knit from bright-coloured yarn, and moccasins are made from caribou hide. Many of her female dolls also carry little tea doll babies.
Michelin is also a master doll-maker. She learned to make dolls from her mother and still makes a few for her grandchildren or to sell. She prepares her own caribou leather from hides and uses it to make the doll's head, shoulders and moccasins. It takes her about three weeks just to prepare the leather and another several weeks to make the doll. Sometimes she uses caribou hide, decorated with beadwork, for the clothing; other times she uses cotton. Today, tea dolls are more of a collector's item than a child's toy. They are a poignant reminder of the once-proud lifestyle of the Innu, the last known hunter/nomadic people of North America.
Note: Innu tea dolls are available from some galleries that specialize in aboriginal art, including Birches Gallery in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador, and in Halifax at Carrefour Atlantique Emporium and David Ariss Fine Art Inc.