My friend Wells Staley-Mays gave me this Innu Tea Doll, knowing of my love for my distant Innu ancestors. The story is this–when the Innu would travel to the interior of Nitassinan during winter, to hunt the caribou, they had to carry whatever they needed for the journey. Children carried their share by bringing along a doll that was stuffed with tea leaves. When the other stores of tea were depleted, a cut was made in the seam of the doll to remove and use the tea leaves. The doll could be restuffed with grasses or leaves and resown.
I am reminded that the principles we find in permaculture are not new–but were often embedded in the lifeways of Indigenous peoples around the world. One such principle is “stacking functions”–creating elements of our garden (or our lives) that can fulfill more than one function at a time. So the tea doll was both a storage container for tea, and also a toy to delight a child. It also has had a further function more recently, to keep alive traditions of the Innu and serve as a source of income for those who sew them.
This doll was created by Angela Andrew, an Innu elder from the Innu Nation in what is now called Labrador. It is hard to show in photos, but the doll is made of cloth, except her face and moccasins are smoke-tanned caribou skin. Each layer of clothing is distinct and can be taken off and on. She has a flannel shift and long pants, with knitted socks, underneath the broadcloth dress and apron. Her hair is black yarn, and fastened in place with beaded leather ties. Her hat is a traditional Innu head covering. The clothes are tied with little strips of leather, and her mittens are held in place by a long leather string going behind her neck. Does anyone else remember when our mittens were held in place with a long string like that as children?
Wells and I originally met when we were working against hydrodams being built on Cree, Inuit, and Innu territorial rivers. He had the chance to travel into the bush with the Innu on a trip to Canada many years ago. So this doll is full of those memories and good feelings from our work together. Thank you Wells!