Anthropologist and former Université de Montréal professor Rémi Savard defines the two categories of stories that make up Innu oral tradition:
“Montagnais easily distinguish the atenogen (or atanukan) from the other narrative genre tobadjimun (ou tipatshimun). A tobadjimun relates real-life experiences, or at least stories that might have been experienced by the storyteller, a friend, a grandfather, etc. The atenogen is something else altogether (...).
Atenogens, or myths, are words that come from animals, originally transmitted to the ancestors during their marriages to animals, and subsequently to the sorcerer in the ceremonial tent. A storyteller from La Romaine tells us than an atenogen is what we must pass on so future generations will know what it is important to know” (Savard 1977 : 63-67)
The myths about Tshakapesh (the man in the moon, or he who pulls a rope behind him) and Kuekuatsheu (the wolverine) are probably the most popular in Innu tradition. They have been perpetuated over the entire Innu territory and relate numerous episodes in the lives of these two characters.
Each of these bodies of myth has been the subject of anthropological studies by specialists. As an example, Rémi Savard published a work on the study of the various versions of the Kuekuatsheu myths in 1972, and another on the analysis of the Tshakapesh narratives in 1985. Madeleine Lefebvre also published a book on the legendary tribulations of Tshakapesh in 1974.
Tshakapesh can rightly be perceived as a civilizing or cultural hero. According to Madeleine Lefebvre:
“He is a strange character with shamanic powers, including the power to change size at will, who seems to have taken on the mission of exterminating cannibals.(...)
Tshakapesh grows by leaps and bounds, with no regard to normal rhythms, as shown by his premature and unconventional birth. This trait of the character could well be an indicator of his role as a regulator of time”. (Lefebvre 1974: 18)
Most Innu myths tackle fundamental themes such as the need for sharing, mutual aid, individualism, recklessness, arrogance, and even incest and cannibalism. Although certain myths seem to have a playful side, most anthropologists agree that the majority of these narratives reflect a basic human need to understand the world in which their society evolves, both in its natural and cultural dimensions.
The famous ethnologist and humanist Claude Lévi-Strauss devoted a large part of his career to analyzing the myths recounted by hundreds of Native American ethnic groups. He came to the following conclusion:
“... the primary objective of mythology and other religious ideologies is to reach a general understanding of the universe by the shortest route - not only a general understanding, but a global one.”
LEFEBVRE, Madeleine. Tshakapesh, récits montagnais-naskapis. Civilisation du Québec no. 4. Ministère des Affaires culturelles, 1974, 171 p.
SAVARD, Rémi. Le rire précolombien dans le Québec d’aujourd’hui. L’Hexagone / Parti pris, Montréal, 1977, 157 p.