Innu - Kushapatshikan: the Shaking Tent
The shaking tent was one of the most important rituals in the yearly cycle of harvesting and ritual activities of the Innu people of Quebec and Labrador. It was not only an important method of direct communication with the caribou and other animal masters, as well as with Mishtapeu and cannibal spirits, it was also a source of amusement. The shaman used the tent to look into the hidden world of animal spirits, and to make contact with Innu in distant groups. On occasion, he brought the souls (atshaku) of people living in other groups into this tent, or waged terrible battles there with other shamans and cannibal spirits such as Atshen.
Sheshatshiu Innu who have seen the shaking tent say that it was a small, conically-shaped tent, with caribou hide covering, and four, six, or eight poles depending on the spiritual power (manitushiun) of the shaman (the shaman is called the Kakushapatak, officient, in the context of the ritual). It would be set up inside another tent on a floor of freshly picked fir boughs. Younger men would act as assistants (apprentices?) to the Kakushapatak in setting up the tent. Two Sheshatshiu elders used to perform this role for their father-in- law, whose Innu name was Uatshitshish. It would appear that Uatshitshish has chosen one of these elders in some way to replace him as Kakushapatak; his powers were apparently transferred to him at the same time that his bag of nimapan and other objects were given to him.
As soon as the Kakushapatak stuck his head in the tent, it would start to shake violently, indicating that the officient had been joined by a spirit, usually Mishtapeu who helped him communicate with the other spirits. The more important the animal master or more powerful the spirit, the more power the Kakushapatak needed in order to be able to communicate. Especially powerful people are reputed to have been able to speak immediately with the caribou master, without having to work their way through masters of lesser importance.
Generally, Innu who witnessed the shaking tent ceremony, or who have learned about it from actual witnesses, are of the opinion that the tent itself was a very powerful but dangerous device. It could kill people who entered into it unless they had a substantial accumulation of manitushiun (power). This in turn could only be accumulated by hunting; throughout a hunter's lifetime, manitushiun accumulated in direct proportion to the number of animals he killed (or was given by the animal masters).
When talking about the shaking tent in English or French, younger Innu borrow parapsychological and technological vocabulary from Euro- Canadian society to describe it. For example, one Innu youth from La Romaine said the shaking tent "was as powerful as an atomic bomb", that there "was a kind of electricity in the air when it operated", and that "the shaman could communicate with people 'telepathically' while in the tent". Sebastien Penunsi from Sheshatshiu, who has witnessed the shaking tent, said "it's very similar to a radio...If there were people in George River, or people in St.Augustin, and you wanted to communicate with them, then you could do the shaking tent."
One elder from Utshimassiu said he once heard Mishtapeu in the shaking tent. Mishtapeu said "Kuekuatsheu [the wolverine] himself built this world and God cannot have it." He heard a lot of animals in the shaking tent including Katipinimitautsh whom he could easily understand. The Caribou Boss speaks the way Innu people do, he said. He also heard a female spirit called Memekueshu, the Master of Fox who sounds like an Eskimo or English person when she speaks. The hunter stated that Meshkana, as well as his brother, and Uashaunnu made the shaking tent on various occasions at a number of locations including Sango Pond and Sango Bay.
Despite the best efforts of the Catholic church to eradicate the shaking tent, it persisted up until about 1957 in the case of the Utshimassiu Innu and about 1973 in the case of the Sheshatshiu Innu. The last person to perform the ritual in Utshimassiu appears to have been Meshkana, while in Sheshatshiu, the last person was Uatshitshish who conducted the ritual for the last time either at the mouth of the Kenemu River or on the Goose River.
The demise of the ritual, as mentioned previously, may be linked to the sendentarization in government-built villages, however, this does not explain why no shaking tents were conducted in Utshimassiu during the ten year period between the death of Meshkana and the construction of the village in 1967. Furthermore, the ritual has survived the arrival of villages in the case of some James Bay Cree. On the other hand, some Innu attribute the disappearance of the shaking tent to a decline in spiritual power on the part of contemporary elders resulting from a general decrease in hunting activity among the Innu.