The Innu of Labrador, formerly known as Montagnais and Naskapi, are the last known hunter/nomadic peoples of North America. For approximately 500 years the Innu had engaged in a trading relationship with the Europeans. Black Tea was a valued commodity among the Innu. When the Innu travelled to their hunting grounds, everyone was expected to carry their share of the load. The children carried their share by bringing along a doll that held a reserve of tea.
The doll is beautifully constructed of a fabric body, caribou skin face, and filled with about two pounds of loose tea. The doll wears the traditional clothes of the Innu: hand knit stockings, caribou skin moccasins, plaid or floral pattern with aprons, and a contrasting coloured hat with beaded trim.
The tea doll was used as an extra cache of tea in case the larger supply ran out. Hunters consumed the tea to keep their energy strong especially during a time of famine. Elders, who were highly respected in Innu culture, were also guaranteed a supply of tea. So, at times, it was necessary to cut open the doll and share the tea. Later the doll could be refilled with grass or leaves and given back to the child. As one elder recalls, “I was very sad when my doll was taken away and cut open, but later I learned that we had to share with the elders and hunters. This is the way of my culture.”
Today the art of tea doll making is still alive amongst the Innu women of Labrador. The older women teach the younger women ensuring that a part of their history will not be forgotten. A tea doll may take anywhere from two to seven days to complete, depending on the busy schedule of the woman. Each doll is unique and individual; it embodies the spirit of the artist who made her.