Naskapi/Montagnais (Native Americans of the Subarctic)

Naskapi/Montagnaistmp2058_thumbNaskapi is a Montagnais word that may mean "rude or uncivilized people." Montagnais is French for "mountaineers." Their self-designation was Nenenot, "the People." Contemporary Naskapi and Montagnais refer to themselves as Innu. See also Cree (especially discussion of East Cree).

Location The territory of these groups, including the East Cree, ran from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to James Bay, along the northeastern coast of Hudson Bay to Ungava Bay, and east to the Labrador Sea. The division was more or less that the East Cree occupied the west of this region, the Naskapi the north, and the Montagnais the south and east. Much of this territory is extremely rugged and remote. Moose lived in the wooded Montagnais country, whereas Naskapi country, more open and grassy, was favored by caribou.

Population There were perhaps 4,000 Montagnais and 1,500 Naskapis in the fifteenth century. A centuries-long population decline began to reverse itself only after World War II. In the mid-1990s the Innu population stood at approximately 16,000, including a small percentage who had moved away from eastern Quebec and Labrador (known also as Nitassinan).

Language Montagnais and Naskapi are dialects of Cree, an Algonquian language.

Historical Information

History Humans—likely direct ancestors of the Naskapi/Montagnais—have lived on the Labrador Peninsula for at least 5,000 years. Indians may have lived peacefully alongside the Inuit in ancient times. These people were among the first North American groups to come in contact with non-natives, probably Basque and other European fishermen, in the early sixteenth century.

The Montagnais welcomed Champlain in 1603; his French muskets proved to be of some help against crippling Iroquois war parties. The people soon became heavily involved in the fur trade. They found it very competitive and profitable and soon began acquiring a large number of non-native goods. Europeans created Indian trade chiefs, or "captains." Missionaries arrived among the Montagnais in 1615. Tadoussac remained a key trade town from the mid-sixteenth century until Quebec was founded in 1608.

A seventeenth-century European view of New France natives. The Huron warrior on the right wears a suit of wooden slats, while the one on the left is identified as a Montagnais.

A seventeenth-century European view of New France natives. The Huron warrior on the right wears a suit of wooden slats, while the one on the left is identified as a Montagnais.

However, both moose and caribou were soon overhunted. As food supplies became less certain, some starvation ensued. Problems with alcohol abuse exacerbated the situation. The people were able to trade furs for supplies until non-natives took over the best trapping grounds. Devastating disease epidemics reduced and weakened the Indian population. Further mass deaths resulted from relocating to the coast at the urging of missionaries.

The fur trade remained important during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Naskapi became involved in the fur trade during that period. As they quickly increased their dependence on the trading posts and forsook the caribou hunt, they began to lose important elements of their traditional lives. By the mid-nineteenth century, traditional small local bands had generally become associated with a particular Hudson’s Bay Company trading post. As forestry operations began replacing the fur trade, and non-natives continued to move into the St. Lawrence Valley, the people’s hunting grounds became severely diminished. At that time the government created the first official Indian villages.

By the mid-twentieth century, the trading post communities were being replaced by larger, permanent settlements. Also, well-defined trapping areas of at least several hundred square miles had evolved. People generally remained around a settlement in summer, retiring to their territory in small groups (10-20 people) to hunt and trap during the other seasons.

Since 1940, Canada has built over 20 hydroelectric dams and plants in Labrador. The government created several new reserves in the 1950s. In 1975, the Eastern Cree and Inuit ceded over 640,000 square kilometers of land to the James Bay Hydroelectric Project, in exchange for promises of hundreds of millions of dollars and various other provisions.

Religion People may have believed in a great sky spirit to whom pipe smoke was occasionally offered. The people certainly believed in any number of spirits or supernatural beings. The key to Naskapi/ Montagnais religion was to maintain a healthy and respectful relationship with the spirit world. This could be done both by observing the various taboos and by acquiring certain techniques.

They especially attempted not to offend the spirits or souls of the animals upon which they depended for food, mainly by being as respectful as possible toward them. Other primary concerns were good health and successful births. Ceremonies included the Mokosjan, in which people ate caribou bone marrow. Feasting was also considered a religious practice, as was drumming.

Prayer was always offered before beginning any important activity. Boys fasted to obtain spirit helpers. Male and female shamans cured and kept away evil spirits. Shamans sometimes demonstrated their magic powers. In the shaking tent rite, shamans communicated with their spirits in specially built lodges to learn of good hunting areas. People feared cannibalistic monsters called Windigo (Montagnais) or Atsan (Naskapi).

Government Society consisted of perhaps 25-30 small, independent hunting (winter) bands related by marriage. There were several lodge groups (families of 15-20 people) to a band. A named band, or division, probably consisted of two or three of these winter bands (up to 300 people or so) who shared a general area. Several named bands came together in summer on lake shores or river mouths for fishing, group hunting, and socializing. These gatherings might consist of between 1,000 and 2,000 people. In all cases, band affiliation was fluid. Traditional chiefs or headmen had little or no formal authority, and all decisions were taken by consensus.

Customs Within the context of group cooperation for survival, individuals answered to no one about their personal behavior. Most people were generous, patient, and good natured. Joking, or kidding, was effective in maintaining social mores, because real criticism was taken very seriously and avoided if possible. Montagnais had defined and patrilineally inherited family hunting grounds. Although groups were associated with specific subsistence areas, in lean times they readily gave permission to share.

Within the lodge groups there was no real dependence of one individual on another, since sexual relations were not limited to marriage, divorce was easy to obtain, and children were in many ways considered a group responsibility. These structures and relations encouraged a general egalitarianism.

Although gender roles were not especially rigid, men generally worked with wood and stone and women with leather. Men hunted big game while women set snares and gathered berries. Women were secluded during their menstrual periods. Parents generally arranged marriages. Men tended to marry in their early twenties, and women in their late teens. Some men had two wives, but a few had more. Men were obligated to perform bride service for a year or so. Joking, or familiar, relationships with cousins sometimes led to marriages.

Children were raised with tolerance and gentleness by both men and women, regardless of whether or not they were "legitimate." The old and sick were sometimes killed out of a sense of compassion. Dead Montagnais were wrapped in birch bark and buried in the ground. A memorial feast followed the funeral. Naskapis placed their dead on platforms or in trees.

Dwellings Conical dwellings were covered mainly in birch bark (Montagnais) and caribou skin (Naskapi). They held between 15-20 people and featured central fires with top smoke holes. The ground was covered with branches and then mats or skins. The people also used temporary lean-tos, some made of snow.

The Naskapi also built large A-frame or rectangular lodges to house several families and for winter dancing. This structure was covered with caribou skins and floored with boughs. There were several fires in these structures. Caribou-skin coverings of more traditional lodges were not sewn but rather overlapped.

Diet Men hunted primarily moose (Montagnais), caribou (Naskapi), and fowl as well as bear and other animals. The people used canoes to pursue big game after driving the animals into water and also wore snowshoes to run the game down. Meat was generally stone boiled or roasted. Small game, snared by women and sometimes men, included hares, porcupines, and beaver. The people also fished for salmon, eels, and trout. The Montagnais and Naskapi of Labrador also harpooned seals (among other things, seal oil repelled mosquitoes) and fished through the ice, both activities probably borrowed from the Inuit.

Some Montagnais had gardens and may have made maple syrup. Wild foods, such as berries, grapes, apples, and bulbs, played a small role in people’s diet. Food was unsparingly shared when necessary. Meals were generally eaten silently. Before they were pushed north by non-natives, the Montagnais of the Saint Lawrence region had a greater variety of food resources than their more northerly kin.

Key Technology Babies were carried in moss-bag carriers and used moss diapers. Men hunted using the bow and arrow, deadfalls, nets, snares, and spears. Some groups attracted moose with a birch-bark call. The crooked knife was a basic tool from at least the early nineteenth century on. Most aboriginal tools were made from bone, antler, bark, wood, and stone. People fashioned birch bark or animal skins into storage containers and bone and sinew into needles and thread.

Trade The Montagnais traded meat and skins at Tadoussac and other places with Great Lakes people for tobacco, corn, and even some wild rice. This location became key during the fur trade period. Northern bands acquired cedar to use for canoe ribbing. Some groups also traded for birch bark.

The Naskapi/Montagnais fashioned birch bark or animal skins into storage containers such as this one.

The Naskapi/Montagnais fashioned birch bark or animal skins into storage containers such as this one.

Notable Arts Red ochre and greasepaint were applied to clothing in geometrical patterns with bone or antler pens or stamps. Skin objects, including clothing and bags, were painted with groups of parallel lines, triangles, and leaf shapes.

Transportation The people made several varieties of snowshoes and birch-bark canoes as well as some log rafts. They used a canoe-sled with runners in spring. Toboggans were dragged with a cord across the chest. Dogsleds were used after around 1900.

Dress The Naskapi wore clothing of caribou skin that had been dressed, smoked, and sewn. Some southern groups wore breechclouts; leggings (sometimes attached with a belt); bear, moose, or beaver robes; and moccasins as well as attachable sleeves for winter wear. Clothing also included fur pants, sewn hare blankets, fur or hide headbands, and hide caps.

In the north, hooded winter coats had fur inside. Moccasins in the north were sometimes made of sealskin. Unlike many neighboring groups, who ran a charcoal-coated thread through the skin, the Naskapi tattooed themselves by simply rubbing charcoal or soot into a cut on the skin.

War and Weapons Warrior councils made military decisions. Weapons included bows and arrows, spears, and knives. The Montagnais also used clubs and shields, the latter custom probably borrowed from the Iroquois. They also adopted Iroquois methods of torture and cruelty.

Montagnais enemies included Micmac and Iroquois. They were allied with the Algonquin and the Maliseet. The Naskapi fought only with the Inuit to their east. They took few prisoners except that they might marry the women.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Contemporary Innu communities in Quebec include Betsiamites (25,536.57 hectares; 2,752 people in 1994, of whom 2,352 lived within the territory), Kawawachikamach [Naskapi] (326.34 square kilometers; 526 people in 1994, of whom 456 lived within the territory), La Romaine (40.47 hectares; 832 people in 1994, of whom 812 lived within the territory), Essipit (formerly Les Escoumins; 38.5 hectares; 366 people in 1994, of whom 184 lived within the territory), Mashteuiatsh (3,150.99 hectares; 4,016 people in 1994, of whom 1,708 lived within the territory), Schefferville (Matimekosh [15.91 hectares] and Lac-John [23.5 hectares]; 660 people in 1994, of whom 608 lived within the territory), Mingan (3,887.82 hectares; 416 people in 1994, of whom 398 lived within the territory), Natashquan (20.63 hectares; 690 people in 1994, of whom 616 lived within the territory), Pakuashipi (Settlement of St. Augustin; 4.47 hectares; 217 people in 1994, of whom 216 lived within the territory), and Uashat (108.31 hectares) and Maliotenam (499.28 hectares) (total of 2,758 people in 1994, of whom 2,221 lived within the territory). Communities in Labrador include Sheshatshiu and Utshimassit (Davis Inlet; about 300 square miles; roughly 500 people in 1994). Government is generally by elected chief and councilors as well as an appointed band manager.

The Mushuau Innu (Davis Inlet), a community of around 535 people, are governed by a chief and the Mushuau Innu Band Council.

Sheshatshiu and Utshimassit (Davis Inlet) are represented politically by the Innu Nation. Other regional representational groups include Mamuitun, on the Quebec North Shore (Betsiamites, Essipit, Mashteuiatsh, Uashat-Maliotenam), and Mammit Innuat (La Romaine, Mingan, Natashquan, and Pakuashipi (St. Augustin).

Economy Among the East Cree, there are some jobs with the Hudson’s Bay Company and oil and other companies. There is also some community-based service employment as well as some mainly short-term jobs in construction. Many people still hunt, fish, and trap. Some also work as guides, outfitters, and woodcutters. The salmon industry is important among some communities. The Naskapi Adventure Club is a northern travel agency. Government support is important.

Legal Status The communities listed under "Government/Reservations" are federally recognized, although Pakuashipi (St. Augustine) does not have reserve status. The Northeastern Quebec Agreement between the Innu of Schefferville, Hydro-Quebec, and provincial and federal governments (1978) pertained to the great regional dam projects. In exchange for payments of $9 million, confirmed land ownership, and land use rights, the people will see over 10,000 square kilometers of land flooded and tens of thousands more acres altered. A framework for negotiation was reached in 1995 between the Innu Nation and provincial officials concerning the former’s claim of large portions of Labrador. Other land claims are under negotiation.

Daily Life Among the East Cree, many people retain elements of traditional religious belief either along with or instead of Christianity. Parts of these people’s territory, such as north-central Labrador, has only recently been explored by non-natives. Most Innu, however, are Christian. In a marked departure from the precontact period, they have discarded former ideas about personal independence and duty to the group in favor of duty to individuals (women must obey men, children their parents, people their leaders). Few people remain self-sufficient.

Southeastern bands live in permanent frame-house villages. Hunting and trapping trips into the interior are far less important than they used to be, yet the cooperative ethic remains strong. Most people wear non-native dress, and most children go to non-native schools and are largely acculturated.

The Cree-Naskapi Act of Quebec (1984) replaced the Indian Act and provides for local self-government. The Labrador Innu (North West River) won an injunction in 1989, later overturned, preventing the military from continuing low-flying exercises of their region. The Naskapi-Montagnais Innu Association work for, among other issues, the sovereignty of the Davis Inlet Innu and the Sheshatshiu Montagnais. The Conseil Attikamek/ Montagnais (12 bands in Quebec) is also negotiating for specific rights with the Canadian government.

In 1974, the people formed the Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec) to deal with the ramifications of the James Bay hydroelectric project, which had been allowed to proceed over Indian opposition. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, ratified in 1975 but controversial ever since, called for cession of over 640,000 square kilometers of Indian land. In return, the people were promised a cash settlement of over $230 million and special concessions, including land ownership of over 3,300 square kilometers, subsistence rights on over 32,000 square kilometers more, and a veto over mineral exploitation.

However, not all of the money was allocated. An epidemic of childhood diarrhea was caused by the pollution of vital water supplies, and Indians are often excluded from many of the better jobs. The Cree still oppose the final stages of the project.

The people of Davis Inlet, led by the Mushuau Innu Band Council and the Mushuau Innu Renewal Committee (1993), have worked to address serious health and safety issues. They have constructed and renovated houses, instituted job training, and increased social services. Furthermore, in 1995 a multilateral agreement was signed calling for the return of the provincial court to Davis Inlet. This is part of the community’s plan to assume greater responsibility in policing its own affairs.

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