"Innu" means "people" in the Innu language, Innu-aimun; they were commonly known to non-Innu as "Montagnais" (French for "mountain people") and "Naskapi" (origin uncertain). Both terms appeared first in French 17th-century missionary sources. These terms have been used to refer to different groups, although the groups they referred to changed over time. By the late 19th century "Naskapi" had acquired the connotation of the far northern un-Christianized group (the Indigenous term is Mushuau Innuts - "Barren Land People"), while the term "Montagnais" was primarily used for Innu of the forest.
The Innu are descended from populations that came to Québec-Labrador thousands of years ago. Although they briefly fought the INUIT, the IROQUOIS, the MICMAC and the ABENAKI, they were not a warlike group, and at least some hostility was a side effect of European contact. In the TADOUSSAC region the Innu played an important role in early Canadian history, as military allies of the French in their wars with the British and their Aboriginal allies (see IROQUOIS WARS). CHAMPLAIN formed an alliance with one group in 1608. They also established one of the first known game preserves, and for some years attempted to keep both Europeans and other Aboriginal people away from their grounds.
For two centuries the FUR TRADE was the focus of their relations with Europeans. Trade at the Gulf of St Lawrence posts was a monopoly of the Crown, first of France and later of Britain, and was leased to private traders. By the mid-1800s most areas were over-hunted, and the southern Innu needed assistance from missionaries and the government to survive. Soon commercial forestry increased their difficulties, and they were excluded from salmon rivers, which were leased by clubs and individuals.
Prior to the 1800s most contact between the northern Mushuau Innu subgroup and Europeans was indirect, by trade through neighbouring CREE and southern Innu intermediaries. Life depended on the movements of the Barren Ground CARIBOU. There was a special caribou hunt leader (Atik Utshimau), but his authority lasted only for the hunt. Starting in 1830, the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY opened posts in this northern region, supplied first from Fort Chimo and later from North West River, Labrador. The fur trade had disastrous results for the Innu because trapping did not fit with their nomadic caribou hunting.
As with many First Nations during their early contact with Europeans, the Innu population was devastated by smallpox, the Spanish flu, tuberculosis, syphilis, scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles and other diseases. Also, large numbers of people died of starvation. By the 1950s a still unsettled Barren Ground group was trading at Fort Chimo; sick and starving, they were finally persuaded by the government to settle at the new mining town of SCHEFFERVILLE, Québec.
Traditional and Contemporary Culture
In the past, strong pressures were placed on the Innu to abandon the nomadic life. Despite this, some Innu spent part of the winter hunting and today, hunting and fishing remain important within their communities. Game animals are caribou (for the eastern and northern area), moose (for the west), beaver, bear, lake fish and salmon. Originally, travel utilized the CANOE in summer, and SNOWSHOES and TOBOGGANS in winter, which have been replaced by all-terrain vehicles and SNOWMOBILES.
Traditional hunting techniques used every part of the caribou; the skin, for example, was decorated with painted or quill designs to make clothing of many kinds. Drums were also created from the skins and were used in celebrations and sacred singing. A caribou shoulder-blade, burned in a pre-hunt ritual, was believed to foretell the location of game; belief in animal spirits played a major role in the hunt. Status was gained mainly through the ability to make gifts of meat to others. After the hunt a ceremonial feast (makushan) of caribou fat and bone marrow was held. The feast included singing and drumming, and songs were sung to the animal spirits; much of the ancestral religion is recorded in legends and songs. The language, Innu-aimun, is part of the Algonquian family and was one of the first in North America into which Christian texts were translated.
In the early 1970s the Innu organized themselves politically with the Conseil Attikamek-Montagnais in Québec, and the Naskapi Montagnais Innu Association in Labrador. In 1975 the Innu Nation was excluded from the Agreement in Principle leading to the JAMES BAY AGREEMENT, but negotiated a separate agreement, providing them with the village of Kawawachikamach. Today, the Labrador Innu are represented by the Innu Nation, while the Québec Innu are represented by Mamuitun and Mamit Innuat. The groups continue to press for settlement of their LAND CLAIMS, and protection from the impact of forestry, hydroelectric dams, roads, and low-level military flights and mines, such as those in Voisey's Bay, Labrador.
Isolated communities have suffered from high rates of alcoholism, substance abuse and suicide. In 1993 the Innu of Davis Inlet (Utshimassits) attracted the attention of the world's press over a gas-sniffing epidemic. The children involved recovered but the incident came to represent the conditions of Aboriginal communities in Canada. In 2001, the Government of Canada, the Government of Newfoundland & Labrador, and the Labrador Innu developed the Labrador Innu Comprehensive Healing Strategy to address some of the problems within the Innu communities. In 2002 approximately 680 people from Davis Inlet relocated to Natuashish, west of the original community. In 2008, Natuashish residents voted to ban alcohol on their reserve.
In 2002, the Innu Nation successfully lobbied the federal government to be recognized as status INDIANS, giving them access to various federal programs and services under the INDIAN ACT. The communities of Natuashish and Sheshatshiu, both located in Newfoundland and Labrador, were established as RESERVES in 2003 and 2006 respectively.
Recently, new creative expressions, such as the books of the first Montagnais author, An Antane Kapesh, and the Innu-language recordings by Kashtin, have appeared, showing that the culture continues to adapt.
Author ADRIAN TANNER
P. Armitage, The Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi) (1991); G. Henriksen, Hunters in the Barrens: The Naskapi on the Edge of the White Man's World (1973); An Antane Kapesh, Eukuan Nin Matshimanitu Innu-Iskueu [Je Suis une Maudite Sauvagesse](Montagnais and French; 1976); F. G. Speck, Naskapi, the Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula (1977); Marie Wadden, Nitassinan: The Innu Struggle to Reclaim Their Homeland (1991).
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge
The website for the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, which features Canada's largest essay writing competition for Aboriginal youth (ages 14-29) and a companion program for those who prefer to work through painting, drawing and photography. See their guidelines, teacher resources, profiles of winners, and more. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples
The website for the "Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples." Click on the links for feature articles about Canada's many multicultural communities, access to their extensive digital archives collection, learning modules, and much more. From "Multicultural Canada."
Languages of Canada
A comprehensive online database of languages currently in use in Canada. Also provides details about extinct languages. Check out the "language maps" for more information. Based on "Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition." From SIL International, a US website.
Discover the heritage and traditions of the Innu through their stories and material culture. A Virtual Museum Canada website.
A superb multimedia website dedicated to native dance traditions from coast to coast in Canada. Features audio and video clips, in-depth interviews and articles for students, the image research database for scholars, downloadable resource kits for teachers, and more. Produced by Carleton University and The Sumner Group Inc., with the assistance of many other organizations and contributors.
The "Naskapi Lexicon" database provides users with access to a trilingual dictionary, with translations of terms into Naskapi, English, and French. A Library and Archives Canada website.